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Is The Forest Service Making The Best Decision In Going To The Square Chute?

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

All underlining and bolding in this article are mine.

From the U.S.Forest Service Ram-Air Parachute System Implementation Project document: “The Director, Fire and Aviation Management, has made a decision to begin a measured transition to a ram-air parachute system in the U.S. Forest Service smokejumper program. A ‘square’ ram-air parachute system will eventually replace the ‘round’ FS-14 parachute system currently in use.”

From Decision Memorandum For The Director, Fire And Aviation Management: “Round parachutes, which U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers have been using since the program’s inception in 1939, have reached the limits of their performance while ram-air parachute technology is still evolving. Ram-air parachutes are more maneuverable and enable smokejumpers to jump in higher winds than round parachutes. This supports an earlier response to critical wildfires, reducing the chances that they will become large, costly, and dangerous to other firefighters and the public. Investment in the ram-air parachute delivery system at this time is expected to yield further improvements in safety and efficiency in the future.

“The U.S. Forest Service has gathered and thoroughly examined extensive data on injuries and fatalities experienced by smokejumpers on both round and ram-air parachute delivery systems and has concluded that a transition to the ram-air parachute delivery system will improve overall safety in the long term. Due to ram-air parachute technology allowing for slower vertical landing speeds, it is expected that the Forest Service will see a reduction in injuries to the ankles, legs and hips during parachute landings.”

View From The Other Side

I’ve been told not to write anything on the square/round parachute issue. The word has gotten back to me that the NSA and myself have already been criticized because of the stance we have taken on this issue and that we had “better not” get involved. The problem with that thinking is that the NSA has not taken any stance on this issue.

NSA President Jim Cherry (MSO-57) has asked questions about the ram-air system so that our readers could further understand the system. If people are offended about anyone asking questions about a government program, they are the ones who should step back and take a deep breath. We all know that the USFS is a government institution and supported by the taxpayers. By being citizens of the United States, we have the right and responsibility to be involved in our government and the decisions that each part of that government makes. If that bothers you, take it up with the founding fathers. (“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of a government.” Thomas Jefferson)

That said, I will be glad to publish opinion pieces and letters stating opinions that are the opposite of mine. I may not agree with those opinions but I’m certainly not going to get mad at someone who has views that I don’t agree with. (“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” RW Emerson)

For those who feel this magazine is biased toward the round parachute, please note that there are two well-written articles in this issue that are positive to the square parachute. I have published 5-6 favorable square parachute articles in the past years and only one by an author who feels the round is better.

I can say that I am not an expert on the square parachute, but I’ve been doing my best to become educated. Critics will say that I don’t have the background to get involved. However, I feel there is a real safety issue here. As a citizen and taxpayer, I feel we are “stockholders” in our government and have the right and responsibility to become involved. (“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” T. Jefferson)

This is an opinion piece stating my concern about the change in the delivery system. If I have made mistakes involving square parachute characteristics, I will correct them in future articles.

During the reunion at Missoula, the NSA board had the opportunity to meet with Tom Harbour, the USFS Director of Fire & Aviation, and the smokejumper team involved in the change over. All are impressive individuals, smart and articulate. The smokejumper program is in strong hands.

During the NSA board meeting, one of our directors said that during a recent meeting he had heard some of the participants say that the NSA should not get involved in this issue. As a teacher I always challenged my students to get involved, question and be good citizens. I felt that whenever anyone tries to discourage questions, one should see the red flag.

I worry when individuals involved in smokejumping are so concerned about the opinions reflected by the magazine. Reality check – The NSA has no power or influence on any USFS policy.
(“Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”
Thomas Jefferson)

Very few of the current smokejumpers are even members. Our biggest tie to the smokejumper community is the hard-earned dollars we put into the annual $6,000 worth of scholarships that are going to smokejumpers and their children. In addition, there is the $55,340 that we have given to smokejumpers and their families in need. You might even, at some point, consider us as “good guys.”

This is an opinion piece. Remember that my opinion will not change any policy—it is just an opinion. If I had any real power in the area of wildland fire, I would do the following:

1. During the fire season, respond to all wildland fires with the same sense of urgency that you would expect out of the city fire department if your house was burning.

