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The Rescue Jump for "Animal" Ed Weissenback

by Bruce Jackson (Redmond '69) and Bill Vaughn (Redmond '69) |

(Bruce Jackson) The 1970 season at the Redmond Air Center (RAC) got off to a running start the first week of June with the arrival of an early fire bust. Bill Vaughn and I were rookies the previous summer with "Animal" Ed Weissenback (CJ-64) and Dave Laws (RAC-66) as our trainers. Even though both men were opposites in many ways, they were a match made in heaven in terms of their motivational styles that propelled us through the grueling physical demands of our training. That was combined with their attention to detail teaching us all the complex skills we would be required to perform as smokejumpers.

Ed was very muscular and blocky in build with a thick neck, legs, and arms. He was the embodiment of the proverbial "Brick Outhouse and had the booming voice and larger than life personality to match his intimidating physique. His method of encouragement was modeled after a Marine DI on steroids. We would be regaled with thunderous "You Pus-s-s-sies if we slowed our pace running, especially in the heat of the day while encased in our jump gear. Failure to make at least a genuine effort during PT to achieve one more pullup, another pushup, or backward head touch on the ground at the torture rack would bring even greater volume and more such "encouragement from Animal Ed. It was only later, after proving our abilities as jumpers and working on the fireline that we got to see the genuinely caring side of Ed's character, which he concealed during rookie training with a hard-shell exterior enhanced by his very forceful leadership style. What green rookie wouldn't be a bit intimidated by this powerful figure of a REAL smokejumper who kept a "pet rattlesnake in a terrarium in his barracks room?

In sharp contrast to Ed, Dave Laws was soft spoken, when he did choose to speak, which was infrequently. He was short and slight of build but possessed a core of sprung steel. It was jaw dropping to see Dave knock out 20 one-armed pullups or lead the crew on a fast-paced run without breaking a sweat, while smoking cigarettes! He was affable and pleasant in his training style yet got the high level of performance that he expected and required. My first fire jump was with Dave on a two-man lightning strike on the Klamath NF. I learned a lot from him that was not covered in rookie training.

Of the seventeen jumps made that summer of '69, several of them were with Bill Vaughn and Ed Weissenback. By chance we frequently ended up in close order on the jump list. Bill and I became good friends and have remained so ever since. He was attending the U of Idaho and I was just eight miles west in Washington attending WSU. We were both so jazzed by our first year as smokejumpers that we just couldn't wait to get back to RAC in 1970. We pleaded with our respective Department Chairmen to take our finals early allowing us to arrive back at the Redmond Air Center by Monday, the first day of June 1970.

(Bill Vaughn) Having finished finals early, I was able to get to RAC the first week in June. The season was already starting with a couple of fires jumped. We did our refresher training on Monday and got our first practice jump the next day. Jumper requests were waiting after our second jump on Wednesday. We loaded up in the Twin Beech with Hal Weinmann (NCSB-47) as spotter and headed for the Umpqua NF.

Ed Weissenback was first on the list, followed by Dan Dunnigan, Bruce Jackson, and me. We remembered Ed especially well, and fondly, as he and Dave Laws were our trainers the previous summer. Ed set a great example of fitness for us to follow, and we did. On the way to the Umpqua, Ed was really excited to get the first fire under our belt. We arrived over the Malt Creek Fire and Hal threw the streamers and got us all set up for single stick jumps. Ed was first out (with the radio), followed by Dan, Bruce, and me. We did not get any communication from Ed during that time and Dan laid out a six with streamers indicating a back injury.

I remember Hal pointing out a bright green spot in the jump area and stating, "Avoid that. That's brush covering the rocks underneath. Find a good tree. Somehow, I managed to get safely all the way to the ground.

