news and events » smokejumper magazine

Smokejumper Magazine Header

Smokejumper Magazine Article

return to Smokejumper Magazine

Have Smokejumper Magazine delivered to you with an NSA Membership

Profile: Russian Smokejumper Ivan Alexandrovich Novik

by Bruce Ford (Missoula '75) |

Ivan Alexandrovich Novik is a big man with an easy smile and looks younger than his 68 years. Indeed, he is five years younger than his documents attest, as all his records from Minsk, in Byelorussia, were destroyed during the war. His mother was killed when the Germans invaded Byelorussia and his father died fighting as a partisan. He ended up in an orphanage and was going by the name of Nicolai until reunited with his grandmother, who confirmed his birth name as Ivan.

He entered the army as a paratrooper at sixteen, as he was big for his age and had documents saying he was older. His early army training jumps were from a balloon tethered at 400 meters, the straight-down fall considerably more disconcerting than jumping from a moving airplane. He remembers that some jumpers had to be given a boot in the behind as an incentive to exit. Another had a change of heart just after jumping, turned, and grabbed the edge of the gondola. With adrenaline-crazed strength, he did a pull-up with full gear and scrambled back in. Ivan never forgot how he was struck by what fear could induce a person to accomplish.

Ivan started smokejumping at the newly-opened 20-man Krasnoyarsk base in 1956. They were jumping the An-2 with hand-deployed chutes. Due to a shortage of KAP-3 automatic activation devices, they had the ex-paratroopers jump without these backups, even though their previous jumps had been static-lined. Ivan says he counted to four in about a second and a half and nearly threw his arm out of joint pulling the ripcord.

On a fire jump in his second year, he had a malfunction in which the lines failed to completely deploy, and the canopy stayed in the bag. They were jumping a narrow valley, and his trajectory carried him toward a hill, so that by the time his reserve deployed, he was ready to land. Fortunately, some foresters showed up with a jug of moonshine to help repair his jangled nerves. In '56 and '57 the number of such malfunctions with the hand-deployed system led to the adoption of static lines in 1958.

In those days, firefighting techniques were fairly basic: backpack pumps, shovels, burning out from natural barriers, and swatting the fire edge with branches. Ivan remembers one fire where they tied a birch tree to a horse and dragged it along the fire edge. He and his fellow jumpers were once weathered in for a week with no food but a bit of bread and salt pork. They had a shotgun, but game was scarce, and they succeeded only in killing a few small birds.

Flying in the days of dead reckoning also had its risks. Once Ivan took off as fog was moving in on a village, and they had to circle straight up through a hole while avoiding the surrounding fog-shrouded mountains. Once up, they found the Angara River and followed it toward the town of Kezhma, but again ran into fog. Only when a little YAK plane popped up through the fog could they locate the town. Another time, he took off with a load of fireline explosives in a plane that turned out to be overloaded. He saw a pine tree looming in front of the plane, which somehow managed to zig-zag through the trees and finally get altitude.

The established ground-to-air signal to call off a practice jump was to pull the panel in the jumpspot. Once during a jump in Kezhma, the wind started to gust strongly, so they hastened to pull the panel, but were too late to prevent the next stick from jumping. A woman jumper, light to begin with, sailed off to crash into some distant trees. Sure she was busted up, they ran off in search but were met by the grinning jumper trudging back with her gear.

On one fire, as the jumpers were gathering gear, someone spotted a sow bear and two cubs nearby. Everyone started looking for trees to climb and turned to the self-proclaimed hunter of the group, who jumped with a fancy rifle. As push came to shove, it became apparent the guy was more of an armchair hunter. Just as well, as the "sow and cubs" turned out to be tree stumps.

Ivan worked at several sub-bases in Krasnoyarsk region and went to Pushkino, near Moscow, for jumper instructor training in 1962. He became the head jumper for the Krasnoyarsk base in 1968. In 1972, he mobilized jumpers to go to the fires raging that summer around Moscow. They brought Siberian know-how in fighting large fires and did a lot of burnouts and backfires over the objections of local foresters, who were unused to large, running fires. Some of those mobilized wound up in Afghanistan, ostensibly to fight fire, but also to establish a Soviet presence, he suspects.

Ivan jumped fires every year he was a smokejumper and wound up with over 1500 jumps without a serious injury. He is now the base safety officer and still helps out with jumper training and operations. Recently, he marked his 50th year working for Avialesookhrana.