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The Birth of Smokejumping - Notes Of The First Forestry Parachutist

by Giorgy Alexandrovich Makeev (Leningrad 1949) |

In 1934 the Soviet Forest Management Science/Research Institute was considering the suppression of forest fires by airplane. Their idea of dropping a retardant was running into problems due to the dispersion of the liquid. To solve this problem, professional forester Giorgy Alexandrovich Makeev suggested dropping the retardant in a bladder attached to a parachute. When asked who was going to apply this retardant once the bladder was on the ground, he replied, "People must be dropped by parachute." This began Makeev's uphill battle to prove that dropping firefighters by parachute would be a safe and effective way to fight forest fires.

In 1949 Makeev wrote the following account of the development of the world's first smokejumper program. Thanks to Bruce Ford (MSO-75) and Tony Pastro (FBX-77) for their translation of this historic document.

1934-First Experiments

After finishing the Forest Technical Academy and several years of forest management work, I switched to scientific work in the Forest Management Institute, and summer months were occupied in field expeditions. In the winter I processed data in Leningrad, carrying out complicated statistical calculations and analysis. Ten years of field work in the far north and in the Siberian taiga, as well as participation in the imperial and civil wars, didn't have any significant effect on my health, beyond a notable weakening of my hearing.

In the spring of 1934, I was completing a big computing job. In another sector of the institute, they were going through the preparations for an aviation project to research the possibility of extinguishing forest fires directly by airplane. Talking with the project's boss, the still vigorous old-timer Zolotov, I learned that the research conducted in previous years in this area didn't give positive results because of the dispersion of fluid during its fall to the ground and its retention by the forest canopy.

"And what about trying to drop a retardant solution to the fire in some kind of bladder on a parachute?" I asked.

"Yes, but who will apply this retardant on the fire?" Zolotov replied.

"People must be dropped by parachute," I said.

"This is very complex. Look, if we could get to where we could extinguish fires directly from a flying airplane, that would be the solution of a much larger problem," replied the boss.

After this conversation the idea of dropping bladders of retardant to forest fires didn't leave me. Knowing well what a scourge fires are to the forest, what huge losses the state suffers from them yearly, and how many people are torn away from important field work to fight them, the necessity of finding a way to suppress them immediately was obvious to me.

The problem of parachuting people to fires seemed much more complicated than dropping retardant in bladders. In order to assess using parachutes in extinguishing forest fires, it would be necessary to experience "in my own skin" a parachute jump. Then it would really be possible to decide whether this business would work or not. I would have to start with a parachute tower. Initially, that one jump should be a sufficient test. I did this jump within the next few days. True, going to the edge of the tower's platform I was a bit scared, but to do nothing wouldn't wash. I jumped and then jumped again to reinforce the impression.

"You know, a parachute very reliably arrests a fall. I myself tried it," I told the project leader, Zolotov, the next time I met him.

"It should also be possible to drop retardant and tools to fires by parachute. If you want, I will call you to the project and then you can do some tests," he suggested.

I gladly agreed and said, that for my part, I would also try to find out some more about parachuting.

Makeev's First Parachute Jump

Around that time the scientific project that I led was fully completed. Several days later, I found out where parachute jumps from aircraft were carried out. Armed with a letter from the director of the institute, I contacted the aviation head in charge of parachuting. With trepidation in my soul, I walked into the aviation head's large office, offered the letter from the institute and, in a few words, laid out the importance of parachute use to forest management.

"This can be done. I will write that they provide you the opportunity to acquaint yourself with parachuting," and he quickly wrote something with a blue pencil on the corner of the paper. "You will have to go to the parachute instructor at the air center, Comrade Vinogradov, for training,' he said.

I was floating on air with happiness. Warmly thanking the aviation head, I set out to the air center. Vinogradov showed me the parachute and how to pack it, and answered my array of questions. He said that jumping into timber would probably not be possible, as under windy conditions you could easily wind up with broken legs. This cast doubt on the possibility of using parachuting in forest management, where parachute jumps, in most cases, would have to be into timber.

I thought that if you couldn't jump into timber, you might be able to jump into the meadows and open swamps that could always be found in the forest. But even there Vinogradov's answer was not very reassuring. It turned out that landing in a predetermined spot was not so easy and, although the parachute is somewhat steerable, the landing area would probably need to be rather large.

