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

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 in 1936. An accident during training almost stops the program but Makeev convinces his superiors to let him continue.

In Part Three (October 2009) new Soviet Smokejumper program makes eighty-two fire jumps and shows the effectiveness of their aerial cargo system.

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

1938-Handling Fire Suppression With Smokejumper Crews

At the end of 1937, The Head of Forest Protection gave the order to further widen the parachute service. During the winter of 1937-38 it was necessary to train smokejumpers, to refine, order, and acquire materials. That winter the management of all aerial forest fire protection was given to me. It was necessary to put together production plans for all the projects, draw up instructions, study questions of supply, and to sign agreements. Little time remained for preparations for actively fighting fires. On my own authority, I allocated one aircraft especially for fire operations

The Head of Forest Protection placed an order for 1500 of the "RLO" backpack pumps for ground-based forest protection. The completion of such a big order was an extremely difficult accomplishment. Because forest aviation still didn't have its own workshop, the orders had to be placed with other workshops and factories that were not concerned with timely delivery of the materials.

This year the cargo parachutes for dropping retardants to fires were re-designed. The blivet for retardant solution was made from a transparent, impregnated, acid-resistant rubber material.

In December I succeeded in getting to Krasnoborsk for jumper training. Part of the students had already arrived, but studies still hadn't started. This year it was necessary not only to train new jumpers, but also to increase the qualifications of the experienced ones and to train the best of them as pilot-observers. Pilots were later trained from these ranks and came to comprise the best cadre, called the "golden cadre" of forest aviation.

She's Too Small To Be a Smokejumper
Returning home one day my wife met me with the words: "Some girl who arrived at the parachute school is waiting for you here. But I think she is completely unsuitable for jumping."

"But what about our Obrucheva, isn't she an excellent worker?" I answered.

"That's Obrucheva. You can immediately tell that she is a good worker, but this one is small and sickly."

On the stairs I meet a small, strongly-built girl in a printed cotton blouse with an open, still childish face, who gave me documents and said that she came from the Totemski forest cooperative. Manefa Grigorevna Tikina, the documents proclaimed her.

"Oh dear, she's so small," I thought. But Tikina's height didn't scare me so much as her awkwardness. It was clear that she hardly had the presence or bearing of a gymnast.

It will be a little hard to train her in parachute jumping, I thought while observing the lessons. Tikina struggled to climb in or out of the airplane's cabin. But I was mistaken in my initial opinion of her. Tikina finished the school perfectly well and turned out to be the best female jumper in forest aviation. In one day she was able to make two jumps and put out two fires. She was awarded the badge of honored worker in forest production, and any man would envy the calmness and composure she showed as she stood on the wing of an airplane getting ready to jump.

The Goal Is To Put Out Fire Without Any Outside Help

Good instructors arrived at Krasnoborsk from Leningrad. At the Northern Base the best technical force for jumper instruction was mobilized, increasing the qualifications of the experienced ones and retraining the best of these as pilot-observers. In the spirit of shared workload, even my wife was used in teaching general subjects to the jumpers.

Lessons for all three groups went ahead at full speed. Some pored over aerial navigation, others studied parachute packing till late in the evening, and some busied themselves with literacy and arithmetic. The time went by quickly and, after a month and a half, the new jumpers completed and mastered jumping. After two months the pilot-observers had finished training.

Now it was necessary to hurry to Leningrad to undertake the acquisition of supplies for fighting fires. I had to part with the jumpers.

At the party marking the end of studies, I addressed the jumpers with these words:

"Comrade jumpers, last year we mastered jumping to settlements and quickly suppressing forest fires with the participation of the local population. We proved the feasibility of this project, since the area burned by fires was much reduced. But this is only the first half of our assignment. The second half is more difficult. This year we have to master suppressing fires independently with jumpers, without calling on the local population. The difficulty of this work lays both in jumping into the forest far from settlements and in putting out fires with a small jumper crew. This assignment is more important than the first, since it allows us to put out the very hardest forest fires farthest from settlements, and to free the local collective farm population from spending a lot of time at this work."

Sadly saying goodbye to the jumpers, I headed back to Leningrad. The summer of 1938 didn't catch forest aviation unawares. Towards the beginning of the fire season, all the air bases were staffed with jumpers, and supplies were well replenished. Only at the end of July was I able to get out to Krasnoborsk. I was worried by the absence of news about jumpers independently putting out fires. At the station in Kotlas, the new head of the smokejumper service, the wonderful pilot and jumper Dorosev, met me.

"Well, why aren't you putting out fires independently?" I asked immediately.

"What do you mean? Our jumper crew just put out a fire by themselves."

I was very heartened. But my joy gradually diminished since it turned out that the crew was not dropped to a fire, but to a settlement, from which the jumpers went with a forester several kilometers to the fire. This was not the independent suppression of a fire far from a settlement, I thought.

As soon as we flew into Krasnoborsk, information came in about large fires in the Kotlas forest trust. They began proposing that I take part in the patrol flight. Since I was not fatigued, it was awkward to turn it down. I had to immediately fly off for a protracted five-hour patrol with a representative of the forest fund and a pilot-observer. The old story of nausea was repeated on the flight. All my innards were upset and when the flight was over, I was completely sick.

The Big Challenge

Immediately on our return, one of the patrol aircraft reported a big fire starting in the Vyski forest cooperative. This fire was thirty-five kilometers from the closest settlement and it was unmanned. It was spreading quickly and had now already reached 60 hectares. It threatened to destroy the timber of a large logging operation. The fire was 80 kilometers from Krasnoborsk.

"So what do you say we should do, Giorgy Alexandrovich?" asked the head of the air base.

"We have to drop a jumper crew. If they can't put it out, then they can hold the fire until workers arrive from the town. We need to drop a single jumper to the settlement to quickly get workers headed to the fire."

"We can drop them but it's a long way and difficult. It might be better to pick a better situation for using jumpers for the first time, and catch this fire with conventional methods. And if it spreads, we won't be to blame."

"We have to drop the crew and do all we can to put this fire out quickly. We're obligated to."

"Then, it's good that you're here. We'll drop them."

The head of the jumper service flew off with the senior pilot-observer on another recon and brought back a sketch of the fire and jump spots. Right next to the fire was a little swamp where it would be possible to throw cargo, and the jumpers would have to be dropped one and a half to two kilometers from the fire. I was torn. I had to participate in the first jump and see the jumpers work, but I felt so bad after the flight that I couldn't jump with them.

Could I refuse this flight and everything still be okay? I could jump now and quickly check the jumper's work, but here I was with such nausea that my stomach was still nearly turned inside out. I reassured myself by assigning as boss Kopilov, the most experienced and dedicated jumper crewleader. There was nothing to do but dispatch the jumpers alone.

Preparations started. With great sadness I dispatched the crew without me, every moment regretting that I wasn't jumping myself. Now the crews assigned to the flight were briefed on the mission. The pilots and jumpers dressed in full equipment. Personnel parachutes and retardant in bladders with cargo parachutes were brought up to the ramp. Finally the planes began lifting off in succession, tracing curves over the aerodrome and getting in formation. Then they formed a wedge and flew off straight and out of sight. I impatiently awaited the airplanes' return. At last the ground crew began to listen attentively and look into the distance.

"Here come three, and the fourth probably flew to the settlement," one of them said.

From the arriving Dorosev I found out that the jump went safely. Now they had to fly back and drop retardant blivets, tools and food. These flights were only finished late in the evening.

I had to get ready for a possible jump myself. I discussed this with the boss of the airbase. Acquainted with my increasing deafness, he requested a medical certificate. Since I didn't have it, I had to go to a doctor. On the next day, after a good night's sleep, I received a certificate from the doctor about my fitness for parachuting, having shown my instructor's certificate. The boss of the aviation base looked at the certificate and said, "You pulled strings."

"But I have no acquaintances here," I answered.

"All the same, you pulled strings," he repeated. "Okay, if you want to jump, jump, but give this certificate to the office."

That day I made a training jump at the aerodrome, rested well, and again had a happy outlook on life. The patrol aircraft, returning from a flight, reported that a destroyed tent was visible in the jumpspot. The fire didn't appear to be spreading further but still wasn't out.

Only two jumpers now remained at the aerodrome. They privately complained to me that they weren't assigned to the previous flight.

"If they need another crew flown out, then all three of us will jump together," I reassured them.