(BJ) According to our old FS pocket notebooks, our first refresher training jump was made out on Tuesday June 2nd. Wayne Linville (RAC-68) and Jim Hawes (RAC-66) had jumped a fire on the Umpqua that same day. Our refresher training was then accelerated due to a lightning storm, increasing the need for rapid initial attack. This was our very purpose as smokejumpers. John Twiss and Pat McCauley were dropped early on the morning followed by Bob Collins and Dave Brown.

The demand to get more jumpers on fires pushed our refresher training jump up to 0600 the morning of June 3. We were then hustled back to the base and rushed into the Ready Room to gear up and re-board 141Z to reinforce the Malt Creek #21 Fire on the notorious Umpqua NF.

Circling the fire revealed no break in the canopy of tall, old growth timber. The objective was to "bag a tree and repel to the ground safely. Ed went out the door first with the radio. Dan Dunnigan followed on the next pass and shortly afterward put out ground streamers indicating a back injury. Hal handed me the medical kit containing ampoules of the synthetic narcotic Demerol to control severe pain. His instructions were concise: "Bag a tree and get an injury assessment on Ed.

While descending I spotted the tree and draped my FS-5A squarely over the top of it. As my momentum and weight settled heavily into the harness, I felt confident I'd be held securely aloft and could perform a long, but routine letdown. Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot above me coincided with my downward lurch as the top broke away and I began to fall through limbs. Grasping at any branch that might check my fall, I got knocked about bouncing down through the gauntlet of branches. After an eternity, I felt a blow in my left arm pit that took my breath away. I clamped down on it as hard as I could. It was a large limb that was one of the lowest on the trunk of that tall Douglas fir. It would have been a long fall into the rocks below if that limb had been missed. Fortunately, all the debris from the broken top got tangled in my canopy and became fouled on other branches above, which prevented it from pulling me off that limb.

(BV) In that era, there were onboard kits that included Demerol that Hal sent down with Bruce. I administered some of that to Ed as he was in a lot of pain.

(BJ) As I was tying off my letdown rope to the limb, Bill ran over and hollered that he needed the medical kit for Ed who was seriously injured and in a lot of pain. I unclipped the medical kit and dropped it down to Bill. He told me to hurry up to assist him with Ed who was laying a short distance away on the rocky hillside. I repelled to the ground and hustled over to join Bill. He was talking calmly to Ed and reassuring him that he would be OK, while at the same time attempting to get Ed to lay still and settle down on the rock-strewn hillside.

The first sight I had of Ed was momentarily shocking due to the nature of the visible injuries he had sustained and the great agony he was in. He was groaning in pain and piteously rolling around on the padded jumpsuit that Bill had placed under him to treat for shock. Here was this very powerful man that we had all considered impervious to hurt or wounds suffering greatly from multiple injuries, his back being the most agonizing. He had broken out of the tall tree he had bagged and went crashing down through the limbs and fell into the rocks. His helmet had been torn off taking the tooth guard with it, and he had a deep laceration of the tongue that made his efforts to speak a guttural jumble. The evident pain of Ed's combined injuries involving his neck, back, ankle and face was agonizing. We were also concerned there may be internal injuries. Bill had already administered one ampoule of Demerol, and we discussed the necessity of another dose. Since it had been ten minutes since the first dose was given, we decided to monitor its benefit at the fifteen-minute mark. If Ed was still in intense pain, Bill would give him another dose. Seeing no relief at the fifteen-minute mark, Bill administered the second dose. Within minutes Ed's agitation and painful vocalizations began to subside. We continued to treat for shock and tried to keep his neck and back supported and immobilized.

Bill stayed in communication with Hal Weinmann with the radio Ed had jumped with. Hal had continued to orbit the scene and directed Bob Collins and Dave Wood to hike over to our location from their sector of the fire to assist. No additional jumps were considered given the dangerous nature of those brittle fir trees. Dan Dunnigan left Bill and me to care for Ed while he connected with Collins and Wood to work the fire.

As we continued efforts to stabilize Ed, the Twin Beech with Hal had to return to base. He was replaced with the 167Z Twin Beech with Tony Percival handling all the air net traffic. Tony was communicating with our base at RAC and with Region 6 HQ in Portland.