It was clear that in order to definitively decide the question about using parachutes for suppressing forest fires, it would be necessary for me to learn parachuting and learn to jump from an airplane. I asked Vinogradov about the possibility of doing an introductory jump. Vinogradov, considering the value of this jump, inquired about my health, then agreed to it. Knowing that I had never flown in an airplane, they gave me a 20-minute introductory flight. This first flight affected me very badly. The engine noise, the smell of gasoline, and the sharp turns made me very nauseous, especially during the plane's descent and landing. I strained with all my might and tried to stay as cheerful as possible, but when they spoke to me after the flight, I was as pale as death.

The jump would be the next day. Vinogradov explained to me that accidents on jumps never happen if the jumper correctly performs all procedures during exit from the aircraft cabin and during the jump.

"The most dangerous thing," he said, "is to pull the ripcord handle and then have the parachute catch on the tail of the plane. Control of the plane will be lost and the pilot, airplane and jumper will invariably die." This point made a big impression on me. So, under no circumstances would I pull early.

At last came the day of the jump. A young doctor at the aerodrome examined me and cleared me to jump. The day was sunny with a light wind. Vinogradov, the doctor, two students and I sat on tarps spread with parachutes near the ramp and observed the flights. It was a long wait to the end of the training flights. I was afraid that the flight would have a bad effect on me again, but I calmed myself with the thought that the flight would be horizontal and without turns. Then the last training flight was finished. With Vinogradov's help, I put on the parachute and went with him to the airplane. The pilot was a mature man with a face bronzed by the sun, clearly very experienced. They showed me how to climb in and out of the plane's cabin so as not to hook the steering cables, how to stand for the jump-with one leg on the step, the other on the wing-and how the jump commands would be given. Then I sat in the plane.

"Remember," Vinogradov said to me, approaching the aircraft at the last minute, "you should do a good jump for the sake of science."

The engine increased power and the plane started to gradually rise into the air. The even flight in a circle over the aerodrome didn't give me the feeling of nausea. After two circles, the engine throttled back sharply, and I saw the pilot turn around to me and smile. This calm, friendly smile very much encouraged me. I quickly and carefully climbed out of the cabin and stood as they had taught - with one leg on the wing, the other on the step, with the left hand strongly grasping the side of the cabin, and the right holding the ripcord handle awaiting the commands. I had to hold this pose for what seemed a long time. My left hand started to tire. The engine throttled up a bit, the increased wind began to tear me from the airplane, and my left hand started to completely lose its grip. At this very moment the pilot turned and waved his hand. I remember that with pleasure I let go with my tired left hand and then came to my senses hanging by the risers of an open parachute in full silence and solitude in the midst of the sky's expanse. The wind rocked me strongly. I flew over the aerodrome. This minute of parachute descent was one of the happiest of my life.

Now, after completing a jump, I was fully convinced about the possibility of using parachutes, not only for fighting forest fires, but in other areas of forest management as well. Landing fields for aircraft in the vast forested expanses of our region aren't easy to find, and parachuting could significantly widen the sphere of aviation use in forest management.

About two weeks later a letter came from the leader of the Egorevski Project (so it was called for its location). I quickly got ready and went. Going through Moscow, I reached an agreement with the well-known parachutist, Comrade Moshkovski, from the parachute center, about a possible detail to the project by one of the sport instructors with two parachutes.

Resistance From Project Leader Is Overcome

Upon arrival at the project a deep disappointment awaited me. The project leader decided not to conduct experiments with parachutes and suggested that I work on researching waves of liquid poured out from a flying aircraft. Nevertheless, I persistently insisted on the necessity of carrying out parachute experiments. Probably wishing to be rid of these conversations, the project leader promised to place this question in front of a representative of the Narkomles (Committee for Forest Industry), the Head of Forest Protection, who should soon arrive at the project. The representative reacted very cordially towards my request and after a short conversation, agreed to go down to Moscow and procure an instructor with parachutes for the project.

Comrade Moshkovski fulfilled his promise and allocated for the project the instructor Dovgani with one cargo and two training parachutes. Dovgani was still quite young and comported himself very arrogantly. He was proud of his 13 jumps and looked on everyone with disdain. With his arrival at the project there arose a new difficulty for the tests. Dovgani refused to jump into even small timber, afraid of tearing the parachute, and the project leader wouldn't permit me to make any jumps at all. It was very hard for me when I saw the impossibility of overcoming these new difficulties, but it was still possible to carry out small tests.

A Successful Test

Six kilometers from the aerodrome a large bonfire was started to simulate a forest fire. A spray apparatus was dropped to this fire. On the next flight, the airplane dropped Dovgani, who quickly ran to the sprayer and put out the fire. This very simple test was fully successful, and all the workers of the project and the Narkomles (Forest Protection) representative were convinced that the fire was extinguished in the shortest time and the jump was completed in an unfamiliar spot not prepared beforehand.

Further small cargo drop tests also turned out well, since this airplane could fly very low and put the cargo exactly in a predetermined spot. Finally I succeeded in obtaining permission to complete two jumps. The first of these jumps was not completely successful. Dovgani sat me in the middle cabin, and he would spot the jump and give commands from the rear cabin. A small village was located near the landing field, and around it were large fields where accurate spotting was not required for the jump. After two circles over the landing fields, the airplane went on final. After some time Dovgani told me to climb out. I quickly climbed out on the wing, but for some reason Dovgani motioned me to return to the cabin. Afterwards Dovgani explained that he was late with the command, and the airplane had flown past the exit point.

On the next circle the command was late again and, after jumping, it was clearly visible that I had been carried over the village. Remembering how it was possible to prolong a descent with an open reserve parachute, I pulled the reserve handle. I wasn't able to get it open properly, and the reserve canopy quietly fluttered in the air like a long, stretched sausage. Not filling with air, it descended level with my body. I was inexorably dragged towards the village. There under my legs drifted a garden where a sheep lay. Right close to my leg the roof of a house flashed by, and I fell right in the middle of the road, nearly in the arms of a mortally frightened, old peasant woman. The parachute hung in a young aspen grove. Running up quickly, Dovgani began to curse me for daring to open the reserve. The expedition workers ardently congratulated me for a successful outcome of the jump.

Although no major parachute experiments were done on the Egorevski Project, those conducted all gave fully positive results. Cargo was dropped intact and squarely on the chosen spot on the ground, a jumper jumped onto an unprepared open spot and, afterwards, was able to begin extinguishing a forest fire. The project leader's tests on extinguishing forest fires by dropping liquid gave unsatisfactory results. The wave of liquid, dispersed by the wind into a light mist, completely failed to fall through the forest canopy. The expedition's fieldwork was ended. Returning to Leningrad, I composed a report on the tests carried out. The project leader, who deleted my signature, accepted this report. Afterwards the secretary of the party organization restored it. Fall came. Parachuting work was finished. I returned to researching the growth speed of forest types. The winter months passed without note. From occasional conversations with the project leader, it was understood that next summer they would include me in the aviation-retardant expedition, not by wish of the project leader, but on the orders of the Head of Forest Protection.

1935-Small Achievements, Great Difficulties

In the spring of 1935 the aviation-retardant project was again getting ready for departure. I insisted on the purchase of at least one parachute, but they didn't want to hear of this.

"So, you are getting ready to go on the aviation-retardant project in order to jump?" my wife asked apprehensively. "And you want to completely throw away your main specialty for which you finished the academy?" Further urgings and persuasions followed, but didn't succeed.

It was decided to carry out our work this year in the Gorky region (noted for the remarkable combustibility of its forests). I was again in Moscow at Comrade Moshkovski's and asked about the possibility of assigning two instructors with parachutes to the project. The Gorky aviation-retardant project leader assigned the young scientific worker Rogov to help the old-timer Zolotov.

In the project they gave me extra work to be a pilot-observer; that is, to map the location of new forest fires. I disliked this work very much, knowing how poorly my constitution endured long flights. But to object wouldn't do, as without this double duty they would remove the parachuting experiments.

As in the previous year, it was made clear on arrival that the project management's attitude was unfavorable towards testing parachute use. Old Zolotov was afraid of parachuting and didn't believe it could possibly be expedient, and the new young project leader, Rogov, didn't want to hear about it. For his project of 1935, he didn't once independently permit parachute tests. They were done only when it was possible to receive formal permission from the project's technical manager, Zolotov. But it was almost impossible to get his permission - there were always a multitude of excuses of all kinds in order to reject the experiments.

More Problems

I ended up at the project after a long delay since I was assigned to Moscow to look after the manufacture of a tank for the P-5 aircraft. When I arrived at the project, forest patrols had already started. An experienced pilot-observer from the forest aviation branch carried them out. The weather was very hot, and I arrived with such a sunburned face that one eye was swollen, and the skin on my face was swelled up and covered with blisters. Because of trouble in mounting the tank and procuring the parachutes, I was very fatigued. But the worst of it was that I wouldn't be able to gradually get accustomed to the flights, make myself good patrol maps, and get used to landmarks for navigation. Finally, with my face healed and with a hurriedly-made map, they put me on a flight.