Another Fire

Towards evening another situation requiring independent fire suppression arose. The pilot-observer Shestakov, a former jumper, returned from patrolling and reported that about fifty kilometers from the aerodrome and eighteen kilometers from the nearest settlement, a fire was burning. It was burning heavily in a section of good commercial pine forest and was crowning out. It was decided to deploy the remaining jumper crew. To reinforce the jumpers, a telegram was sent to the neighboring district for dispatching an additional two jumpers by plane.

I wound up flying in Dorosev's plane with the jumper Yushin, a former film projectionist. In the other plane was the jumper Lebedev, a former village librarian. Neither were forest workers.

"Boy, what an unfortunate crew," I thought. "Both jumpers aren't real woodsmen, and just look, here is a fire heading into the crowns." But it turned out I was doing Yushin and Lebedev a disservice in thinking of them this way.

Before loading, Dorosev suggested that I sit in the rear cabin and climb onto the left wing and that Yushin sit in the middle cabin and climb out on the right. In my heart I was thankful to Dorosev for this since, as I hadn't trained for a long time, jumping from the right side would be harder.

Dorosev's was the lead airplane. Efimov and Lebedev's plane followed closely. After twenty-five to thirty minutes of flight, we arrived at the fire. About two kilometers away a big column of smoke was visible. After dropping the drift chute, Dorosev set the plane on final. The engine throttled down. Dorosev raised his hand. Yushin and I quickly climbed out on the wings. As soon as I gripped the ripcord handle and turned to Dorosev, I saw his hand rise a second time. Not waiting for Yushin to jump, I immediately leapt. When the canopy opened I saw the descending Yushin to the right of me, closer to the forest. Under my feet were clearly visible isolated trees standing on the edge of the swamp.

"It wouldn't do to end up in one of these," I thought, grabbing at several suspension lines and ready to "slip," if necessary. But slipping wasn't necessary. The trees remained to the side, and I landed softly on a pillow of sphagnum moss. Yushin also landed close behind me, but Lebedev, jumping a bit later and being smaller and lighter than us, still hadn't landed. Dorosev circled us twice and flew off to the aerodrome. Putting the parachutes in the containers and setting out together, we left two chutes on a high dry tussock and took the third with us to use the canopy as a signal.

Oh, how hard it was to walk! You had to lift your legs so high your knees nearly hit your chin. I tried to share with Yushin and Lebedev carrying the parachute, but soon saw that this was beyond my strength. Yushin and Lebedev carried the parachute in turn without complaining. Having gone about a kilometer and a half, we started to worry because we hadn't seen the fire in a long time. Yushin climbed a tree, said the fire was visible right nearby, and indicated the direction. We turned our steps that way.

Soon the forest started to thin, pure spruce appeared and we descended into a deep ravine with a lovely creek. With what delight we drank the cold, clean water of the sylvan stream. How gratifyingly the water ran down our parched throats! The fire was visible nearby.

Having filled the "RLO" pumps with water, we had just gotten to the fire when we heard the roar of an engine. We still hadn't picked an opening in the forest for dropping cargo and ran to the closest thin area of the forest. Just then, nearly snagging the treetops, an airplane circled over our heads vainly scanning the forest for us. We ran into a thin spot and quickly laid out two white parallel lines with the canopies of parachutes. Standing, we waited. The clatter of the engine approached again. There between the tops of the spruce and pine was the hurtling plane, and leaning over the side of the cabin the head of the pilot-observer closely examining the forest. The airplane headed right toward the panels. Now the pilot-observer waved his hand and, on the next pass, dropped axes and shovels on cargo chutes.

By now the flaming tongues of the fire were apparent-sometimes rising higher and burning brightly, sometimes crawling low, crackling and rustling.

On the next pass cargo chutes began raining from the plane with axes and shovels attached with long streamers. When everything was thrown and the airplane flew off, we again took our backpack pumps and went to the fire to slow its spread. Then Yushin went to retrieve a chute stuck in a tree. Lebedev continued to hold the head of the fire and protect the signal chute from the flames, and I went to scout the fire edge. The left border went down slope to a low-lying area with damp soil in the middle of which ran a stream. On the other side of the fire there turned out to be a winter road. Now the whole view of the fire was clear. We just had to stop the head of the fire, and it wouldn't get away from us on the flanks. In the middle of the fire many trees were already engulfed with fire to the very crowns. Returning from the recon, I saw two more people.

