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Alaska, Bent Props And Luck

by by Bill Mader (Boise ’75) |

What follows happened. Of course, age removes the bad memories and leaves a sense of humor.

I was involved in two events in Alaska that stand out. They occurred in either 1976 or 1977. I’m not sure which because I jumped both those years and memories have melted together. But what I am sure about are the events, what led to them, and the torn metal afterward.

Planes never look the same after a crash and some people don’t look the same, either. I came by this observation before I started jumping when I was part of a helitack crew based in southern Arizona. What I saw there had a theme about chance and luck that I didn’t give much thought to until later when I jumped Alaska; and sometimes it made no difference if you did the right thing.

I’d been helicoptered into a hot lightning strike with other crew members to the top of the Graham Mountains in eastern Arizona in June of 1974. It was mostly pine and jagged rocks. A B-17 laid a load of slurry in a small clearing after we landed so it wouldn’t burn up in the event we needed to get out. A few hundred yards away a PB4Y2 slurry bomber (the Navy version of the B-24 with a single massive tail) made a slurry pass on the other side of the ridge in an attempt to stop the fire and give us a little protection. The plane sunk in a downdraft, hit a tree and crashed killing the pilot and co-pilot; a father and son team (George & Greg Stell). As cited by Brad Gray (see www.arizonawrecks.com) this PB4Y2 is the only known aircraft crash in Arizona where the plane actually saw combat duty during WWII. A picture of the plane before and after the crash exists on the website. “Charlie 50” as it was known in the fire fighting community probably supported jumpers in the west on occasion. Mr. Gray’s research indicated it had served in the Pacific Theater with VPB-111 in 1945. “Charlie” had been to the other side of world and came back to an Arizona mountaintop.

The father I’d been told flew four engine bombers in WWII. I only remember him as a relaxed gentleman in his fifties who didn’t say much. I suspect he could not leave the excitement of riding huge radial engines over changing landscapes and that he knew luck – both good and bad – always lurked in the morning darkness.

The engines during the crash careened down a canyon and started more fires. I saw a large chunk of aluminum high up in a clipped tree where they had first impacted. The fire burned for days. Only the tail section was left, tombstone like on the ridge. No doubt pieces are still there today and wandering hikers probably wonder what happened, or if any one remembers or if anyone cares. After our section of the fire was under control I walked down to the tail section and far in the back found a picture one of the pilot’s had taken of an earlier plane crash; it was a small plane. It had been a picture of curiosity I sensed, something that was supposed to happen to only other people. I remember hauling their body bags off a Huey and into a truck. I recall these two pilots and two others from another slurry bomber practicing slurry drops at Tucson International Airport in 1974. All the drops were perfect. All four pilots were killed within two months. I can’t remember what they looked like.

The slurry bomber losses of course speak to what can happen on fires and it often happens in seconds including jumped fires. There are jumpers with more fire jumps than I have, some fewer, and there are jumpers who have better stories than mine. Nevertheless, when I reflect, there’s something about these two milestones below which occurred in Alaska – maybe it’s the suddenness or the randomness or the luck – that always stands out. Frankly, they are not important but they may be interesting.

My baggage of wounded knees and arthritis remind me of my skill set that takes only seconds to describe. I was average at hitting jump spots. I missed more than I hit. We jumped round T-10 chutes. As many will recall, in those days we had seven training jumps before we were certified ready to jump fires.

My eighth jump was a fire in central Idaho. Of course, time often brings improvement. Now, depending on whether the chute is round or square, jumpers receive 15-20 jumps or more before their first fire jump.

In 1976 and 1977, I was part of the Boise, McCall, and Redding jump crew that flew up every year to support the Alaskan BLM jumpers. I was one of the handful of Boise jumpers.

It is important to remember that jumping in Alaska was different in those days. There were no tents to sleep in, no cell phones, no tweets and no texting. Occasionally a radio worked. And I don’t recall seeing a lot of emergency fire shelters or Nomex pants. There were only lats and longs, and these were often dartboard guesses on a wrinkled map.

Most importantly, it was before GPS, back when all the valleys looked the same. This meant that we occasionally dropped guys in that geographic conundrum called “lost.” Eventually they were found by flying search patterns and looking for flashing mirrors on the ground, and piles of spent ration cans rusting on the tundra or maybe a few salmon skeletons.

It happened to me, but it also happened to planes and pilots. I remember this quandary occurring on a patrol. I was the last jumper in the load, number eight. We had droned through the atmosphere for some time when I decided to stand up and stretch.

I turned and looked into the cockpit. A huge aeronautical map was stretched across the instrument panel. The pilot was leaning back studying the map intently, a single hand on the control yoke. The spotter in the right seat seemed to be moving his head back and forth.

Befuddlement drifted through the air. Finally the pilot said, "I don’t know ... it all looks the same to me."

