The amazing few
by Christine Anne Berger
There are few airplanes or pilots that can fly over dangerous war-torn areas to deliver precious medical supplies, only a few that transport doctors to flood zones unreachable by ground transportation, only a few that land on the side of a mountain in Nepal or pick up desperate chimpanzees in the Congo, and there are only a few that drop smokejumpers equipped with firefighting gear into the dangerous sweltering zones of America’s northwestern forest fires.
Forest fires in northwestern America are a frequent danger during the hot and dry summer months. When the evening cools and the lightning starts, there is a good chance the fire alarm will sound. It costs billions of dollars each year to contain and put out the fires and to restore what the ravenous flames turn to ashes. Much has been written about the courageous smokejumpers who parachute from jump planes as wildfire first responders. LoveDornier 228 now takes us closer to the scene and looks at the lesser known person who sits in the pilot seat of the smokejumper aircraft. This person is responsible for the lives of the eleven people on board who are desperately needed to help fight these blazing forest fires.
Who’s on board?
On a Dornier 228 smokejumper aircraft you will find one pilot, one to two spotters and eight jumpers fully loaded with gear weighing about 100lbs (45.4kg) per person. The pilot and spotter both sit in the cockpit. Behind the eight smokejumpers are crates of supplies and equipment ready to be dropped. These supplies are essential to keeping the jumpers equipped and alive in one of the world’s most hazardous environments – a wild forest fire.
Getting jumpers safely on ground is the first challenge of the mission – one which a smokejumper pilot trains over and over to get right, because there is no room for error. Dropping vital equipment and supplies in the tightest and most dangerous of zones is the second. The forest fires are often in the mountains, with trees over 200 feet tall; or in canyons, with caribou moss acting as just one of the fire fuels, and violent gusts of wind changing speed and direction. Flying a group of people into such a hazardous environment requires more than a type rating; it demands pilots of an extremely high caliber.
How to forge such a caliber is the question
Beside their basic requirement training and type ratings, smokejumper pilots must be willing to commit to almost 18 hours of smokejumping training in addition to their regular pilot training; then come another 10 to 15 hours of live practice with smokejumpers; and finally they must be approved by the United States Forest Service. Bighorn Airways chief pilot Dennis Keesling observes that “it takes about half a fire season to get the hang of this particular work.” Fire season in northwestern America lasts from late spring until early winter, with the height of the season coming during the dry months of the summer. “For myself, even after three seasons I still learn something new on every mission. And although this job is full of danger,” Dennis continues with a smile, “I would have done it a long time ago if I had known the industry existed!”
Air attack traffic
A Fire Boss plane dumps water to aid a ground crew fighting Fire 320 in the Brooks Range. (Photo: Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Alongside the pilots, spotters are also trained to handle “air attack” traffic. The role of spotters is incredibly important to the smokejumper pilot’s situational awareness in evaluating the fire status and locating a suitable drop zone (DZ). The spotter also directs the mission and communicates with the air attack plane. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, an “air attack” describes how the aircraft above a forest fire are organized. And according to Sierra News Online, “the designated air attack plane is the one orchestrating how the other aircraft involved are doing their jobs. They are also advising the ground resources about how the fire looks from the air, any spot fires that may spark, the size and direction, and any other information helpful to the suppression efforts.” Air attack commanders must be cool, calm and collected.
The elite few
“When it comes to fighting forest fires, smokejumpers are the elite. When we are on a forest fire site and we see these guys literally dropping in from the sky, we know the cream of the crop is about to arrive,” remembers a retired head of the Indiana Department of Forestry. Often smokejumpers are the first ones on the scene, dropped into areas unreachable by land or water transportation. After a day of firefighting, the smokejumpers will set up camp near the fire, staying put for days and weeks, and waking up each morning with the same mission: attack the fire, suppress the fire.
Fires can last for weeks and even months, and when the jumpers’ shift or job is done they often have to hike for miles until they can rendezvous with a boat, truck, helicopter or plane. They only buy one-way airplane tickets. In some respects, their life is a bit like that of a regular fire fighter, yet they are trained in paradropping and their fire truck is a Dornier 228. When a station alarm siren sounds, the smokejumpers are ready in less than two minutes and the pilot has them in the air within 15 minutes. Getting airborne takes teamwork. While the pilot is performing preflight checks and doing the mandatory walk around, the spotters get the jump coordinates and the jumpers perform their pin checks (last equipment checks) before they finally climb on board.
