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Russian Smokejumpers: The Pre-War Years

by Bruce Ford (Missoula '70) |

In July 2006, Avialesookhrana, the Russian Aerial Fire Protection Service, celebrated its 75th anniversary. This civilian government organization is responsible for protecting Russia's vast forests from fire, insects, disease, and other dangers. Its activities range from suppressing fires that threaten reindeer pasturage in the far north to dropping leaflets bearing fire-prevention messages over remote villages. At its height, AFPS was the largest aerial fire service in the world, employing thousands of smokejumpers and rappellers and hundreds of aircraft. Its history parallels and often anticipates developments in the West.

AFPS's origins can be traced back to the twenties, when the USSR was increasingly using airplanes for forestry work, primarily for aerial photography, forest inventory, and surveys of insect damage. In the course of these flights, fires were also detected. The need for experienced foresters in the air led, in 1931, to flight training for S.P. Rumyanstev, G.V. Stadnitski, and G.G. Samoilovich. These flying foresters became the first Russian practitioners of a new profession, that of pilot-observer.
To determine the feasibility of systematic aerial fire detection, officials proposed an expedition for the summer of 1931 near Urin in the Nizhnigorodski region. Operations were under the auspices of the Leningrad Forestry Research Institute. The three pilot-observers and a ground man, V.V. Antipin, assembled maps and navigational equipment and began in June by checking the accuracy of plotting fire location from the air. They accomplished this by building bonfires at known locations and comparing the aerially plotted coordinates. Accuracy for two-thirds of the plots was within two kilometers, and for the other third within five kilometers.

AFPS Is Born-1931

On July 7, the first operational detection flight was flown for an hour and a half in a U-2 biplane. This date is taken as the birthday of AFPS. In the course of the expedition, 1.5 million hectares were covered in 40 hours of flight at around 3,000 feet, and 14 fires were detected. In 1932, a members of a similar expedition in southern Karelia and the Leningrad region flew three planes for 144 hours and detected 92 fires burning a total of 814 hectares. Throughout the early thirties, the program expanded aerial patrols and refined coordination with ground-based authorities and firefighting forces. Local forestry authorities were apprised of a fire's location, size, behavior, and recommended manning level by message dropper, usually within 20 to 25 minutes of a fire's detection.

The early thirties also saw experiments in dropping bombs filled with fire-extinguishing chemicals and the first use of fireline explosives. Dropping fire-retardant bombs was ultimately deemed impractical, as they would fling burning material up to 100 meters and start new spot fires; the retardant would vaporize so finely as to be ineffective in extinguishing fire beyond a 7 to 8 meter radius. Sh-2 floatplanes were used for patrolling areas with large concentrations of water bodies.

In February 1936, aerial fire operations were given a formal structure with the formation of the All-Union Government Forestry Aviation Trust, or "Lesavia," based in Leningrad. Four permanent bases were established, at Semyonov in the Gorkiy region, at Krasnoborsk in the Archangel region, at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, and at Solikamsk in the Perm region. Regular patrol routes were established, and by 1939, they were logging around 7,000 flight hours yearly. The four bases had 11 operational sub-bases and numerous landing strips cut out of the taiga along the patrol routes. Lesavia also conducted a widespread fire-prevention campaign, which included dropping informational leaflets over remote settlements.

Aviation Grows In Popularity

Plans for dropping men and supplies by parachute to fires were first worked out in 1934. The rise of smokejumping in the Soviet Union must be considered in the context of an explosive growth of interest in aviation there in the thirties. The USSR had its own counterparts to U.S. aviation heroes such as Lindbergh, and a raft of young adventurers aspired to conquer the sky. With an eye to national defense and to fuel patriotism, Stalin encouraged wide participation in the single-minded goal of pursuing ever more daring aviation records. In April 1935, the government decreed mandatory jump and aviation training for both sexes from ages 16 to 24 among the nearly 5 million members of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization. The New York Times reported the program included "at least one jump from a parachute tower during 1935." These towers, from which a captive parachute descends at reduced speed, began to sprout like mushrooms across the country.