Lostness (a unique Alaskan word) seems absurd now when I have Siri in my car telling me in a wonderful female voice where I am and where I should be going, but she never tells me where I came from and what shaped me. She never mentions Alaska and jumping and mountains and fire. The appeal back then was the chaos and calamity, and it had a magnetism about it that bred camaraderie.

And maybe that was the whole appeal about jumping. You never knew what was going to happen. There was no certainty. You were always rolling the dice. This shadowed a world where there were no medals, no uniforms, no battle ribbons, no knee guards, and no flurry of emails congratulating you on this or that. And you bought your own boots.

You just got in the door and jumped. You either jumped or you didn’t jump and you made your decision over mountains, then, not later – over the roar of engines, vibrations and wind and the smell of engine exhaust, vomit, sweat and smoke. There were no fifty shades of gray. It was black or white.

Jumping fires had a stark simplicity about it and a total honesty I’ve had a hard time finding since. In fact, it just doesn’t seem to exist much anymore. If you were hurt, usually broken bones, your name was quietly erased from the blackboard, where you were linked to a scrawled tail number of a plane that took you to unknown places with mysterious names like Anaktuvuk, Fort Yukon or Noatak. Often the places had no names, as if they didn’t want to be remembered.

If you didn’t heal enough to jump again, you “retired” and moved on; some erased chalk, a little spit on a blackboard, a name gone and that was the end of it.

We were a nomadic parachute outpost of roving Vietnam vets, students, teachers, aspiring professionals, guys running from broken pasts, optimistic misfits, the occasional long-termer, mournful PTSD souls, drifters, and maybe a few noble vagabonds with poems in their hearts.

Some of those I jumped with are gone now: a few natural deaths, a few accidents, maybe a little baggage from Vietnam. When we jumped back then, the fires had a cleanliness about them when compared to the world now. We knew who the monster was. We touched him, saw him running over the ridge, inhaled the smoke, felt the heat and risk. We beat him to death with shovels, Pulaskis, chain saws and slurry bombers.

The monster had the dignity of no ambiguity. Times were simpler. There was closure. We knew exactly what he looked like, where he came from. The monsters roving the planet now – terrorism, wars with no end, mutating viruses – are different and closure is elusive.

So that’s what it was like back then and this is what happened.

The first airplane crash

It was not supposed to have ended this way. We’d flown out of Galena, which was a satellite jump base situated next to the Yukon River. Our plane was a Volpar, a plane type that had been commonly used by Air America (CIA) in Southeast Asia. It was a low-wing, twin-engine aircraft that typically carried eight jumpers and their gear.

My experience indicated that it had generally been a reliable type except for an engine failure once when we’d been on patrol. We’d put our chutes on, ready to jump, but the plane managed to limp into Fairbanks.

We were returning in our Volpar to the paved strip at Galena where two F-4 phantom jet fighters were parked side by side. The F-4s had caught my eye because I’d always been interested in planes and hoped someday to earn my private pilot’s license.

Learning to fly was on my list of things to do, along with studying birds of prey and discovering dinosaur bones and tracks. I’m not sure what the connection between all of them and jumping was, other than maybe a sense of curiosity to see what was on the other side of the hill.

Galena, although certainly on the other side of the hill (the Yukon River as well), seemed distant from all these life aspirations at that moment. In fact everything seemed normal and under control, maybe even slightly boring. By the way, the F-4s were there, so I was told, to intercept Russian "cat and mouse" incursions: bombers, fighters – that sort of thing.

Remember, we were still in the trenches of the Cold War and it was important that jets – on both sides, though it really didn’t matter which – periodically intercepted something and jotted it down.

It had been an uneventful patrol: no smokes, no jumps. As was customary, we put our helmets on for landing as the pilot turned the Volpar final for the runway. My thoughts were on a warm, cooked lunch in the Air Force commissary (I’d grown fond of any food other than the Army C-ration stuff and freeze-dried blocks in different colors).

The Volpar was a comparatively good jump plane because it was fast, and Alaska was a big place and big places like fast. Consequently, it landed fast. Fast, then as fate would have it, was the first problem.

On landing, immediately after the wheels touched, the plane violently veered right, left the pavement and shot across the tundra, moving at what I thought was something close to warp speed.

I realized almost immediately – well, maybe 10 seconds into the ordeal – that this was a highly unorthodox landing, most certainly not approved in standard FAA protocols. Tumbling bodies in the fuselage and chunks of tundra flying past the window supported my observation.

After a long, hard ride, the plane came to a sliding, crooked stop at the end of two trenches the bent props had dug. Everyone was calm but anxious to get out. I was in the third stick, or third pair of jumpers.

