Smoke Jumping Q & A with Brian Lovett
Smokejumping: It’s an occupation that can turn deadly in seconds. A job reserved for those at pique fitness, both mentally and physically. Smokejumpers are elite forces, not unlike military special forces, trained to control and extinguish one of the biggest threats to lives, property and natural resources: forest fires.
Eighty years after the first fire jump in Nez Perce National forest, there are roughly 320 smokejumpers working from seven bases throughout the U.S. These bases are in McCall and Grangeville, Idaho; Redding, California; West Yellowstone and Missoula, Montana; Winthrop, Washington; and Redmond, Oregon. The Bureau of Land Management also has smokejumpers at bases in Boise, Idaho and Fairbanks, Alaska.1
To learn more about the men and women who risk their lives to fight these fires, I sit down with veteran smokejumper, Brian Lovett, who speaks to me about his training, some of his most exciting jumps, and what it is like to parachute into Grizzly bear country.
Q: When were you smokejumping? (years)
A: I jumped from 1977-83.
Q: What made you want to start smoke jumping?
A: I got out of the Green Beret, where I did jump school in the Army. I went to college. For a summer job, I was on a hot shot crew in Arizona. For me, the pinnacle was smoke jumping. I was able to get on the smoke jumping team with help from my veteran status.
Q: Where were you trained? What was the training process like back then?
A: I was trained in Missoula, Montana with a class of about fifteen people. The training took around five weeks. At the end of training, only seven people remained.
For training, the first thing you do is a PT test– physical training. You had to do seven pull-ups. There were people who couldn’t do that. Sit-ups, push-ups. You had to run three miles in twenty-one minutes. So not particularly fast, but it’s endurance.
After that, you learn to jump. You jump out tight. Your arms are in around your reserve parachute, (on your chest) and you’re on a static line– a static line will deploy the parachute on its own. It’s hooked to the airplane and when you go out it pulls the parachute open. That’s on a round parachute. On a square parachute, you have to pull it open yourself, but that’s more advanced.
You jump out and count four one-thousands. At four, you look up to make sure your parachute is open. Before that, you are rolled up tight. If your parachute isn’t open at four, you are screwed. There is a song: Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door/ Jump out and count to four/ If your ‘chute don’t open wide/ You’ve got another by your side/ If that ‘chute don’t open wide/ You’ll be part of the countryside.
If you have a malfunction, like a line-over or if the ‘chute was packed improperly, you cut your main ‘chute away because you don’t want it to tangle with your reserve ‘chute. Then you pull your reserve.
You spend weeks learning PLF– Parachute Landing Fall. When you hit the ground, you have to hit with your feet together, knees bent, elbows in. Then you have to roll to dissipate the energy of landing. You’re rolling so that no part of your body is taking the full force.
You learn how to exit an airplane on a thirty-four foot tower. It’s got a steel cable. You slide down. This exercise had the added benefit of testing people’s ability to overcome their fear of heights.
The last thing you do for training is a “Pack out.” You have to carry an Elephant Bag- a big heavy backpack that weighs one-hundred-and-thirty pounds. I had to hike up Sawtooth Mountain. Six miles up. Six miles down. If you can imagine, one-hundred-and-thirty pounds is the weight of another person. This was the last test. You had to be tall enough and strong enough to pick up your partner and carry them out. That’s what we proved on Sawtooth Mountain.
Q: What were your favorite planes to jump out of?
Oh, DC-3s, Twin Otters, Skyvans, Volpars: (an older plane that they put turbo props on) and King Airs. All the planes were twin engines. World War II bombers were used to do cargo drops.
We had to have really good pilots. We got hazard-duty pay for being in the jump plane when they did cargo drops. Because they flew at such low altitudes, it was considered very dangerous. So we had high performance planes that had to be able to go into a canyon and pull back up. Our pilots flew in dangerous weather conditions. Our pilots were very good at flying in very bad conditions, including thunder and lightning storms. We depended on the pilots for our lives.
Q: Can you describe an exciting jump?
A: Well, I jumped on an airplane crash where we had to try and rescue six people. I jumped McNeil Falls. There were lots of grizzlies fishing for salmon. I jumped Kodiak Island. They had to drop us with shotguns ‘cause of all the grizzlies. That was exciting.
Q: How did the type of plane affect your jump?
A: The Twin Otter was our favorite because it had a very low stall speed, so we could exit the airplane into relatively lower wind, but it was still pretty heavy. I think the stall was 65 mph. Makes for a cleaner, more pleasant exit from the plane. Where other planes would be 113 mph and up, in a King Air, for instance.
We used to say you could exit the DC3 like a gentleman. It had a big door and a slow stall speed and it was big inside. Everything about it was cool.
They teach you to jump up and out. But in the Sky Van, which I jumped out of in Missoula, you go out the back of the airplane, and if you jump up, you hit your head at the top of the airplane, [the rear hatch opens up similar to the back of a minivan, so if you jump up too soon, you’re likely to hit the top of your head] then you hit the slipstream and you get wacked all over the place. For that one, with the exit out of the back, you don’t jump up. Different planes, different procedures.
We like jumping in Alaska because it was a soft landing. In Idaho and Oregon, it was more problematic because the trees were so tall you’d get stuck in the branches. If your ‘chute got caught in a tree, you might be dangling up 100 feet in the air. So we would carry a let-down rope in our jump gear, because we’d have to rappel out of the tree. In Oregon, some of the trees are 200 feet tall, not like you can climb out of them.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to become a smokejumper?
A: Well, if you are a veteran that has previous jump experience that helps big time. You get extra points on your civil service entrance. You’ve got to be in good shape. You should start out on a hotshot crew. Young guys, twenty-man crew. They work the hardest out of anyone fighting fire. The young guys were often worked to death. I once worked 78-hours straight on my hotshot crew because they forgot we were on the fire. So you’ve got to be young and in good shape.
That’s where almost every smoke jumper comes out of. They won’t take anyone in a smoke jumper unit that hasn’t fought fire before. We called it the highest calling of mankind. It’s the best job there is. Every morning you woke up you were excited to go to work.
- “Smokejumpers.” Smokejumpers | US Forest Service, www.fs.usda.gov/science-technology/fire/people/smokejumpers.