2. Have all forests make a response plan that is automatic and updated hourly as resources change. As they say, “better to send them home rather than not have enough.”

3. Increase the smokejumper program by 200 jumpers.

4. If smokejumpers can reach the fire first, require their use. Most fire people would like to have a Hotshot Crew on a fire immediately. They need to realize that smokejumpers can be that crew.

5. Have an annual 15% turnover in the smokejumper program where 15% of the experienced jumpers leave the program and fill the needed leadership positions at the district and forest fire management level.

6. Hire a percentage of the rookies from the top forestry schools in the country. These individuals should have a goal of becoming a part of the upper level decision-makers in fire and not a career smokejumper.

7. Re-start the lumber industry in the U.S. Trees grow and can be harvested within guidelines that protect our forests. Jobs can be created, towns and schools moved from the dead to the living, and fire hazards reduced. Is there anyone who does not have any wood in their house? What do we gain by cutting down the forests of Southeast Asia and feeling good about killing the lumber industry in the U.S.?

We know that none of this will happen—it is just an opinion. Please don’t worry about my opinion. It won’t hurt the changeover in the parachute system and, as a citizen and stockholder in this country, I’m entitled to have an opinion.
(“The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.” H.L. Mencken)

Please note that I am not dealing with the BLM as they already have a system that works for them in the areas that they cover. My focus is with the USFS and the areas they cover.

We have heard that jumping fires in the wilderness is a thing of the past and that jumpers need to become move involved in the urban interface. The mission has changed. “No more two-manners in the Bob.” What a mistake! That’s the place where we should use jumpers, make the fire a two-day, one-page event and save resources and money for the “big ones.”

Let’s see what is going on out in the real world. June 11, 2015, just after midnight, lightning started the Buckskin Fire, which is currently (7/24/15) 60% controlled at 5,345 acres and is listed as a “Full Suppression Fire.” Guess what? It’s inside the Biscuit Fire burn from 2002. The locals are calling it the “Little Biscuit Fire.” This does not look like much of a mission change. On a fire that is listed as starting just after midnight, jumpers were called late in the day on the 11th when 30 mph winds were blowing the fire and couldn’t jump. Wonder what would have been the result if they were called at 0800 that morning?

If the mission is changing and the square parachute supports “earlier response,” wouldn’t it be easier to call for jumpers earlier in the day? Let’s prevent the disease rather than treat it. We can easily get an “earlier response” by making an earlier call.

Today (7/24) there is a lot of news about the fire in Glacier N.P. The Park Service are pioneers in let-burn, so this should be a good chance to do so. NFC—not a # chance with thousands of pissed off tourists fleeing from their hotels and campgrounds. Looks like their mission might be changing in another direction.

I say the public will not allow us to ignore the two-manner in the “Bob” and Kalmiopsis Wilderness Areas. Sure, allowing fires to burn naturally in the wilderness is the way nature did it for centuries. We didn’t have 321 million people in the US then either.

The initial paragraph speaks about one of the reasons for changing to the square is to support an earlier response to critical wildfires, reducing the chances that they will become large, costly, and dangerous to other firefighters and the public. If this is a goal, we will need to continue jumping fires in the wilderness and isolated areas. Getting there first and fast is critical.

Here’s my best guess as to what will happen. Under the extreme drought and warming conditions, fires will continue to burn hotter and consume so much acreage that the public will not allow wilderness fires to burn and destroy thousands of acres of forest and watershed. The USFS will not be able to stand back and do a “let-burn” policy. If these fires are not stopped with prompt initial attack (IA), they will consume tremendous amounts of firefighting assets. The lack of these assets will result in slowed IA on other fires and create the domino effect throughout the fire organization, and other fires will become major events due to lack of resources.

We all saw what happened when prompt initial attack was absent on the Biscuit Fire in 2002. Even though there were over 100 smokejumpers available, no jumpers were called. The USFS continues to this day to feed the media with statements that there were no available smokejumper resources available. This is a whitewash because we know that there were jumpers available, but no request was made.