"Hello, Giorgy Alexandrovich. Fancy meeting you here," one of them said, walking up. I immediately recognized the tall, slouched person with the familiar coal-black eyes and open smile.

"My dear fellow, so its you, Kulizhki."

Before me stood one of the best jumpers, the former warden, Kulizhki.

"It's me, all right. They called us and as soon as we flew into Krasnoborsk, they immediately sent us right behind you."

I was a great friend with Kulizhski. The five of us amiably set to work. Under such conditions putting out a fire wasn't hard. This isn't the same as last year when I was alone and exhausted, with despair in my soul, feeling completely helpless, I reflected happily, calmly building fireline and recalling last year's work.

We worked tirelessly for about four hours, first holding back the advancing front of the fire, then when the fire weakened, making a reliable fireline. After the head of the fire was finally stopped, we took a break, got canned goods, bread and candy from the cargo, and snacked and smoked. Then we went on to put in more reliable line. Towards five in the morning the fire was completely contained on all sides and only in the middle did individual trees continue to flare up. Soon we saw people walking toward us. This turned out to be a forester with workers. We spread a guard around the fire, fed the forester and workers bread with canned goods, and started getting ready to hit the road. After 24 hours we returned to Krasnoborsk.

At this time the head of Forest Protection Central Management arrived at the airbase from Moscow to acquaint himself with the detachment. He was shown single and group parachute jumps, and the new supplies. During his stay a patrolling pilot-observer returned and reported that an old fire, on which a certain forest cooperative had worked rather listlessly, had flared up and now covered a large area.

"And has the trust been apprised of this?" asked the manager.

"Every day we report this by telegram to the forest cooperative and to the trust. Each time we also throw a message streamer to the forest cooperative, but nothing ever comes of it. Here, with this fire, several settlements must be mobilized, but the forest cooperative isn't doing it, so the fire is flaring up," the pilot-observer answered.

"What should be done now?" asked the manager. "Decisive measures must be taken."

Decisive Measures Must Be Taken

"Rather than divert people from hay making, let's put out the fire with jumpers. It's understandable that it's hard for the collective farms to allocate people now for firefighting. Right now every person is very valuable to them. I think sending out eight to ten jumpers would handle it," I opined. The manager seconded me and the order was given to prepare for flight.

"Well, comrades, you are entrusted with an important assignment. You will save many valuable collective farm days. Don't return with bad reports, but quickly inform me by telegram of good results," I said on parting with the jumpers, seeing them off for the jumps. After a day a telegram arrived from Kopilov that the fire was fully contained.

Alas, not waiting for the jumpers' return, I had to rush to go to Leningrad. In Leningrad, I impatiently awaited telegraphic communication every tenth day about the action of the Northern Detachment jumpers. Information about jumper deployments and their suppression of forest fires now began to arrive often. On large fires arising outside the protected region, aircraft of the Northern Airbase transported and dropped tools, retardants, and food cargo to forest guards and workers.

Eight-Hundred-Forty-Nine Jumps in 1938

Now business took off. 1938 gave forest aviation a big step forward in actively fighting forest fires. From this year on, forest aviation went to independently suppressing fires. Enthusiastic jumpers of many districts successfully put out forest fires without calling on local residents.

In 1938, 849 parachute jumps were completed; 172 forest fires were put out by jumpers, many of these independently; 4.4 tons of retardant and other cargo were dropped to forest fires. Verkhne-Toyemskoye operating district came out the winner in the socialist competition of operating districts, attaining the following record figures: 89% of all fire starts were put out in the initial stages with jumper participation, and 25% of fires were put out by jumpers alone without calling on the collective farm population. Losses from forest fires were reduced five-fold. This was a big success. Now the problem of freeing the collective farms from expending much labor and time on firefighting during their peak work periods was successfully resolved. It remained only to widen the use of aviation and the parachute service.

Widening the use of aviation and parachute services in forest management grew quickly. To the end of 1947, 6225 parachute jumps were completed by smokejumpers and 903 forest fires were put out. This despite the fact that there were no jumps during the four years of WWII. Now the quick suppression of forest fires by jumper crews should significantly increase with the introduction of fireline explosives, the probable future use of portable forest motorized pumps, hand pumps and special two-way radios. In sum, this will excellently equip forest aviation's smokejumpers.