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The Birth of Smokejumping-Notes Of The First Forestry Parachutist - Part 3

by Giorgy Alexandrovich Makeev (Leningrad 1949) |

In Part One (April 2009) Makeev told of his efforts to develop a smokejumper program in the Soviet Union in 1934 and to convince the Head of Forest Protection that it could be done safely and effectively. In spite of negative reports from his superiors, Makeev was given approval to further develop the smokejumper program in 1936.

In Part Two (July 2009) Makeev designed and developed the necessary equipment for the program, and the first fire jumps were made. An accident during training almost stoped the program but Makeev convinced his superiors to let him continue.

Thanks to Bruce Ford (MSO-75) and Tony Pastro (FBX-77) for their translation of this historic document.

1937 - Thirty-Two Forest Fires Extinguished by Smokejumpers with Members of the Local Population

Whoever has been in the far north in the winter knows the harsh beauty of the Archangel region in the months of November and December. It made a great impression on me when I arrived in Kotlas in the winter of 1937. The violet expanse of boundless forests under low-floating clouds, bright white sparkling snow harmonized so with each other. The harshness of the far north was in the air.

The newly-organized Northern Base of Forest Aviation huddled at that time in a small room in the city of Kotlas. The meeting with Levin was most heartfelt, most joyful. Having lived through the summer and endured challenges, we had become still closer.

We decided to organize a school near the village of Krasnoborsk. Parachutes and other materials were packed on trucks, and I went with them to Krasnoborsk. The trucks ran along the smooth, transparent ice of the river, now scrambling over the small, sandy islands and speeding along the road between brush and reeds. Sometimes the truck broke through the ice, settled on its rear wheels, and would helplessly lurch and chatter in one place. Getting up the steep bank of the Dvina required the aid of a tractor. Towards evening we saw a large, old garden enclosed by a fence. Opening the gate we went along snow-covered, tree-lined walk of the garden. The walk lead us to an open place, in the middle of which stood a remarkable two-story wooden house with glass verandas, little balconies and a pretty tower. The old keeper opened the back entrance and the trucks started unloading.

The school facility was remarkable. Here we could easily set up both a dormitory for the students and classrooms. But most importantly, the length of several rooms allowed the arrangement of tables for packing parachutes. Hurried work commenced to prepare the facility for receiving students and the beginning of studies. Parachute tables and cots were prepared, dishes purchased, a dorm and dining room organized.

Highly Motivated New Jumpers Recruited and Trained

In response to telegrams sent out by the forest trust, students soon started arriving. They were all local forest workers - woodsmen and rangers raised in the forest, well versed in the work of putting out forest fires and with an ardent desire to be jumpers. It was hard to imagine a better contingent for a smokejumper school.

With exceptional interest and effort the forest workers learned parachuting. Until late in the evening until lights out, the parachute packing class was full of training students. With the constant efforts to complete the program of studies, time flew by day after day, week after week. Two months went by and soon the whole winter passed. Returning to Leningrad, I was occupied in design work and looking after the quick completion of factory orders for the new smokejumper equipment.

Summer came. From the Northern Airbase, information began to arrive that the jumpers had started jumping into settlements to mobilize the population and that they had started to successfully put out forest fires. Not until July did I end up at the Northern Airbase and find that firefighting work was in full swing. All 18 jumpers were jumping into settlements. With joy I saw how the parachute service took hold and was used for quickly organizing the population for fire suppression.

Air Dropping Cargo

But there still wasn't full-fledged use of the parachute service. Inertia still existed. Cargo racks were not installed on the aircraft, so fires could still not be fought completely independently.

"Comrade Shcheglov, cargo racks must be mounted on the airplanes as soon as possible," I proposed to the boss of operations.

"It would be possible to mount them, but we don't see the need for this," they said at the base.

"How do you not see this need if you are still not getting all possible resources you can to the fires?"

"But, we hear only from you that the work does not go well enough. All of our aircraft are flying, all of the forest co-ops are very satisfied with our work."