No doubt the airwaves were burning up as the top decision makers at RAC and Region 6 were considering all the possible options to further assist Ed and get him evacuated. The location was too remote to attempt hiking in a doctor with additional personnel. Any attempt to stretcher Ed out overland would have been excessively time consuming and have risked further injury in the steep and rugged terrain. The decision was made to cut out a helispot and chopper Ed to a hospital ER.

The challenge of clearing a helispot was complicated not only by the difficult terrain but also by the density of that stand of old growth fir. Nevertheless, Ed's injuries and time demanded that extraordinary effort. It had to be accomplished by us at the site. The most likely helispot was selected on the ridge above where Ed lay injured. As multiple chainsaws lit up, it created a chorus that was punctuated by the thunderous crash of thousands of board feet of timber hitting the ground. It was utterly exhausting work conducted at a demanding pace.

To maintain the rapid tempo of the work, a rotation evolved where highly motivated men pull together in a coordinated team effort. When necessary, those working the saws would rotate down to the fireline or trade off with another sawyer and pull limbs while clearing the helispot. Bill continued to be the primary caregiver and monitor for Ed while I joined the work crew.

Hours passed, sweat poured out of laboring bodies as water poured in. The sun continued unabated on its trajectory, reaching for its summer solstice just a few weeks away, totally unconcerned with our puny human drama unfolding below. But we were very aware of its timeline and were pushed harder as it began its descent toward the West.

Preparations and provisions for Ed's evacuation had also been in progress. A stokes litter was dropped in and staged close to Ed. Bill continued to work the radio and kept the overhead briefed on Ed's condition and progress of work on the helispot.

As the day advanced, a greater sense of urgency engulfed all of us. A USFS Bell 47 chopper was standing by and would enter orbit as soon as it was called for. The circle of timber was sized to accommodate the Bell 47 with some additional diameter to allow for clearance of the rotors.

Finally, the rough work on the helispot was deemed sufficient to get the chopper in and Ed out. Yet that determination had to be balanced against the onrushing sundown and the chest-deep jumble of tree trunks, limbs and stumps that would need to serve as the landing platform for the helicopter.

Bill and I got Ed gently into the Stokes litter. The litter had been padded with the discarded jumpsuit and Ed was fully covered in a blanket. The litter was hoisted high enough to get over the rocks and brush on the climb up to the ridge to the helispot. We took a position on the downhill of the "platform and the Bell 47 was called in. It arrived over the hole in the canopy in a matter of minutes. Yet our concern grew as the navigational lights continued to brighten in the advancing dusk while the pilot jockeyed his craft to and fro while considering his best option for a descent. He climbed back above the ridge and reported that the clearance was not sufficient for his craft at that altitude, and it was too risky to attempt a landing, especially in the failing light. He was apologetic but forced to abort the mission for safety reasons.

All of us were stunned into disbelieving silence as the staccato of his rotors diminished into the distance. Our attention then focused back on Ed who was still noticeably in pain despite the sedation. Of greatest concern was the possibility of internal injuries that would continue to advance through the night now that his evacuation to a medical facility could not be accomplished.

At that moment the air net crackled back to life and a smooth southern drawl came on, "I've been listening to the problem y'all have with your injured buddy. I'm in the area flying a contract Evergreen Hiller 1100 and will give the evac a try if you get me clearance from the bosses. Tony Percival, still orbiting in the Twin Beech replied, "Stand by.

Silence on the radio measured in seconds, but it seemed like hours. Then Tony replied to the Evergreen pilot, "You've got a verbal clearance to attempt the evacuation and are now on contract with us.

We could hear the deeper "wop of the Hiller rotors roaring in from the east. Bill and I were concerned that the hole into our helispot was not large enough for the larger Hiller 1100 but decided the pilot would make that call once he saw what he had to work with. As the Evergreen chopper hovered above our spot, the red and green navigational lights seemed excessively bright in the darkening sky. We held our breath as the pilot performed a slow 180-degree pivot while hovering just above the treetops.