The Biscuit Fire was in an area that was covered for 38 years by the Cave Junction smokejumpers. The Siskiyou N.F. averaged 20,000 acres burned a year between 1910 and 1940. It is no accident that in the 41 years between 1940 and 1981 the burn was just about 800 acres a year. That area was covered by smokejumpers from 1943-1981.

What happened to the “let-burn” idea? The Biscuit Fire destroyed 500,000 acres and was fought at the cost of, by some estimates, $400,000,000. Maybe we should continue to jump those two-manners in the wilderness if we want to save half a billion dollars.

I’ve been involved in wildland firefighting since the summer of 1957 until my retirement from the USFS in 1995. I was a smokejumper for 12 seasons, not a lot by today’s standards but a reasonable number of years. In my years as a smokejumper, I jumped the lower forty-eight for eight seasons and Alaska for four seasons. I’ve had as many as 25 fire jumps in a season down to season’s with only 3-4 fire jumps.

Jumping different regions and forests each presented different challenges. New Mexico had high-altitude jump spots, high winds and many rocks. The Klamath, Shasta/Trinity, Rogue, Siskiyou, along with the dreaded Umpqua, had few open jump spots, trees touching each other and a lot of them being above 150’. A key to making it to the ground in the big-tree spots was steering all the way to the ground.

I have a real concern about the move to the square parachute. This is my opinion based on reading and research. The square parachute has tremendous capabilities, but is it the best delivery system for the Forest Service, especially in Regions 5 and 6?

We have had a proven, safe and effective delivery system with the round parachute for 75 years. There have been no fatalities directly related to that canopy. The round canopy has been improved over the years to the point where malfunctions, such as line-overs and inversions, are almost non-existent.

An analogy can be made between driving a regular car (round) vs a high-performance race car (square). The amount of skill and training needed to drive a square is definitely much higher than that of the round. The ram air canopy has a 20-25 mph forward speed vs 9 mph for the FS-14 round canopy.

Brian Germain (The Parachute and its Pilot-3rd edition), 15,000 jumps and described as the “parachute industry’s foremost canopy designer”: “The evolution of the modern parachute has seen a four-fold increase in average flying speed. This has, to put it another way, allowed us a larger scope of potential landing areas in which to crash. In other words, we have invented flying machines that require a more mature and educated pilot to fly and land safely.”

Back to the sports car analogy. Any mistakes made operating a high-performance, high-speed car will be magnified. The end results or injuries will also be magnified. Consider driving a car and having an accident at 50 mph vs a sports car accident at 150 mph. Which driver would an insurance company sell insurance to at the lowest rate?

What is the advantage of moving to the square parachute? The key for the smokejumper program is to deliver highly-trained firefighters quickly and safely to the fire. Safely is a key word here. Every time we create “an incident within an incident” (accident in a fire jump), we have lost the major advantage gained with smokejumpers.

Getting reports on USFS parachute accidents is hard to do. Statistics are there, but we all know that statistics can be made to prove any point of view. I would like to read the actual accident report. What was the drift, the size of the jump spot, fire activity, when was the fire reported, and when were jumpers requested? I think that in most cases we will find a significant amount of time between initial report and request for jumpers.

My biggest concern is the accident rate. There will be injuries using any system to jump fires. But, it is the seriousness of the injury that I think needs to be addressed. There is a lot of difference between bruises and sprains vs broken legs.

However, we can turn to the sport parachute world and the people with extensive backgrounds in squares. They also have good records available to the general public. A person can get a good idea of the biggest cause of serious accidents with a square parachute: Hard Landings.

Hard Landings With A Wing

The ram air parachute is a “wing” with a top and bottom layer of nylon separated by ribs that divide the parachute into individual cells. As air runs or “rams” through the cells it creates an airfoil. The jumper is commonly called a “pilot,” since he/she is operating a flying wing similar to an aircraft.

Now, think of the square parachute as a flying wing, an aircraft without a motor. Two axis of orientation, Pitch (forward/backward) and Roll (bank or tilt to either side) become very important in flying a wing. Pulling down on either toggle of a flying wing causes the parachute to roll to that side. Picture a pilot rolling his/her aircraft 30 feet off the ground. Result: crash or hard landing.