"The forest co-ops still don't know what they can really ask from us. They don't know what you can and should give to them," I said.

The aviation technician Zakharov, a party member, came to my aid. He fiddled with the cargo racks until late at night and towards morning had them mounted. Now it was necessary to carry out tests with the cargo racks and cargo parachutes to conduct cargo drops.

The harnesses filled with cargo were brought to the parking area, and they started to attach them under the airplane.

"Well, Comrade Makeev, will the cargo really break these break cords?"
"Yes, of course. They are factory-made and specifically designed for breaking with this cargo."

"Maybe they are calculated correctly for another airplane but aren't suitable for this plane and could break the wing."

"They will certainly break. We already threw cargo parachutes with them last year and the cords always broke."

"But remember, all responsibility for this lies on you. Remember - it's your responsibility."

"I remember. Let's drop them."

Then the pilot Efimov went up and two white canopies with cargo hanging under them opened under his airplane and smoothly descended. Everything was very satisfactory. Voices clamored, "They came down so well and everything works. Now what? Let's start dropping cargo."

Retardant was strapped at the aerodrome, cargo racks mounted, cargo parachutes tested, and everything was ready. The weather stayed hot, the sun burned from morning to night, not a single cloud was seen, and forest fires continued popping up. Three jumpers from the Krasnoborsk operations section were dropped to more dangerous fires. Malanin, the foreman of the crew and ailing with malaria, was the only one left.

"If there is a new fire tomorrow, it's my turn to jump," I thought.

Malishkin Needs Help

The next day, July 19, there were no fires visible in the morning. In the forest area to the east, where the previous day a big column of smoke was seen and the jumper Malishkin dropped, there was no more smoke.

"Jumpers work well," I thought happily and with pride in my students. So, now the parachute service is firmly entrenched in firefighting. Even if I were to die it would grow all the same, and these 18 enthusiastic jumpers wouldn't let it perish.

After noon I began to notice a column of smoke in the same place in the east. The smoke quickly started increasing, rising upward in a large column and then extending horizontally. Comparing the location of the smoke with the map, it was determined that this was the same fire to which Malishkin was dropped the previous day. A patrol aircraft, flying there quickly, reported that yesterday's fire was again burning.

"What is Malishkin doing there? How did he lose the fire?" everyone wondered.

After a quick consultation, it was decided that Malishkin couldn't leave the fire. He probably needed help, and it was necessary to drop him backpack pumps and chemicals and to drop another jumper in to help with the organization of work. This year I still hadn't jumped, and it was almost a year since my last jump. I should therefore first receive a training jump at the aerodrome, but the situation required a quick response, and it wouldn't do to be slow.

After 15 to 20 minutes I was sitting in the plane. Under the bottom of the plane, cargo chutes with 20 backpack pumps were hung. A group of the detachment's workers stood near the plane. The engine started and Efimov and I lifted into the air. We flew across the beautiful Dvina. The smoke column gradually got nearer and more visible. At last we flew up to it. The fire started near a small river and quickly spread deep into the forest.

"Fisherman started it," I thought, looking over the area surrounding the fire and looking for a suitable jumpspot. A small meadow with two haystacks in it was visible, about 3-5 kilometers from the fire.

"Landing here will be nice and comfortable. It looks like soft, bright green grass on the meadow," I thought.

The cargo chutes drifted down, and the white spots of the canopies settled on the edge of the meadow. The airplane made another circle and I jumped. The canopy opened normally, the jump was spotted correctly, and I descended smoothly to the center of the meadow. The next instant my legs wound up in something completely soft and wet, and I began to collapse in an unsteady quagmire. A column of spray doused my face, and my hands went in the water to my elbows. All the bog area closest to me was slowly sinking into the water, erupting up in bubbles. Nearby I saw a tiny, dwarf birch and crawled toward it with difficulty unfastening the snaps and freeing my harness from the risers. Spreading out as wide as possible and holding onto tall hummocks, I gradually made it to the birch. I began pulling in the risers and suspension lines and packing them in the parachute container.

