Forest Service to transition to ram-air parachutes

smokejumpers bear lake fire montana
A smokejumper from West Yellowstone, Montana jumps the Bear Lake Fire, August 24, 2014, using a ram-air parachute. The fire was on the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest in Montana. This image was taken from a video shot by a camera attached to the wingtip. Most of the jumpers at West Yellowstone are using the ram-air today. Photo credit: West Yellowstone smokejumpers.

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.

hastings fire alaska smokejumpers
BLM smokejumpers attack the Hastings Fire in Alaska, May 31, 2011. Photo by Mike McMillan, Alaska Fire Service.
bighorn fire smokejumpers
Smokejumpers attack the Pack Fire, July 25, 2014, on the Bighorn National Forest, northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming. This is a still image from a video taken with a camera mounted on the front step on the aircraft. USFS photo.

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9 thoughts on “Forest Service to transition to ram-air parachutes”

  1. When I went through flight school my instructor told me – 2 things fall out of the sky – birds**t and idiots. No sane person would depart a perfectly good aircraft! So do you what to fly or jump?

    Seriously – These people deserve more kodu’s then they are given. To start their doing a job very few people would or could do. They put their lives on the line every time they jump on a fire. Though I’m sure they think some of it’s fun, it has to be extremely stressful and demanding under the working conditions. Good on you guys – gals, totally respect what you do!

  2. Very sad to see this decision. Injury rates are higher, more severe and the square chute reintroduces the high speed malfunction. The square system requires a bigger jump spot often farther from the fire thus increasing the time to reach the fire. The new stated mission of using smokejumpers as instant Type 3 teams for emerging fires in the urban interface is great but what about the remote access fires that are the foundation of the program. Who will IA these fires?

    1. Hit the nail on the head. Innovation for the sake of innovation…best tool for the job be damned.

    2. Scott, you asked ‘but what about the remote access fires that are the foundation of the program. Who will IA these fires?’ You’re not saying those fires won’t be IA’d at all with ram-airs, are you? You wrote, The square system requires a bigger jump spot often farther from the fire thus increasing the time to reach the fire.’ So isn’t the worst-case scenario that the jump spot might be a little further away but the fires will still be IA’d?

      1. If it takes two hours to hike from the jump spot to the fire any so called advantage of being able to jump in a higher wind is lost. One jump base is acutely aware of this and has refused to transition. I met the parents of the jumper that received neck injuries two years ago. He will require another surgery in the hope of repairing nerve damage and and regain the use of his arm. Heard about the broken femur, the shoulder/rib injuries when the second jumper “speared” his JP on the ground and two rookies injured and dropped from the program during rookie training. All this from a system that costs 3 to 4 times more per person and requires much more training/proficiency jumps.

        Heli-rappellers will gladly take over all the jump country they can (and jumpers can’t)

  3. While I support the transition in general, there have been 3 Ram Air LODD’s since 1991. The last LODD on the round canopy was in 1970.

    On the Ram Air system, a jumper injured in 2014 and one in 2015 received critical injuries and in all likelihood neither will return to Smokejumping.

  4. Quoting Scott, “and two rookies injured and dropped from the program during rookie training.”

    Very interesting, Scott. It was spun to me as “dropped for failure to maintain standards.”

  5. Scott, maybe we should stop comparing different resources as competing. A change in culture would be nice, maybe we could think of our resources as complimenting. I often wonder why people don’t realize that it is all dangerous, not just jumping. People get hurt, snags fall, vehicles roll, metal falls from the sky. It’s all risky. We should all work hard for our users, and we all do. I feel that it is a bit short sighted to not order a resource because of the shape of a parachute. I appreciate your comments but they are for the most part inaccurate.

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