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

Cave Junction and Fairbanks/Allen and Looper

by Glen McBride (Cave Junction '59) |

We miss Orville Looper (CJ-49). He and Jim Allen (NCSB-46) were among the best smokejumper bosses anyone could ever have; however, they were different. It all started for me in 1959, jumping out of Cave Junction. One of the things that made it such a great job was the quality of the training. Jim Allen was in charge of the “Gobi.” He made sure the jumpers had what they needed in equipment, knew the fine points of parachuting, and fire fighting. He always treated us kindly and was like a father to us teenage jumpers. Cave Junction seemed like the Camelot of smokejumping. It was a classy place with lots of big, green trees.

Jim had a strategy: to keep the forest from burning down, fires were jumped as early as possible. He knew how to make this possible: we had to be well trained in parachuting into trees. It got to the point where tree jumps were rather enjoyable. Just pick out the fluffy ones, and stay away from the snags!

A typical CJ spotter and jumper exchange might sound like this.

Spotter: “See the fire down there?” Jumper: “Yes.”
Spotter: “Notice there is nothing but wall-to-wall trees?” Jumpers: “Yes.”
Spotter: “Notice the borate plane that’s bird-dogging us?” Jumpers: “Yes.”
Spotter: “Get on the ground quickly. The borate plane is going to drop the slurry from treetop level right on top of you.” Jumper: Gulp… “OK!”

After two glorious years at CJ and a lot of great fires, I had the opportunity of going to Fairbanks in 1961, where I met Orville Looper. He was also a great boss, and someone who was always available to help solve any kind of problem. This was good, but Fairbanks was a different kind of place! The retardant plane could not only drop retardant on the fires, but it could knock the trees down in the process, which was darn fun to watch.

Fighting fire was not limited by darkness at Fairbanks. Once we jumped a fire at 1600 and worked all night. It didn’t get very dark. We then flew back to Fairbanks, just in time to go back to work the next day. The whole crew was dirty-dog tired. We worked a little, looking forward to the end of the day. All of a sudden the fire bell rang at 1600. We got suited back up, and off we went again. We jumped the fire and worked all night, got back on a plane and flew to Fairbanks, just in time to go back to work the next day.

Looper was a patron of the arts. He set it up so I could paint an 8’ x 8’ sign with the wings and parachute of the smokejumpers on the building. It was different but came out OK. If I could paint it again, I would paint a vulture on the building. Then he let me paint two round, 8’ Smokey Bear signs. The first one was kind of crummy, but the last one was not too bad. My fame as a “wrecking yard” artist was spreading. Some little old lady, who worked for the government, asked me to design a brochure for a group she belonged to. They were so “delighted” with my first art project that they wanted me to go to their tea or luncheon. Of course, Looper, who wanted to have good relations with the “purple hair gang,” approved. I was whisked away for a delightful afternoon with these sweet, little old ladies, and, yes, I did use my napkin.

I started to notice a few things about Looper (and I think as he looks down, he would like this). He had a “unique” personality.
Once he came along with the pilot to pick us up from a fire. They brought the Grumman Goose. When the plane hit the lake, Orville started trolling. By the time the plane got to shore, he had caught a 5 lb. lake trout.

As stated Looper had a “unique” personality, but after a few practice jumps, you realized that he was not only “unique”, he was crazy. It all started one day when it was Orville’s turn to jump. I had only witnessed normal out-the-door kind of exits, but not today. On the final approach, when the spotter hit him on the leg, Looper grabbed the rail above the door and swung out like Tarzan. Now, that was very impressive!

During a meeting Looper was mumbling something about our new nylon jump suits. I started paying attention when he said he wanted to prove to all of us that the suits would really float. Was he going to show us a movie to prove this? No. He was going to jump all of us into a lake (even in the summertime lakes in Alaska are cold).

He arranged for the two BLM mechanics to be out on the lake in a boat to pick us up…. very good idea. He also encouraged us to wear a bathing suit under our jump suit. On jump day Looper shows up in a tight-fitting, bright blue bathing suit. We were jumping out of a DC-3 in three-man sticks. Jim Maxwell (CJ-55), LeRoy Gray (NCSB-57), and myself were one stick. Well, the exit was OK, but something was wrong. The chutes opened up perfectly, but Maxwell (an ex-jet pilot out of the Marines) almost disappeared. His chute was dropping so fast it looked like he had a malfunction, but that was not the case. Closer observation revealed that a bunch of the gores had been cut out of the chute. He hit the water so hard it kicked up a plume as high as Old Faithful. There was one advantage. He got down a long time before Gray and McBride. If Maxwell had hit on solid ground he would be only two feet tall today. It makes one wonder who planned out and executed this little caper? Just fill in the blanks.

And the best for last. Looper’s spotting; it’s time for another round of practice jumps. I’m “in the door” on final approach. Looper hits me on the leg then he holds up a hook and a static line. As I clear the door he says, “Mac, I didn’t hook you up!” Then he flashed that great big smile of his. It was too late to ask him any more questions. I don’t normally think fast, but a lot of things started going through my mind. Like I could die, and I was young and… I just about peed my pants, but remembered I did have a reserve chute, and it might work. Then I thought I better wait a little while and see if the main opens up. Maybe that crazy old guy really hooked me up after all. This is a government job and there are supposed to be some kind of standards. Then I remembered Maxwell and figured it was probably a 50-50 deal. What did government regulations mean to Looper anyway? After a lifetime the main did open. Every day after this experience has been a joy, even though I had to inspect a lot of chickens later in life.

Glen can be contacted at: