Early Missoula Years

There was a recruitment of new smokejumpers and there wasn't any shortage of applicants--nearly 100 who did not have fire-fighting experience applied. There were 16 applications from experienced fire fighters. The salary was $193.00 per month for two and one-half months. Seven were selected from the 16 on the basis of experience, without considering their physical condition. One later failed the physical examination. The six were: Jim Alexander, from what was then known as the Cabinet N.F.; Jim Waite--Clearwater N.F.; Rufus Robinson--Nez Perce N.F.; Earl Cooley--Bitterroot N.F.; Bill Bolen--Kootenai N.F.; and Dick Lynch from the Flathead N.F. A licensed parachute rigger and jumper, Chet Derry, who had been involved in the experimental jumps in 1939, was trained in fire suppression work and joined the squad, which now had a total of seven members. Merle Lundrigan was selected as project leader.

The training site selected was at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station and surrounding areas, located about 35 miles northeast of Missoula, Montana. It was considered to be the ideal site since it was isolated from spectators' interference and aircraft traffic, and had sufficient variations in topography and timber cover to provide for conditions that would be found when parachuting to actual fires. There was a level open area approximately one mile square for first jumps at Blanchard Flats and there weren't any snags, dead-topped trees, rivers or lakes at that location. A Johnson Flying Service single-engine Travel Air--NC 450N--was used for the training jumps and it was flown from Missoula to the Seeley Lake area each day.

The first Region 1 "parachute loft" was made from two 14 by 16-foot tents, placed end to end on tent platforms. Frank Derry hung a parachute in a tree and told members of the squad what its various parts were--apex, risers, secondary lines and guide lines. The next day they were to make the first jumps--and for most, the first plane rides--in their lives. The men drew straws to see who would make the first jump the next morning at Blanchard Flats. Jim Waite drew the lucky number one position. That night around the camp fire there were tall tales about parachuting accidents, and then Frank Derry received a telegram from his parachute company in California, telling of the death of one of his cargo droppers who had fallen from a plane without a chute.

The next morning the sky was clear and the Travel Air arrived at Blanchard Flats at 5:00 a.m. Jim Waite made an excellent jump. He was followed by Bill Bolen who jumped from the plane correctly, but had trouble pulling his ripcord and tumbled end-over-end for about 500 feet before getting his parachute open. He suffered a tremendous opening shock from the Eagle chute. Jim Alexander and Earl Cooley were in the second load. As Alexander exited the Travel Air he should have had one hand on the ripcord, but missed. When he did manage to grasp and pull the ripcord, an arm become entangled in the lines, and he suffered a severe sprain and was not able to jump again for several weeks. Earl Cooley was next and climbed out on the step below the door opening, and when Frank Derry said "Go!" he crow-hopped out, and made a superb jump and landing.

Jim Waite and Earl Cooley were the only ones of the group to complete all ten training jumps. There were a few injuries. Dick Lynch pulled up his feet, skidded, and landed on his tailbone during one jump. Bill Bolen was dragged by his chute in a strong wind and was badly bruised and scratched.

Dave Godwin, Assistant Chief of Fire Control in Washington, D.C., and the man most instrumental in the initial development of the smokejumping concept, stayed throughout the entire training program--he was later killed in an airplane crash in West Virginia on June 12, 1947. An interesting sidelight, and one that would later have far-reaching effects, was the visit by four U.S. Army staff officers to the training site in June. Major William Carey Lee of the U.S. Army, known as the "father of the airborne troops" and who served as the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division in Europe during part of WW II, was one of those on hand. He later incorporated Forest Service smokejumper techniques within the airborne school when it was established prior to WW II at Fort Benning, Georgia--it still exists there today.

Training in the Seeley Lake area commenced June 22 and ended July 3 of 1940. The men were considered well-trained and ready for action as fire-fighting smokejumpers, and the same held true for the jumpers at Region 6. The first actual fire jumps in the history of smokejumping were made by Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley at Marten Creek in the Nez Perce Forest of Region 1 on July 12, 1940. The first jumps in Region 6 took place that year on August 10 when Glenn Smith and Francis Lufkin parachuted to a blaze at Bridge Creek in the Chelan Forest of Washington.