The pilot Efimov asked afterwards, "What was up with you, Giorgy Alexandrovich? You lay so long after landing, I even started to worry."

Dragging my parachute from the swamp to the edge of the forest, I put it in a safe, dry place. Going down to the swamp again for the cargo chutes, I dragged one out to the forest's edge, but didn't have the strength to drag out the second and could only lift it onto a large tussock.

After taking care of the chutes, I grabbed several backpack pumps and headed towards the fire. Twilight quickly fell and it became night. The thick forest changed to logging areas. Passing through the logged areas, the trail descended down into brush and then into a swamp. Smoke hadn't been visible for a long time.

"Hopefully, I didn't mix up the direction," I thought. "I should go perfectly straight and keep from veering to the side."

The going became harder, the darkness in the forest thickened still more. My feet fell between roots and I started to get tired and lose my orientation and self-confidence. The fatigue of the last months of intense work had had an effect on my nerves.

"Am I right to be out here wandering alone in the forest? What can I do alone when I'm so feeble that I couldn't even pull the second parachute out? And is it really possible to put out forest fires with jumper crews? Indeed, this requires so much strength."

My heart began to burst from the realization of my own weakness and helplessness, from my inability to do what seemed necessary: to get to the fire faster, encourage the people, to give them help. I was completely alone. I knew that nobody could see me and unbidden tears coursed my cheeks, sobs arose in my throat. But I walked with undiminished pace, trying not to change course.

"No, no, it's still too early to despair and lose heart. My duty is to be here at the very hardest place of work. It would certainly take a whole crew of 5-6 jumpers to put out a fire independently, but I am only one, and so it is so difficult for me."

I was approaching the river and it couldn't be too far now. At that moment I heard the crack of a twig close by and saw a person walking quickly. Two more emerged behind him. They were workers from the fire. They said that four of them had worked all day with the forester to contain the fire, and now the forester sent them for replacements while he stayed alone on the fire.

I made it to the river and went along the bank searching for a place to cross to the other side. The fire was now clearly visible. It was half a kilometer from me. Because of the night dew it had quieted down. In many places fire had already climbed to the spruce crowns and burned the tops of the trees like a torch against the background of the sky. They gave sinister warning, that with the coming of the daytime heat they would turn into a crown fire, a natural disaster sweeping away everything in its path.
Crossing the river, I finally found the exhausted forester napping under a tree. From him I found out that the jumper and 15 workers had managed to get to the fire while it was still small and quickly stopped it. Leaving four people to guard the fire, the jumper returned to the village, but the fire began to flare up again during the day. Inspecting the fire's edge, I saw that its area was now already 80-100 hectares, and the danger was high that on the next day it would become a crown fire. The forester calmed me, saying that he sent the most reliable people to the village and that he expected the arrival of 15-20 of its workers to stop the fire. In any case, it was necessary bring the backpack pumps left at the cargo, and I went back to the jumpspot. After wandering about two hours in the forest, I returned with the remaining backpack pumps.

Assessing the situation again, I concluded that at least 100 people would be needed in order to catch this fire. I would have to go to the village myself and get the whole administration going to get this number of workers. The worn-out forester meanwhile settled in more comfortably between the roots of a big spruce, got a leftover piece of bread wrapped in a rag from his bag, and began to eat it in sad meditation.
"That can't be your last bread?"

"Yes, indeed I haven't been home for five days. I came straight here from section 89 where we had spent four days."

"Here's the deal. Later in the morning an airplane will fly by here. Take these two-signal panels and lay them out on an open spot near the river, half a meter from each other. The airplane will see this signal and bring you and the workers food." The forester listened attentively without interrupting, but seemed unwilling to believe it.
"He will drop food to you in a special green, canvas bag by parachute. If the parachute ends up in the river, immediately pull it out and dry it. Untie the bag, take bread and canned goods, eat freely yourself and feed those workers who have little bread. When the airplane comes a second time, lay out the signal streamers in the shape of the letter "R." This will mean that you need workers. The airplane will see this and take measures to send workers. I am also going myself for workers. You stay here to wait for the workers, and when they arrive, handle the firefighting."

