Change is hard.
A change being made in the U.S. Forest Service smokejumper program is not only hard, but can result in hard landings.
In early 2015 a decision made in Washington, DC started the agency on a transition from the round parachute canopy they had used for 75 years to a ram-air or “square” canopy.
The round canopy has been improved over the last three-quarters of a century evolving into the current FS-14 version. There have been no fatalities directly related to that canopy.
The ram-air is a high-performance flying wing. The two canopies have been described as comparing a race car with a minivan. The race car can do astounding things at high speed, while the minivan cruises at comfortable speeds. Driving a race car requires a great deal of training and experience, much more than a minivan. A crash in a race car will probably result in injuries more severe than a fender bender in the van.
One of the reasons for transitioning to the ram-air is the assertion that the pilot can land in stronger winds. Former smokejumper Chuck Sheley, in a February, 2016 article for Smokejumper Magazine, wrote about this ability:
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?
Mr. Sheley also wrote:
The ram air canopy has a 20-25 mph forward speed vs 9 mph for the FS-14 round canopy.
Malfunctions of the round canopy are extremely rare. Someone with knowledge of operations at the Missoula smokejumper base told us that jumpers at the base have not had a malfunction in about 30 years.
Since 1991 there have been three ram-air fatalities:
- Billy Martin, May 31, 1991. That ended the first attempt by the FS to transition to the ram-air.
- David Liston, April 29, 2000.
- Mark Urban, September 27, 2013.
On May 1, 2017 there was a ram-air malfunction out of the Missoula jump base, and a couple of weeks earlier there was one at Boise.
Before Tom Harbour, the Forest Service National Fire Director, retired in January, 2016 he led the decision to transition to the square chute. In the video below during the December, 2015 exit interview we conducted with him he discusses the decision beginning at 9:00.
Mr. Harbour was an advocate for inserting a Type 3 Incident Management Team, comprised of jumpers, into a fire in a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) area. This new mission for jumpers, if ever implemented, might be ammunition for smokejumper diehards against the suggestions that helicopter-borne firefighters could be the modern evolution of airborne fire personnel.
The “two-manner in the Bob” he refers to, we believe, is two smokejumpers suppressing a small fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana.
Last month we asked Mr. Harbour’s replacement, Shawna Legarza, about the round versus the square canopy:
From the best that I know, Bill, you know Tom Harbour implemented that — would have done it in June I believe of ’15 and from what I understand and I’ve talked to a lot of smokejumpers about it, it sounds like the round chute that we’ve had in the Forest Service for so long was almost a legacy chute where this new square chute evidently has more adaptability than we could progress with the round chute.
And we all know that square chutes were originally with the BLM. The land in Nevada is flat and low, not hills and terrain like in the forest. And we all know that the round chute was going like straight down into the trees or whatever and so it sounds like the new chute has more adaptability between the different types of land and topography I guess we’re going to be jumping into.
So it goes back and forth some of the folks here are excited about doing that and the others are not so much, right? And so I’ve given my leader’s intent to the jump base when I saw them last year that we don’t have to rush through this.
I want people to take their time implementing it and do it right and do it safe and and to work through it because it’s a pretty significant change as you know.
There have been unconfirmed reports that some jumpers have left the program rather than transition to the ram-air. Any smokejumper who does not want to transition to the ram-air has 10-years from the start of the transition that officially began in 2016 before they will be moved into other positions for which they qualify.
Our source told us that the typical number of rookies in the annual combined Missoula, Grangeville, and West Yellowstone class is less than 10. This year there are 27. After checking with the smokejumper program, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the FS, told us that the class usually has 12 to 16 rookies.
She said the agency’s primary reasons for transitioning to a different canopy are:
- Enhance the smokejumper program’s operational effectiveness by increasing the capability to staff wildfires during more severe environmental conditions (higher winds) when they are most vulnerable to escape, reducing the risk that they will become large, costly, and dangerous to other firefighters and the public.
- To accomplish this without increasing, and with the goal of reducing, the likelihood of serious and minor injuries attributed to parachute landings.