Without further hesitation, the pilot began his descent. He held his craft rock steady with no side to side or fore to aft slip as he carefully lowered into the hole. The combination of prop wash and the ends of his rotors clicking off the tips of limbs showered debris down on us. We covered Ed's head and face and held our position, wondering how this pilot was ever going to land his craft on the shaky platform that had been hastily constructed.

The pilot's distinctive drawl came over the speaker. He calmly directed us to just hold our location until he got stopped in a hover over the platform as he would not try to support his craft on it. Bill noticed that the pilot deftly placed his starboard side runner on a stump and then held his craft perfectly level while telling us that we could now get the Stokes litter with Ed secured to his port side runner. We lifted the litter and scrambled over the mass of limbs and logs to get Ed placed on the runner and lashed down. We hollered to Ed that he was in good hands, that he was headed to the hospital and was going to be OK. We then backed down and away from the runner and gave thumbs up to the pilot. The pilot told us over his outside speaker that he would be taking Ed into the hospital in Roseburg.

Then, with the same confident control he had just demonstrated in his descent, the pilot gently eased that 1100 straight up and out of that tight hole. Once clear of the treetops, he then stood that Hiller on its nose facing downhill and gave it full throttle.

We all stood transfixed by what had just occurred. Not only did an unexpected voice come over the air at just the critical moment providing hope, but that remarkable feat of flying by a courageous and talented pilot converted that slim hope into reality. We were all spent, physically and emotionally. The highest priority had been completed. But the fire still needed tending to. We were smokejumpers and there were no others.

After Ed's evacuation Wood, Dunnigan and Vaughn were released from the fire to return to RAC. Jackson and Collins were left in charge of the fire. We improved the line and worked through the night cooling the snag and hot spots. At daybreak on June 4, we continued to cool the snag, worked some mop up and improved the platform at the helispot. We were released from the fire at 1330 and picked up by a FS helicopter to return to RAC.

(BV) Turns out Ed had cracked a neck vertebra, damaged his back, in addition to his ankle and tongue injuries, along with a few other contusions. Most of us figured he'd be out for at least the summer. Animal Ed had other ideas. He always kept himself in superb condition and had worked through his rehab and joined the light-duty paraloft crew in about six weeks.

(BJ) Once released from the fire, we managed to convince the FS pilot that we were "required to stop at the hospital in Roseburg and get an update on Ed's condition. We landed at the hospital and saw the Evergreen Hiller 1100 parked on their ER pad. As we got out of our chopper, we saw a very tall, lanky guy with a crunched-up, straw cowboy hat exit the ER doors and walk toward us with a big grin on his face. With his charming drawl, he asked, "Are you the idiots who don't mind falling out of trees and busting yourselves up on the rocks while jumping into forest fires? We replied that he must be the idiot Redneck pilot who thought he could get a too-large chopper into too-small hole in a forest, in the dark, to rescue our buddy! We laughed while we embraced him and thanked him for such a heroic work of airmanship. He just "Aw shucked" the compliment by stating that he had plenty of Huey's shot out from under him in Vietnam, so going into a spot where he wasn't drawing fire was "a piece of cake." He then told us that Ed had the benefit of first-rate Doctors working on him. He was going to live, but it would probably be awhile before he would be up and walking around. We thanked him again, shook his hand and, if we got his name, it has been lost in the fifty-two years since it was given to us.

Our FS pilot was getting antsy and had kept his rotors turning, having said he could give us only a few minutes. We jumped back in, and he lifted off quickly, arriving back at RAC on June 4th at 1545 hours. We were back in the Ready Room 15 minutes later and suited up to jump another fire. Jackson, Collins, Dunnigan, Vaughn, Linville, Hawes, Wood, and Twiss departed in the two Twin Beech's for the Deschutes NF where we jumped the Squaw Creek Bench Fire at 1630. We worked that fire vigorously through the night of Friday, June 5. We were then released from the fire at 0630 and shuttled back to RAC arriving at 0755. By 0815 we were placed off duty to clean up, get some sleep, grab a hot meal, and directed to be back on duty at 1300 hours.