Like an airplane, a square parachute needs a landing area and should not be turned below 100’ above the ground. If this happens the canopy is redirected and, in many cases, the jumper impacts the ground at a tremendous speed, thus the term “hard landing.”

Try not to turn when slightly overshooting that small ridge top in the North Cascades or to miss that 150 foot snag on the Shasta/Trinity. A quick reaction to a hazard is an automatic for the human body. You’re not going to blink if I snap my fingers in front of your eyes?

In my opinion the term “hard landing” is going to become commonplace in the smokejumper vocabulary if the move to squares is made.

Minimum Height For Turns

In the July issue of Smokejumper NSA President Jim Cherry (MSO-57), asked if there is a minimum height above ground where maneuvering should not be done? Answer: “Yes, on either canopy a jumper should be on final heading by 100 feet (above ground level) and making only subtle corrections from there.”

Again, I have never jumped a square. At the same time I have, on many fire jumps, steered all the way to the ground, with either guideline cranked to my maximum, in order to spiral through heavy timber or hold inside a small opening with a round parachute. There was no negative effect to steering to the ground with a round as it is not a wing and will not be subjected to the negatives of the roll axis of a wing. I would like to see video evidence that steering a round all the way to the ground is detrimental for the jumper. I have seen numerous videos of a square being turned during landing, and the roll axis taking the jumper right into the ground at high speed.

The following is from the sport parachute world, but there is a lot of connection here to the use of the square parachute. Underlining is mine. From Parachutist website: “Since the mid-1990s, when manufacturers introduced truly high-performance parachutes, jumpers have needed more skill to land safely. Prior to that time, a landing fatality occurred an average of once every two years. Since then, landing deaths have represented about one-third of annual fatalities. The jumpers who died had an average of 13 years in the sport, so a lack of canopy piloting experience wasn’t much of a factor.”

Statistics show that in the sports parachute world since 2004, hard landings have resulted in over 200 deaths and make up a whopping 32% of the skydiving fatalities. You might say that we cannot make a comparison between the skydiving world and smokejumping with squares. I would counter that with it is the “hard landing” element we are looking at here with the square canopy. Certainly the landing zones of the sports parachute world are very large and less dangerous in comparison to what we find on a fire jump.

Experience Important?

As stated above, the sport jumpers involved in fatal hard landings had an average of 13 years experience. I’m looking at the accident reports and see sport jumpers with 4,000/5,000 jumps who made a single fatal mistake. At that speed it just takes a small mistake to turn into a serious accident. They don’t have fender benders at the Indy 500.

Navy SEALs seem to be the pinnacle for highly trained individuals in the last 10 years. They are the best of the best and never stop training. March 19 and June 23, 2015, two SEALs were killed during parachute operations. The March 19th accident “following a hard landing.” The military builds in fatalities as part of their operations. We can’t do that with smokejumpers.

Picking A Landing Zone

From “There are two goals when landing your parachute: First, land safely and second, land where you want to. Do not go below the thousand-foot mark without making a firm decision about where to land.

“Skydivers like to set up their final approach by using a pattern similar to the kind airplanes use approaching an airport.

“At an altitude of about 100’ you are committed; just let the parachute fly straight ahead.

“To get the most out of flaring, you must be flying full speed, so keep the toggles all the way up until it is time to flare.

“Do not let your toggles back up once you have started to flare. This will cause your canopy to dive forward and result in a hard landing.

“Never land in a turn. A parachute’s rate of descent increases dramatically in a turn and that speed remains a few seconds after the turn is stopped. Low turns are usually made by people who did not pick a safe area and turned at the last moment to avoid an obstacle.”

Brian Germain: “Very large objects such as buildings and tree-lines can set up a fairly organized circular motion of airflow. As the air flows over the object, it moves downward into the dead space just past it. This deadly phenomenon is called a ‘rotor.’ Never fly or land downwind of a large object.” It seems like big trees, steep rocky outcroppings and ridge tops would fall within this category.

We all know that there are large temperature differences on a fire. You roast in the day and freeze on the night shift. That’s the way it goes in the mountains. More from Brian Germain: “The greater the difference in temperature in a given location, the more powerful the turbulence can be. Add to this scenario lots of wind movement and you have the makings of a very dangerous day. Turbulent air alone has the ability to drop the angle of attack (of the wing) quickly enough to cause a destabilization of the wing.”