To my immediate right and closer to the pilot was Clay Morgan (MYC-74). His wife, Barbara, later became the first teacher-astronaut in space aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

Clay is the only jumper I can recall from the wreck. The jump door quickly dropped open, and I waited for the guys ahead of me to my left to exit. Within seconds I was out.

Clay, with enviable cat-like reflexes and even sharper wit, had pushed out the very small emergency door over the left wing, dived out, tumbled off the trailing edge of the wing and beat us out. I was puzzled to see him, when I ran out of the plane, since I’d been closer to the jump door. Clay, ever the humorist, said he wanted to be there to greet all of us when we disembarked.

We took our helmets off and got clear of the plane, then examined the damage. Both landing gears were punched up through the wing, the prop blades in each engine were bent backward, and the fuselage was all beaten up. The plane was a total write-off, and – this is the interesting part – there was a small fire brewing in the left wing root.

We were within obvious sight of the control tower and relaxed knowing that at any second we’d hear sirens and a giant fire truck with huge tires (think Aliens Two and the rescue vehicle) speeding our way. The sirens never came. In fact, nothing came. In fact, a lot of nothing.

The flames grew a little bigger. More waiting. Still no sirens, no fire truck. The fire got bigger; there was smoke. My general rule of thumb regarding airplane fires is that the plane in question often has the distasteful habit of blowing up with little warning.

Finally, one of us – our spotter, I think – got on the radio and called the tower, pointing out our predicament. Of course this was like reporting a rumor of snow on Mount Everest. No doubt a tad bit embarrassing to the tower folks. We could tell they got the message when all hell broke loose. I’d never heard so many loud sirens and gunned engines. Safe helping hands were on their way.

The giant fire truck raced down the runway straight for us, and then – this was the second-best part next to the aircraft burning – it stopped. And I mean stopped, with screeching brakes, in the middle of the runway. It wasn’t even within 10 fire hoses’ distance yet.

Now, I don’t claim to know a lot about fire trucks, but it had always been my impression from watching movies that they stopped when they got to the fire. Then I saw the reason. Their fire hose, probably long enough to reach the North Pole, had uncoiled and been dragged down the runway.

Fire hoses don’t generally function well in this kind of abrasive environment; it’s a resentment kind of thing. A couple guys rushed from the fire truck and started reeling up (I think that’s the technical term) the fire hose. I noticed there was more smoke coming from the fire in the plane and that, well, the fire seemed just a little larger.

Fortunately the F-4s, I guess, didn’t have any immediate Russki incursions to intercept or their pilots were eating lunch. I confess I was curious how long a fire could burn a couple aluminum thicknesses away from Jet-A fuel in an airplane – a hot one, I might add – without the obvious consequences.

This is when it happened. Someone in our group ran to the plane, pulled out the fire extinguisher, and started spraying the fire extinguisher on the fire. Within seconds the fire was out. Shortly thereafter our Air Force friends rolled to a stop and slopped foam all over the plane and tundra.

Why the plane crashed was never clear to me. I was told that the propeller on the right turbine had reversed itself.

We eventually made our way back to Fairbanks. A new jump plane (used, of course) awaited us. I walked up to the chalkboard to see where we stood on the jump list. Only the tail number of the plane was scribbled in and next to this, where our names would normally have been, were the words “Crash Crew.”

The second airplane crash

By this time in my life, I’d figured out that it was better to jump into an airplane crash than be in the airplane crash. But once again, circumstances proved me wrong.

We were the first Volpar load on the chalkboard in Fairbanks. I was in the third stick (it seems like I was always in the third stick). It had been a hot jump season and being in the third stick meant that if we dropped the first two sticks we might swing west and have lunch in Kotzebue. I’d eaten there once before after we’d been dispatched to a fire burning on the North Slope.

Don’t ask me why we were jumping fires on the North Slope. Remember, this was in the 1970s when Smokey Bear was in full swing. Nevertheless, I rarely questioned the logic of jumping because I wanted the money for graduate school.

In all candor it didn’t bother me much to watch mountains burn; they were paychecks in the pipeline. Anyway, we made a low pass on the North Slope fire and our foreman deemed it a waste of time to drop any more guys. We kicked a load of food and water out, and that’s when we headed over to Kotzebue and a hot lunch.

That day in Fairbanks had blue sky and a few clouds. When the siren went off, we put our gear on, minus the chutes, and trudged to the Volpar. We did not know – at least, the jumpers didn’t know – where we were going, which, of course, was common. We flew on into infinity heading north, pushing bladder-pressure extremes and crossed into the Arctic Circle.

The fire was somewhere west of Anaktuvuk Pass, which translates as “place of the caribou droppings.” Then a little handwritten note was passed back from the cockpit with three words written on it: "Possible airplane crash."

I stood up and looked through the front windshield. A tiny column of smoke wafted upward from the Brooks (now designated as the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve). I said to myself, "A two-manner, four-manner at most. I can taste that lunch in Kotzebue."

