The U.S. Forest Service has officially decided to ditch the round parachutes they have been using and move to the “square”, or ram-air design. The Bureau of Land Management smokejumpers have been using the ram-airs for quite some time, and the FS began testing them in a pilot program in their Region 1 in 2008 (map).
The FS has been jumping with round parachutes since 1939. The agency’s aviation program, upon latching on to a technology or policy, is not prone to changing directions on a whim.
On July 1, 2015, Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation Management, initialed a decision paper written by Arthur W. Hinaman, the Assistant Director for Aviation, officially approving the transition to ram-air parachutes (assuming that initials, rather than a signature, makes it official).
Some of the primary arguments in Mr. Hinaman’s document were that the ram-airs are more maneuverable, have a slower vertical landing speed, and result in fewer accidents to smokejumpers. The document included these accident stats:
Analysis of information from 2001 through 2014 in MTDC’s [Missoula Technology Development Center] parachute landing data base shows the overall likelihood of injury on any given jump is 0.33% using round parachutes and 0.21% using ram-air parachutes. The overall minor injury rate is 0.22% using round parachutes and 0.15% using ram-air parachutes. The overall serious injury rate is 0.10% for round parachutes compared to 0.06% for ram-air parachutes.
The FS will support both the round and ram-air chutes during the transition, but smokejumpers who are not successful in the move to the new equipment will be “given appropriate employment assistance within the agency”, according to the decision memo.