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The Remarkable Yuri Yushkov

by Bruce Ford (Missoula ’75) |

As you get to the top of the stairwell at the jumpbase in Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, you run smack into a huge, mural-sized painting. It covers a whole wall, about 8 x 12 feet, and depicts a forest fire. A just-landed jumper squints up at a circling AN-2 and rolls his chute up; another jumper drifts down through a smoke-filled sky. Flames crackle in the forest beyond the edge of the meadow and, in the distance, a rappeller slides from a helicopter. At the edge of the scene, a moose ambles away from all the activity. All this was painted years ago, and the artist,Yuri Yakovlevich Yushkov, was a smokejumper himself here for many years.

Yuri first strapped on a parachute for the Soviet army at age eighteen in 1943 as war raged against the invading Nazis. His first training jumps were from a balloon tethered at a height of 400 meters. The balloon's gondola carried 4-5 jumpers and a spotter; as it was let out on the tether, the first man in the stick sat in the “door” and the others crowded behind him. As each man in the stick jumped, the gondola would rock progressively harder, until the last man staggered to the door of the oscillating basket.

After jump training he and his fellow raw recruits were thrown into a breach in the First Ukrainian Front, beyond the Dneiper River. At night, under cover of darkness, his brigade of about 6000 was dropped from a group of planes commanded by the legendary woman pilot Valentina Grizodubova. Yuri jumped with a mortar in place of a reserve from a LI-2, the Russian version of the DC-3. Their task was to divert enemy fire and strength while the breach was closed, and the mission was successful. Yuri remarks only, “A handful of us survived.”

The surviving members of his brigade were then sent to the quieter Karelian Front near Finland, where they “lounged around making wooden boats.” He remembers seeing an observation balloon shot down, and the occupant safely parachuting from the falling craft.

After Yuri left the army in 1949, he worked as a parachute instructor for an aerial sport club until 1952, when he hired on with the newly reconstituted smokejumpers, working out of Novosibirsk in central Siberia. The smokejumpers were still using the two-seat Po-2 and three-seat Po-2A biplanes, which required the jumper to climb out on the lower wing to exit. Standard jump altitude was 400 meters, but he recalls one jump where he barely had time to maneuver between opening and landing. Turns out a misunderstanding between the pilot and spotter resulted in his being dropped at about 200 meters.

Mobilization of locals for firefighting was still the main task of jumpers at that time, so Yuri would usually jump into a village or lumber camp. He composed a little verse apropos of such “hero jumps:”

So I landed pretty as you please
Little kids come running up to me.
Around my chute they swarm like bees
As I vainly try to drag it free.

Jumpers had blanket permission to commandeer and utilize transportation and carried a copy of an order to that effect, signed by Stalin. Brandishing this order invariably elicited cooperation, according to Yuri. There is a story of the jumper who requisitioned a milk truck to aid in firefighting. In the course of things the milk spoiled, and an argument ensued as to who should pay for the loss. The Forest ended by agreeing to cough up damages. Demobing oneself from a fire in those days required resourcefulness and imagination, but if you could make your way to a rail line, you were home free.

Yuri's first jump on the PD-47 chute resulted in the only reserve deployment of his career. His accustomed chute, the PD-6, had a short ripcord cable. He would pull it far enough to deploy, then restow the handle in its pocket for safekeeping. When he pulled the longer PD-47 ripcord in the same way, nothing happened. After a few seconds he concluded that a reserve ride would be the wise option.

In 1956, Yuri transferred to the newly opened Krasnoyarsk sub-base, where An-2 airplanes allowed larger groups of jumpers to be dropped. Static line jumping was soon adopted as well. He admits to being a bit nervous the first time he entrusted his opening to a static line rather than the accustomed hand deployment.

Yuri says he often argued with pilot-observers who would pass up new, small, “good deal” fires and wait to throw the jumpers on a “gobbler.” His uncharitable suspicion was that some pilot-observers were motivated by their different pay basis: they were paid by flight hours, whereas the jumpers got a bonus for quickly controlling a fire.

As long as he can remember, Yuri has painted and written poetry. His straightforward verse is full of humor and light. In them, the moon is a sickle which his peasant great-grandmother flung to heaven in a fit of despair at overwork and after failing to reap the last row. And the sickle hangs there yet in the sky, gladdening us with its ethereal light.

Remarkably, in a long career of war and firefighting, Yuri was never injured; his friends and relatives attribute his charmed life to a guardian angel.

Yuri finished his career in 1965 with a total of 556 jumps.

I came by Yuri's apartment for an interview lugging a small (250 ml) bottle of vodka, thinking to take it easy on myself and an 81-year-old man. He looked disparagingly at my little bottle and immediately sent his grandson out for a full-size one.