On the flight I immediately felt bad. It started with an awful nausea, and besides that, I was lightly clothed and frozen to the bone. The flight continued for five hours and on every fire that was discovered (there were seven), the airplane descended steeply for an inspection, then rose and descended a second time to a settlement to throw a message streamer. This steep descent and twisting turns right over the fire brought on strong attacks of nausea the entire time of the flight.

As soon as the flight ended, the pilot, Khotyanovich, immediately informed the administration that I couldn't take the flights and the medical commission probably shouldn't permit me to fly. But worst of all was that the administration consequently decided I couldn't jump with a parachute. They gave me an ultimatum-go to the medical commission. So they sent me to Gorky.

While the staff of doctors was being organized in Gorky for the medical exam, I rested a little. The exam went without mishap. I was cleared for flight and parachute work.

Help From Moscow

The sport parachuting instructor A. V. Yarov and parachutist Asafov arrived from Moscow. It was important to carry out experiments this year including conducting parachute jumps into forest conditions and finding out how a drift parachute ensured the accuracy of the jumper's exit point. Great trouble was required to carry out the most minor parachuting tests and then only at the aerodrome. The pilot soon familiarized himself with the calculation of the jump by the drift chute and good results were obtained - the jumper landed very close to the spot marked on the ground. Both the project leaders were uninterested in the parachuting. They ridiculed the jumps as "ballet acts" and pointedly failed to attend them. Zolotov increasingly lost the ability to talk calmly about them - he only swore. He had very weighty reasons for this - his experiments with extinguishing fires from airplanes again gave no sort of positive results. But the parachute tests, which he took a dislike to for some reason, all showed reassuringly good signs. He was probably plagued by pride and envy.

Finally, there was success in convincing him to permit several more interesting experiments. One of these consisted of deploying two jumpers to an unfamiliar swamp in the middle of the forest. The place was chosen twenty-five kilometers away. One of the project members would lie out a white canvas in the swamp. I set out with A. V. Yakov on the flight. When we had flown to the established spot, the forest started to thin. Narrow open strips of swamp appeared. We saw a crumpled square of white canvas in the middle of a small bog. The pilot turned and nodded his head. I indicated that I also saw it. The swamp was covered with scattered, well-spaced, light-colored tree trunks.

The drift chute didn't fall into the swamp, but was carried into the forest. On the next pass of the plane A.V. Yarov jumped. He landed next to the edge of the forest. I ended up closer towards the center of the swamp. Landing on the green moss was as soft as a feather pillow. This was my first jump on the soft moss of a sphagnum swamp in typical forest conditions. After the hard ground of the aerodrome, this jump was much more pleasant.

The ecstasy of the successful landing didn't end. Yarov began to sing and dance. I took pleasure in the clean air, the smell of grass and moss, and the stillness, which was especially pleasant after the banging and thrumming of the motor. Heading out from the swamp we followed the compass towards the settlement. We met people appearing from somewhere in the forest. They were hay mowers who had seen the falling jumpers and came to see them. The way to the village of Lichkovo was passed in happy conversation, and several members of the project came from Lichkovo to meet us.

The project didn't want to think about parachute jumps to active forest fires with the aim of putting them out. In the project they figured this was my fantasy and a completely futile undertaking, carried out only at the command of the Head of Forest Protection. At that time they still hadn't thought about the advisability of jumping to a settlement closest to a forest fire with the aim of quickly mobilizing the population and organizing proper firefighting efforts. Only at the end of the project did this come to mind.

Ice Road Jump

A request came to check the feasibility of an ice road to the Baranikhovski Mechanized Forest Station. I insisted on permission to complete this assignment. A telegram was sent to the forest station saying that on a specific day I would fly to them and parachute in to check the planned road.

On the set day the jump took place. The population and forest guards cordially and hospitably received me. Happiness showed in the eyes of every person. The crowd never gave me a chance to carry my parachute to the village. The job was completed and the ice road planned correctly.

That year I received some experience in working with parachutes and considerable training in jumps, but at the end of the summer I took ill from a boil on my leg. Not being in condition to jump myself, it was annoying for me to hear that the pilot-observer Khotyanovich had requested a jump to a settlement that hadn't put out a fire after two message streamers had been thrown. Here was work necessitating the use of a jumper. This was a chance for a real operational use of parachuting and would surely show the advisability of sending a jumper to suppress a fire, since finding a forester or collective farm chairman and organizing the fire suppression would, of course, present many difficulties.

