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.

Automatic steerable parachute used for the first time on a wildfire

For the first time, an automatic steerable parachute has been used to deliver cargo on a wildfire. Below is a description from the Bear Lake Fire in Montana:

The Bear Lake Fire was honored to be the first wildfire incident to use the microflight technology from the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center. The auto guided microflight technology is part of the Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System (JPADS) and was developed by the military 5 years ago. This new technology allows for cargo drops from altitudes of 5,000 ft above the drop zone (the altitude for a standard cargo drop is approx. 250 ft above the drop zone). The parachute is guided by a GPS unit that adjusts for winds, turning the cargo as needed and dropping it within 50-100 meters of the drop site.

Wikipedia provides more details about the system:


US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) was the primary developer for JPADS, which meets several requirements: increased ground accuracy, standoff delivery, increased air carrier survivability, and improved effectiveness/assessment feedback regarding airdrop mission operations. The United States Army and Air Force began jointly developing this system in 1993. The Air Force made its first operational/combat use of the system in Afghanistan in 2006.

The steerable parachute or parafoil is called a “decelerator,” and gives the JPADS system directional control throughout its descent by means of decelerator steering lines attached to the Airborne Guidance Unit (AGU). They create drag on either side of the decelerator, which turns the parachute, thus achieving directional control.

The Airborne Guidance Unit (AGU) contains a GPS, a battery pack, and the guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) software package. It also houses the hardware required to operate the steering lines. The AGU obtains its position prior to exiting the aircraft, and continues to calculate its position via the GPS throughout descent.

The Mission Planner software gives the aircrew the ability to plan the mission, in flight if necessary, as well as steer the aircraft to its Computed Air Release Point (CARP), where the load is released.”


The Bear Lake Fire has burned about 6,400 acres 12 miles southeast of Wisdom, Montana. The Incident Commander is calling it 75 percent contained.