Having explained all this to the forester, I gave him my bread and set out along the bank of the river to the closest village of Berezonavalok, 12 kilometers away. Going along the bank I saw the shelter of some fishermen. One of the fishermen agreed to take me to the village. The small boat quickly slid downstream with the current, sometimes scraping the bottom of the river. It turned out that the fisherman saw the chutes falling from a distance the day before and he knew the spot where they landed. It was located two full kilometers from a bend of the river. I asked the fisherman to stop the boat there and bring the parachutes. While the fisherman went for the chutes, I fell asleep without realizing it, warmed by the morning sun. Waking up I saw, to my astonishment, Malishkin and the fisherman next to me with the parachutes.

"Yesterday, I saw from the village that the fire started burning again and understood that the guards had left," said Malishkin "I gathered 17 workers and am now going with them to the fire."

"With 17 workers you can't do much. Go and try to hold the fire, and I will go and collect another 30-50 people. You signal the aircraft to send food, chemicals, and workers."

Arriving at the village, I sent a telegram to the administration, requesting that workers be sent. Only by evening did I manage to send some people from the co-op to the fire and make my own way back.

Meanwhile, a stubborn struggle was going on at the fire. The head of the fire was already three kilometers into the forest. In its path, this band of fire burned small reproduction and brush that momentarily blazed like torches to their very tops. With a whistle and crackle, fire enveloped the crowns of big spruce. The fire went in a wall, emitting characteristic rustles and crackles, generating searing heat several meters in front of itself, pouring out pungent, suffocating smoke and spreading at two to three meters a minute. The fire left behind a sad picture of charred, still occasionally smoking tree trunks amid the black, burnt forest floor. Closer to the front of the fire, many trees still burned fiercely. The forester and Malishkin were at the head of the fire with the strongest workers. They were trying to get a fireline around it. Behind them remained only widely spaced workers for patrolling the fire edge. A command point was organized at an open place on the riverbank. Here the changing workers snacked and signal streamers were laid out for the airplane. The airplane dropped several bladders of chemicals and another 20 backpack pumps and food. Walking along the edge of the fire, it was frightening to see the long line of flames that had subsided, but were ready to burn again. A line extending for a kilometer was guarded by a solitary 10-12 year old boy diligently and coolly spraying the flames, sneaking up to the fireline. This view of a little boy in a peasant coat with a pump hanging from his shoulders was the embodiment of the dream that lit my long and persistent nights of design work. This "RLO" pump was the very instrument that allowed a little boy to successfully fight fire, the instrument that I so strived for and defended before Zolotov.

The telegrams that were sent and signals given to the airplane did their work fresh worker power continually came to the fire. As a result, the head of the fire was held and surrounded by a fireline. The entire fireline across the length of the front of the fire was cleaned out and widened. The airplane repeatedly appeared over the fire and threw down message streamers with warning instructions about the possibility of the fire flanking and possible breakthroughs. Only after two days of fatiguing work was the struggle with the fire fully finished. Reliable guards were set along the entire front. Relieved workers rested at the command point, and unneeded workers left for the village. At the village I made arrangements by telephone for the patrol plane to pick me up at the closest landing field.

At the base I was able to observe the work of jumpers on fires and to check the work of the backpack pump. The work at the northern base in Krasnoborsk for 1937 was very significant. Eighty-two parachute jumps were made to settlements for mobilizing the population and quickly organizing firefighting efforts. An array of flight crews together with the jumpers received special thanks from the forest cooperative for exemplary work in forest fire protection. The advisability of using the parachute service for firefighting in the thinly populated and roadless regions was proven in full, and local forest organizations insistently requested further and wider use of jumpers for fire suppression.