The settlement was 50 kilometers away, and the project didn't want to send A. V. Yarov so far into the forest. The pilot-observer ranted and raged, but the project wouldn't permit a jumper to be sent. I was also disturbed, but was bothered by my leg and couldn't do anything, and so a great chance was missed.

Negative Reports Presented To Moscow

The experimental work ended the season of 1935, but the struggle on the political front still remained unfinished. The lack of interest in parachuting was manifested ever more often in overt hostility and in silence about the results achieved. Management gave reasons to believe that the introduction of parachuting into forest management would be met by many difficulties. At that time I didn't know that an entire treatise, ridiculing the idea of using parachuting to fight forest fires, had been put together by the management of the Gorky Project and directed to the Head of Forest Protection. Hostile action on the part of Zolotov and Rogov towards parachuting was revealed yet more distinctly. The Gorky aviation-retardant project presented a report to Central Fire Protection Management in Moscow. I also attended this presentation by order of the Head of Forest Protection. From the opening words it quickly became clear that Zolotov and Rogov were actively working to compromise and discredit the idea of using parachutes in firefighting and to ridicule the completed tests.

"Two opposing opinions exist," said the Head of Forest Protection. "The scientific representatives Zolotov and Rogov say the use of parachuting is pointless in fighting forest fires and insist on the termination of further tests. The Head of Forest Protection, on the contrary, supports the conducting of further and even broader experiments in this direction, since it concedes the possibility that parachuting can help in fighting forest fires."

After the opening words of the Head of Forest Protection, Zolotov gave a detailed report about the project's work. He spoke a long time about the chemical solutions that were used and the reasons of the lack of success in his experiments, but he didn't even mention parachuting. The clever old-timer probably decided to stay quiet about it until he heard the opinion of State Fire Protection. After Zolotov, the project leader Rogov appeared. He tried to present the idea of using parachuting for fighting forest fires in the most humorous light, expecting to achieve a big effect.

"Here we see," he said, "a huge, massive fire taking in hundreds, thousands of hectares of forest - certainly this is a horrible elemental force. Now we imagine a single parachutist dropped to this sea of fire with virtually naked hands to extinguish it. I can imagine what the physical and mental state of this parachutist will be. In my view, making parachute jumps for fighting forest fires is a figment of a huge imagination and at least a poorly thought out undertaking."

Clearer Thinking

The State Forest Protection people listened attentively to the expedition leader, not uttering a word. After Rogov the floor was passed to me. I briefly told about the completed parachute jump tests and the cargo dropping. Of course, large crown fires arise only from 3-6% of all fire starts. They appear only when small ground fires are not quickly extinguished. The overwhelming majority of forest fires, 60-70%, are detected by airplane in their initial stages at an area of from one to three hectares. These new small fires could be put out quickly by groups of 4-5 jumpers dropped from aircraft. If we put out fires in time and while still small, then there would not be massive crown fires.

Now the fire protection representatives began to come forward. They sharply condemned Rogov's speech. They said that using the example of one jumper didn't fit when it was possible to send ten. They said that the question should be decided by conducting tests with small aircraft and large aircraft when needed. They all spoke out for the necessity of continuing and broadening research on parachute use for fire suppression.

This conference was very significant for the future development of the parachute service in forest management. The hostility of Zolotov and Rogov at the conference could not stop its development. The conference also helped place my articles in forest journals. A lively interest in my experiments arose in forest aviation, and people started asking me whether I was preparing to continue them. I answered that I certainly intended to continue testing and to incorporate operational jumping into forest fire protection. Now I was ready to temporarily suspend my scientific work, which I so loved, and give myself fully to experiments on the adoption of parachuting.

In order to prepare for these tasks, during the winter of 1935-1936, I took a sport jumping training course and passed the exams for sport parachuting instructor. I was alone in my research on using parachutes to deliver firefighters. At home, my wife didn't want to hear about this work. The only place where they always sympathized with me and willingly gave advice from the heart was the air club. In the parachute instructor's circle at the Leningrad air club, there were often discussions about the prospects of adopting a parachute service. My report about the results of the first experiments was posted there. I was introduced to the first inventor and constructor of aviation parachutes - Gleb Evgenevich Kotelnikov. Subsequently, Gleb Evgenevich took a lively interest in the adoption of parachuting for fire suppression and devoted one chapter of his book to a dramatic exposition on its prospects.