Since the early thirties, thousands of young men and women had been taking advantage of government-sponsored skydiving, and some were soon setting records for altitude and delayed openings. On September 22, 1935, The New York Times reported: "An outstanding performance is that recently established by Anna Shishmareva and Galina Pyasetskaya, students at the Moscow Physical Culture Institute, who jumped without oxygen apparatus from a height of 26,200 feet...Other records that belong to the Soviet Union are Batitski's leap from 24,500 feet at night, the delayed opening at night of M.G. Zobelin, director of the all-union parachute meet, from 11,880 feet, and [Nicolai] Yevdokimov's daylight delayed opening from 26,300 feet."

Military applications of parachuting were also growing apace. The first All-Union Aviation Festival near Moscow in August 1933 featured a 46-man mass jump and the cargo drop of a tank. Around 500 troops were dropped during war games near Kiev in September 1935, and by September 1937, 2,200 paratroopers were participating in a simulated assault on a "Western invader" at games in Byelorussia. Parachute applications had also included the dropping of doctors to attend to medical emergencies in remote places. Parachuting had become something of a national mania.

The First Russian Smokejumpers-1935

The first experimental smokejumper drops were undertaken in the Gorkiy region in 1935. A group of three under the direction of Georgiy A. Mokeev made 50 jumps from a U-2 using PT-1 parachutes and determined the optimum drop altitude to be 300 to 400 meters. Mokeev was a researcher at the Central Forestry Research Institute and one of the most active proponents of using parachutes in forestry work, though he had come to jumping at a relatively advanced age.

In the Archangel region of Krasnoborsk, spring 1936 saw Mokeev overseeing training for the first group of 17 Soviet smokejumpers, including one woman, Claudia Feodorovna Obrucheva (later Muzhinskaya). The primary task of these jumpers was to mobilize and direct ground firefighting forces from villages and towns closest to the detected fires. This was necessitated by the nature of the U-2, a two-place biplane with room only for a pilot-observer and jumper. Standard procedure was for the jumper to climb out on the lower wing and jump in or near the village, no doubt precipitating great astonishment among the inhabitants of these isolated hamlets.

Mokeev set forth the necessary qualifications for smokejumpers: "[The] future professional should be, first of all, a good parachutist, as he must execute jumps…outfitted as a firefighter...[I]n addition, the smokejumper should be a first-rate specialist in suppression of all kinds of fires using all existing methods. Inasmuch as the smokejumper is an aviation worker, he is obliged to fly long distances by airplane in varying meteorological conditions and in heavy smoke; he must be able to orient in the air, know the basics of aerial navigation and of airplanes, and recognize weather conditions suitable for parachute operations." Further, "all activities of the smokejumper demand good physical development, agility, and constant physical training."

On June 12, 1936, a parachute instructor made the first jump to mobilize local residents to fight a forest fire. This was from a U-2, near the village of Osenki in the Gorkiy region. The same month, Mokeev made fire jumps near the villages of Telki and Kutep.

In 1937, the Krasnoborsk group of 17 jumpers mobilized a total of 4,500 firefighters on 80 fires. To aid accuracy in jumping small spots near fires, a standard drift chute was adopted for gauging wind; it was a meter in diameter and weighted to fall at 5 meters per second, the average descent rate of a jumper.

In 1938, forest aviation set the goal of using jumpers alone to suppress fires, without the aid of the local populace. To this end, the Krasnoborsk base was staffed with a greater concentration of jumpers and equipped with supplies for actively fighting fire. Thus the organization began, on a small scale, to move toward using aerially deployed firefighting crews. That year 141 jumps were made to mobilize locals, and nine fires suppressed solely by smokejumpers. In addition, 4.4 tons of tools, fire-extinguishing chemicals, and provisions were supplied by air. Experience was showing that fires were most effectively fought by smokejumpers, but wider application had to await the availability of larger aircraft.

