Tales from the O-NO Ranch: Smoke jumpers
April 14, 2006
by “Mad” Jack Hanks
Gentle readers, it’s been so dry here the last few years that it’s not uncommon for me to look out the front door to the west and see the smoke from a wildfire in the foothills a scant 10 miles away or a forest fire up in the mountains another eight or 10 miles further.
That was the case last week when the wind was ragin’ like a woman who forgot where she parked her car at the mall and it was purt near supper time.
I could faintly smell smoke and my ole dog was whining to come in the house, so I opened the front door and there was a huge fire in the foothills. I got the glasses and looked for any aircraft that might be dropping slurry or better yet, smoke jumpers. I saw neither.
Having done some jumping durin’ my younger and lack of knowledge days, I have a great deal of respect for the folks, both men and women, that leap out of a perfectly good aircraft with the burden of equipment strapped to their back into the abyss of the unknown. It’s not like they are going to land on a golf course sand trap or a smooth carefully prepared surface. No ma’am, they could land in a tree, a pile of rocks, the ledge of a cliff, a fast runnin’ stream or a decent piece of ground. It’s a crap shoot.
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The scary part of it for me is the fact that they are jumping from several hundred feet instead of several thousand feet of altitude. You say, that’s better, ain’t it?
Let me tell ya children, when you jump out of that plane at several hundred feet you have but ONE chance for that parachute to open. If it malfunctions, you might have just time enough to give yer soul to God before you splatter yourself all over the countryside.
When I was jumping as most sport jumpers do, you’d start out at about 2,500 feet with two parachutes on. The one on your back opens (you hope) when you hit the end of a static line tied on your chute and attached to the inside of the aircraft. If that one doesn’t work ” and you don’t panic ” you have a chute on your stomach that you have to pull the rip cord and then, by hand, pull out the small chute and feed it to the wind. That’s not easy to do when you are tumblin’, flippin’ and floppin’ around in the air.
I gradually worked my way up to jumpin’ from altitudes of around 9,000 feet, but you still didn’t pull your rip cord until you were between 2,500 and 2,000 feet.
I don’t think that smoke jumpers even have a reserve parachute as they wouldn’t have time to employ it before that hit the terra firma. There have been a good many causalities among this elite firefighting force in the last few years. They, however, were killed on the ground fighting the fire and not as a result from jumping. Does it matter? Dead is dead, ain’t it?
Trust me when I tell you that these folks are brave hearts that do a tremendous service for all of mankind and all the wildlife that occupies the area in question. Think about it. You are standing in the door of an airplane flying 60 to 80 miles an hour and you are lookin’ down into the rocks, boulders, and tree tops passing swiftly underneath you and you have 80 pounds of equipment on your person and you are 700 feet above the ground and you feel a slap on the shoulder. That slap means JUMP, and there is no hesitation. You are out the door into the fire and smoke and endless obstacles on the ground and there is no return. You can’t just change your mind and fly back into the safety of the aircraft and say, “Sorry guys, I’ve changed my mind, I think I’ll go back to the base and have another donut and cup of coffee.”
Could you do it? I promise ya, I couldn’t? Next time you read or hear about a bunch of young folks jumpin’ into hell to save our forests and all those that live there, take a moment and pause to consider exactly what it is that they have done.
Stay tuned, check yer cinch on occasion and don’t you be the one that starts the next wildfire! C. ya.