It had been an exceptionally full four days for all of us and was a dramatic start for a fire season that would be one of the most active on record. Despite the demanding schedule that summer, we thought often of "Animal Ed and wondered when he would show up barking his good-natured insults.

(BV) I won't forget Ed; he set such an example of fitness and leadership for the rest of us.

(Both Jack and Bill) We recently had the opportunity to interview Ed's wife, Karen Weissenback Moen, to get more details on the aftermath of Ed's injuries and recovery. Karen had been notified on the afternoon of the jump that Ed was seriously injured, and every effort was being made to evacuate him before dark. When told later that Ed had been taken by helicopter to the hospital in Roseburg, Karen scrambled to borrow a car to get there from their home in Ashland. Arriving the next day, she was apprehensive on entering Ed's hospital room after seeing the statue of the Virgin Mary covered in a black veil with her head hung. Ed was heavily sedated with pain medications but broke the tension by chuckling when he saw Karen and managed to tell her to look at his tongue. She was appalled at seeing how mangled and swollen his tongue was with the front half nearly severed, hanging by a mere flap of skin. Karen asked the doctor when they were going to perform surgery to save his tongue and was told that it was unnecessary as the tongue is one of the most rapid healing tissues in the body and would repair the deep laceration within a few weeks. Unfortunately, that was not the case with Ed's spinal injuries that caused him a great deal of pain and mobility impairment. He chose to deal with that by letting his body heal at home through rest, diet, and the use of pain meds.

Karen said that Ed didn't complain at all about his injuries, but he did complain frequently about missing an active fire season that would have allowed him a lot of fire jumps and overtime! Within several weeks Ed was up and had contacted our RAC base manager, Jim Allen (NCSB-46), who gave his OK to return to work in a "light duty capacity in the paraloft.

Of greater concern for Ed was his employment status with Air America. He had been on furlough but was contacted early in July and notified that they wanted him to return to duty in SE Asia as soon as possible. Knowing that he could not pass the physical or perform the work as a "kicker in his current condition, he asked Jim Allen for a letter to Air America explaining that he was deemed an "essential employee" to the overall smokejumping operation at RAC and could not be released from duty during a critical fire season. The letter concluded by stating that Ed could go by September 15. Ed had picked that date out of thin air to be rehabilitated enough to handle the work for Air America. Of course, Jim Allen supported Ed completely and signed off on the letter which was accepted by Air America, thus reserving Ed's position with them.

Ed continued to work partial and some full shifts in the paraloft but would return home completely spent and lay down to relieve his back pain. Yet every day he would push through the pain and work diligently at recovering his mobility and strength. When Air America required a physical exam later in August, Ed chose the doctor in Bend that treated injured smokejumpers at RAC. Karen recalled that Ed gritted his teeth going into the exam and returned to the car afterward hunched over in substantial pain. He told her to drive home very slowly and make sure to avoid any bumps. He had been able to perform the requirements of the physical exam well enough to be approved, but at the expense of several days of suffering.

As Ed had promised in his letter they were packed up by September 15 and headed back to Laos where he would continue his work with Air America. Karen emphasized that the doctors had stressed how critical Ed's physical conditioning and strength were in moderating the severity of his injuries. That, combined with his dedication to the painful rehab at home, allowed him to recover more quickly. She praised the high standard of fitness required by smokejumpers as being instrumental in Ed's recovery.

Please refer to Karen's article "The Homecoming" in the April 2022 edition of Smokejumper. It provides details on Ed's death in December 1971 while working for Air America and the subsequent search and recovery of his remains in Laos many years later.