Wind Gusts

I think we can all agree that wind gusts are commonplace and not unusual on any fire jump. Let’s see what the pros with the squares from the sports parachute world say on the subject. “A flying object such as a parachute does not know which way the wind is blowing. Upwind, downwind, crosswind are all in reference to the ground below, not what the air is doing over your wing. Gusty, turbulent conditions will cause changes in rate of descent. Close to the ground this can be very problematic. Tough situation.

“Gusts equal turbulence. My wind limit is 24 mph. Gusts are a whole ‘nother’ story. I’m ok with 5 mph gusts if the wind stays below 15 mph.

“I’ll jump wind over 20 mph if they’re (gusts) steady and 6-8 mph if the top (wind) is under 20 mph, but you have to be ready. I landed, a gust picked me up and dropped me about 30’ from where I’d been standing. Broken collar bone.”

Will The Square Evolve Into A Safer Parachute?

I don’t think so. The square parachute has evolved to increase performance. The ability to do highly skillful moves is the objective of the square parachute world. They are not concerned with the delivery of a firefighter.

The BLM has been using the square for years, but I do not see any improvements that allow the canopy to make low-level turns. You can’t make a wing not a wing.

Smokejumpers are highly trained firefighters who, when most effective, are delivered quickly and safely to the incident. They can handle the incident with little or no outside support.

In my opinion, the switch to ram-air in R-5 and R-6 will result in more injuries and, most importantly, more serious injuries. Injured personnel take valuable resources. Forests will get tired of using jumpers if they are considered more of a problem than worth.

The sport parachutists with thousands of jumps warn of two very important areas of concern: Gusts and turbulent air. Gusts and turbulent air are common factors on fires in the mountains. Steady wind and lack of gusts are important factors in safely flying a wing or square parachute. Pretty rare in the mountains.

The stated advantage to the square is its ability “to jump in higher winds than round parachutes.” In my eyes the ram-air is being touted because of its ability, according to the BLM Spotter Handbook, to “land comfortably in open terrain with ground winds up to 25-30 mph.” However, in the April 15th practice jumps at Black’s Creek, two jumpers were injured and the jumps stopped with winds of 15-18 mph. Two square jumpers were injured on the Sequoia with only 100 yards drift. Where did the 25-30 figure come from?

Can square jumpers land comfortably in winds of 25-30 mph? Do we have those statistics? How many jumps have been done with ground winds in that range? If there have been hundreds of jumps done with the squares in 25-30 mph, can someone document and show us, the taxpayers, those records? I’m also talking about jumps being made in conditions we experience in the lower forty-eight, not Alaska. In Regions 5 and 6, the “world is not a jump spot.”

Will we have to move to landing zones vs jump spots? That, in many cases, will increase the amount of unburned fuel between the jumper and the fire at a time when we are experiencing hotter and drier climate conditions.

We have a proven and safe delivery system in the round parachute. We are firefighters. Our time should be spent in improving our qualifications as firefighters, not parachute pilots. I believe that delivering 20 smokejumpers to an urban interface fire in 25-30 mph winds will result in an unacceptable injury rate.

A delivery system is being changed to allow jumps in higher winds, and, as the Decision Memorandum says, “This supports an earlier response to critical wildfires, reducing the chances that they will become large, costly, and dangerous to other firefighters and the public.”

Many of us, for years, have been asking for the fire agencies to make quick, prompt initial attack on wildfires. Go to government websites such as “InciWeb” and look at the fire information. There is a ton of information, a lot of fluff and frosting. What is missing? You do not see the time the fire was reported and the time initial attack was taken and the resources used. The key items to stop a fire!

Wouldn’t it be easier, less expensive and more practical to call the jumpers earlier in the day? Let’s look into when a fire was reported and how long that knowledge sat on the dispatcher’s desk before jumpers were called. We can attack the problem at the origin rather than adjust to the slowness of the system.

The decision has been made. However, the USFS release says, “There will be continual assessment and management of the associated risks of this transition.” I hope the transition is a good decision and will make smokejumpers a more valuable firefighting tool. My gut tells me different.