First Parachute Years

During the early days of aerial fire patrols some Forest Service officials began thinking about dropping fire fighters by parachutes to fires, but the idea was discarded as being too dangerous and impractical. However, T. V. Pearson, with the Intermountain Region of the Forest Service (Region 4) out of Ogden, Utah in 1934 actually initiated the first experiment in the use of parachutes to drop men on fires. A professional parachutist, J. B. Bruce, made a few demonstration jumps, but the idea was abandoned as being too risky. During this period of barnstorming in the nation many deemed parachutists to be daredevils, crackpots, or crazy, and so the thought of having men jump to fires had little chance of gaining recognition.

The Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project was set up in the Washington D.C. U.S. Forest Service office in December, 1935. The immediate plan was to continue experiments in the use of water and chemical bombs that Howard Flint had started in Region 1 several years before his death. All flying in the western regions for the Forest Service, until 1938, had been done by U.S. Army planes. During that year the Forest Service purchased its first aircraft, a five-place, high-wing Stinson Reliant. Bombing experiments on fires continued in Region 5 of California. From 1936-1939 much was learned about dropping cargo, and different types of equipment were used under widely varying conditions. However, Forest Service officials came to realize that trying to suppress fires with water and chemicals dropped from aircraft was impractical with the types of equipment available at that time.

The Aerial Experimental Project was moved from California to the North Pacific Region (Region 6) area during the summer of 1939. It was at this time that the decision was made to discontinue bombing tests, and at the recommendation of David P. Godwin, Assistant Chief of Fire Control in Washington, D.C., the unexpended balance of experimental funds was authorized for carrying on parachute jumping experiments. The Forest Service prepared a contract, which provided for parachutes, protective clothing, and the services of professional riggers and parachutists. The successful bidder was the Eagle Parachute Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Experiments were conducted in the Winthrop, Washington area on the Chelan National Forest (now the Okanogan) during October 5th through November 15th. Beach Gill of the Eagle Company, under appointment by the Secretary of Agriculture, served as consultant and collaborator. The Eagle Parachute Company sent Frank, Chet and Virgil (Buss) Derry to Winthrop. Frank was in charge of the experimental phase of the tests and was the West Coast representative for the Eagle firm. He also had his own business, the Derry Parachute Company, which at the time had an Englewood, California address in the Los Angeles area. Glenn (Smitty) Smith came with Frank Derry--he was employed by his firm in California. Smitty was a colorful barnstormer and had made many free falls, as had the Derry brothers. Captain Harold C. King served as engineer-pilot and flew the Forest Service's high-wing, five-place Stinson Reliant. Two local individuals from the Winthrop area, Dick Tuttle and Alan Honey, were placed under contract by the Eagle company to make experimental jumps--their first. Before the parachuting was concluded that autumn, five Forest Service personnel from the Chelan National Forest also made jumps for the first time. They were: Francis Lufkin, a fire guard; Harry Tuttle, a CCC telephone line foreman and father of Dick Tuttle; Walt Anderson, Chelan National Forest Chief of Fire Control; Roy Mitchell, Chelan Assistant Forest Supervisor; and Albert Davies, Region 6 Assistant Chief for Fire Control.

Before live jumps were made, dummy drops with 150 pound loads, were made into timbered areas to determine what problems the jumpers might encounter. Then, approximately 60 jumps were made by the assigned Eagle company personnel. Toward the end of the experiments the Forest Service men were allowed to jump into both open and timbered areas. There were no serious injuries.

Much time and energy was spent on developing equipment and parachutes. There were a number of frustrating, agonizing situations that had to be worked out. In the end, the training outfit that was selected consisted of a 30-foot Eagle backpack chute and a 27-foot emergency chestpack chute, with quick-attachable harness. A two-piece felt-padded suit, with a pocket on one trouser leg to hold a rope for letdowns from trees and obstacles, a football helmet with a wire mesh face mask, athletic supporter, ankle braces, a wide leather and elastic belt to protect against back and abdominal injuries, and heavy logger boots completed the jumper outfit and provided protection for the hazards of jumping into timber. It was concluded that Smokejumpers--the name was first suggested by Walt Anderson--could safely land in all types of green timber typical of the Chelan National Forest at altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 feet. Experimental jumps had also been made into mountain meadows, open ridgetops and on steep, boulder-strewn slopes. The stage was set for the first operational use of smokejumpers in Regions 1 and 6 during 1940.