Partnering With The Parachute Industry

In the late thirties, there was much interaction between "sport" parachuting organizations and forest aviation. An active campaign was instituted to draw forestry people into jumping, and experienced skydivers were recruited to train and upgrade the qualifications of smokejumpers. This close relationship has continued to the present day.

A native parachute industry had existed in Russia since at least the teens and twenties. Beginning in 1910, G.E. Kotelnikov, the largely self-taught father of Russian parachute design, set himself the task of perfecting an emergency chute for aviators. Though initially rebuffed by the tsarist bureaucracy, he continued development of new and advanced designs through the thirties.

The PT-1 parachute system first used by smokejumpers included a main and reserve together weighing 17.5 to 19.5 (38-43 pounds) kilograms and made of very durable silk and perkal (a textile). The main's quick opening (2.5 to 3 seconds) made it effective even at low altitude, and it was used in a record low-altitude jump of 80 meters (260 feet) in 1933. The container was equipped with shoulder straps for packing out through the forest after jumping. Another early smokejumper parachute system was the PD-6, whose reserve was permanently attached to the main harness. Despite the inconveniences this entailed, the PD-6 was long used in forest aviation. Pilots and pilot-observers used a seatpack emergency chute, the PL.

On the eve of the USSR's entry into World War II, smokejumping was a well-established program with detailed operational protocols. In 1940, there were 70 Soviet smokejumpers and a fleet of 110 airplanes patrolling an area of 109 million hectares; that year, jumpers participated in suppressing over 500 fires.

The Soviet Union Goes To War

On June 22, 1941, German armies attacked the Soviet Union, precipitating a long hiatus in smokejumping. Jumpers, pilots, and aircraft were quickly mobilized for the war effort, and the U-2s were adapted for use as light, night bombers. Virtually the entire Krasnobor aviation group of planes, pilots, and pilot-observers went immediately to the active army, and within two months, nearly all the jumpers were at the front. The Lesavia organization was evacuated from Leningrad to Kirov and began assembling replacements for the mobilized staff. Aerial forest protection was sharply curtailed, particularly in central Russia, but nevertheless continued throughout the war.

Many women were trained to fill the ranks of pilots, mechanics, and pilot-observers. At Krasnobor, in 1942, 18 women were trained as pilot-observers and 10 as pilots for the P0-2, a newer version of the U-2. One of them, Evlania Gruzdova, who later served as chief pilot-observer for the Northern Airbase until 1967, recalled her first operational detection flight: "The U-2 crew was all female: pilot Varvara Strokova, mechanic Valentina Mikhina, and myself as pilot-observer. The fire was…50 kilometers from the nearest town. The plane was open, the report forms and flight log stowed in an aluminum holder. The wind would tear papers from your hand, and there was a pencil in the briefcase. I sized up the fire quickly but was confused by the presence of a small settlement of a few houses on the Pinegi River, as it was not shown on my navigational map. Communication with the pilot was through a rubber hose, and Varvara ignored it, as the noise was so loud. And there was also a lot of turbulence. I didn't know the name of the village where we were dropping the report. On seeing the plane, many people came out on the riverbank. We came in across the river to drop the report, and I was afraid it would go in the water, but it worked out okay: they got the report. It turned out this was the newly built settlement of Osyatkino, for rifle stock production. The whole village put out the fire; there was nowhere to get outside help. There was no telephone. We also notified the forestry headquarters about the fire. For finding this fire, Varvara and I were rewarded with suede material to make slippers."

Many of the women trained in the war years continued to work in forest aviation into the fifties and sixties, until retirement. Smokejumping remained an empty occupation until after the war, when the tide of returning veterans and newer, larger aircraft allowed the rebirth of aerial firefighting in a new form.