Incident commander Ty Humphrey communicates with a pilot who has dropped a pallet of cargo near a fire. Crew members free the chute from the tree where the load landed. (Photo: Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Getting on site fast is important
Fires can quickly blaze out of control, and the sooner the suppression starts the sooner the fire ends and the less destruction it wreaks. “The Dornier 228 excels as a smokejumper platform because it has the perfect combination of short-field capabilities, speed, range, and the ability to loiter for long periods on fire recon missions,” says Mike Vennie, Senior Director for Technical Operations at Bighorn Airways. Sometimes when they reach the GPS coordinates the fire is easy to spot. Sometimes, however, “there are just faint wisps of smoke,” explains Bighorn’s Dennis Keesling. “Once spotted, we circle the fire, flying low to look for the right jump spot. The spotters release different colored crepe-paper streamers to check the wind direction and then we decide on a jump spot.” The wind direction is important for the smokejumpers, who need to use the wind to land in the right spot. If the wind changes, the jumper could be dropped into danger, land in a tree or far worse.
Only two at a time please!
Today the jumpers use special army-issue ram-air parachutes that are approximately square in shape. These models are more robust when the jumpers leap from 3,000 feet above ground. The drop zone is limited to one square mile. Once the jump zone is located, the spotter yells for everyone to line up. All the jumpers in their bulging, heavily-padded jumpsuits with shin guards and thick kneepads put on their cage-like mask jump helmets, which protect their faces during a descent through branches, and then start to hook up. In case of a treetop landing, each crew member has a 150-foot rope, a rappel device and energy bars in one pocket, and a solar panel and a raincoat in the other (hopefully reachable) one. Inside their gear pack, a jumper will have survival equipment such as water, an aluminum last-resort fire shelter sack, knife, compass, radio, gloves, hard hat and some flares for lighting backfires.
As the firefighters line up to jump, they know the routine. The first jumper down must radio back and approve the drop zone before anyone else can jump. “It has happened that the first jumper calls back exclaiming – jump zone no good! and then we have to look for another zone,” remembers Dennis. The first jumper must then hike it all alone to the new jump spot or to a rendezvous point. Only two jumpers parachute per pass, making at least four passes over the jump spot required. After touchdown, each jumper pulls a stuff sack out of his gigantic rear pouch for collecting his chute. The huge padded pouch is also stuffed with a tent.
The next steps
Once all jumpers report back that they are safe on ground, the Dornier 228 pilot descends further. The supply and equipment loads are dropped from a mere 200 feet above ground. Dennis explains: “The winds can change because of the height difference. Again, a spotter deploys crepe-paper streamers to determine the wind direction.” With the terrain in northwestern America often being mountainous and cavernous, drop zones at 200 feet can be quite a challenge. Moreover, Dennis knows the team below is depending on a good drop. Sometimes there are a good few more air attack aircraft flying around, especially on “mega fires”. There are also helicopters at low levels collecting water, water bombers at higher levels and maybe other smokejumpers. Chief pilot Dennis relies on his spotters to help keep situational awareness with all the commotion going on in the air.
A smokejumper carries paracargo to set up camp. (Photo: Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
The drop spot
The drop spot for the cargo is normally about 50 to 100 feet in diameter. “That’s why we require pilots with the highest of skills, who make the right decisions,” explains Dennis. When the time is right for spotters to release the cargo, Dennis yells “Kick!” and then everything has to go out the door fast because “if the timing is off on the call or the guys delay in the back, the spot is missed!” One thing that Dennis loves to hear is “Bullseye!” because he knows then that the cargo hit directly where the jumpers needed and “that makes me feel good.” Once the pilot’s mission is completed it is back to the airbase, where the next cargo drop is being prepared for delivery. Dennis is concerned for each of the jumpers he watched descending into the firefighting zone and he patiently waits to hear that each one came home safe and sound.
Bighorn Airways has a long history
Bighorn Airways was founded in 1947, primarily as an agricultural spraying (crop dusting) company, providing aerial application to control pests and weeds for area ranches. Since then they have diversified and grown a great deal, and since 1989 they have been flying smokejumpers. “2019 is our 20th season using the Dornier 228 in smokejumper operations,” says Senior Director Mike Vennie with pride. In mid-July, as the Alaska fire season begins to wind down, the Dornier based at Ft. Wainwright usually moves south to Boise, ID and then is reassigned to hot spots in the northwest Rocky Mountain area for the balance of the season. Although the aircraft have an assigned base, they are moved throughout the season to where they are needed most. When there are only a select few who can fly the few aircraft that can perform such dangerous missions, the entire northwest of America has to share their amazing talents, experience and passion.
Bighorn Airways has also added some special attributes to its smokejumping Dornier 228. It has a TPE331-10T engine upgrade for improved hot and high performance; a horizontal static line rail installed on the cabin ceiling for the parajumpers; additional rear audio stations for jump communications between pilot, spotter and jumpers; a vertical post static line to aid jumpers; a roller door with a jump handrail and special jump step; and a reinforced floor to avoid abrasion and damage during paracargo operations. (Photo: Bighorn Airways)