As we got closer to the mountains, the turbulence picked up and jolted the plane. Guys were bending over, putting chutes on each other and checking their harnesses, falling over periodically from the turbulence. Each of us, when we got the chance, looked through the cockpit window.

The small column of smoke was gone; a heavy, twisting column pushed by shearing winds had replaced it. The winds, totally unjumpable, immediately got our attention. I could no longer taste my lunch in Kotzebue. It was hard to hear anything with the jump door open. I’d long since become adept at reading lips and I deduced a second load of jumpers was under consideration. Turbulence continued to rock the plane.

The fire was in the bottom of a valley on the edge of a lake near a rushing river that fed the lake. A small patch of spruce was burning and some tundra.

The cause of the fire was a Cessna floatplane that had crashed into the edge of the lake on takeoff. The fuselage, burning and bent, had separated from the floats and smashed into some spruce. The floats remained stuck in the tundra. The pilot had either run out of room on his takeoff or suffered a mechanical problem.

The Volpar started circling over the crash, and the spotter took his streamers out. He dropped the first set of streamers, and we watched them intently, mapping in our minds how we might maneuver to hit a jump spot between the river and the plane crash while missing the lake.

I most emphatically did not want to hit the lake or any water. I’d done this in Montana, and my memories were cold, dark, and darker as I’d headed deep into the watery abyss.

As all of you will remember, the streamers ideally hit where the jumpers were supposed to land. The first set of streamers went vertically down for a while, then horizontally – in fact, a lot horizontally until they hit the middle of the river and vanished. We were turning again in our circle, lining up for another drop of streamers. Anything seemed better than the river.

The second streamers went out; the plane banked so we could monitor them, turning again. These went into the middle of the fire. They didn’t even hit the edge of it.

I admitted to some curiosity as to what our next course of action might be. I turned left, watching the spotter’s lips, trying to hear over the engine and wind pummeling through the door. He was holding on tightly to handholds, trying not to get bumped out the door. Our plane suddenly dropped a few feet into a sinker.

"It’s an emergency. You have to jump," he said.

There was no backwash of discussion, no words. We just edged forward, analyzing odds and angles. Another airplane turn, more turbulence. Peaks looked down on us. Smoke blew sideways.

The first guy got in the door. He was Everett "Sam" Houston (MYC-71), a Vietnam vet – Special Forces and Air America – who later died of complications due to exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliating herbicide used in Vietnam to expose the Viet Cong.

Houston carefully put his foot in the Volpar step. The second guy, a fellow from McCall whose name I can’t remember, was right behind Houston. Both looked through the door watching the fire pick up speed. Swoosh and they were gone.

We edged toward the door watching their chutes. They were like toys in the wind. Just like the streamers, they went vertical for a while; then the wind got them – and I mean got them.

The T-10 chutes were totally out of control. The slotted chutes pushed them backward at bone breaking, concussion speeds. The jumpers could not steer them nor see where they were going. Both jumpers vanished in the fire. Their chutes collapsed in flames.

The next two guys got in the door. Swoosh and they were gone. Then the third stick, consisting of me and another guy, got in the door. The leg slap came and we jumped. The wind immediately wrapped its tentacles around me. Since I was moving backward, I couldn’t see where I was going – just like everyone else.

Nevertheless, I had the faint impression that the fire, trees, and broken plane were to my right, so I pulled the left toggle trying to get farther left in hopes I wouldn’t smash into them.

I hit very hard in a tumbling, backward summersault, and then got dragged because the wind was pulling the chute in the direction of the fire in front of me. I rototilled about 80 feet of tundra with my facemask, and then finally released the parachute, which shortly burned up.

When I got to the Cessna, no one was in it. I’m sure the first jumpers had already checked it, but they had their hands full now with another emergency – the eighth jumper.

Murry Taylor (RDD-65), author of Jumping Fire, was originally the eighth man on the jump load. He had removed himself from the jump list at the last minute to see a visiting family member. It was the jumper who replaced him, a rookie out of Fairbanks, who was the emergency now.

He had gone backward through a burning spruce tree in the fire, snapped his femur, and was hanging upside down. The other jumpers had rushed in, cut away his chute, and dragged him free of the fire.

Of course, it was not the rookie’s fault. Skill had nothing to do with it. It was about luck. A stiff wind here, a fire there, a mountain there, a tree over there – that’s the guise luck comes in. And luck didn’t like the rookie that day.

A Huey helicopter flew in and picked up the injured jumper that day. We later found out that no one had been in the crashed plane because they had been picked up by another floatplane before we jumped it. A second jump plane did not come. Eight of us jumped this fire; four landed in it.

Epilogue

Bill Mader went on to earn a Ph.D. studying little known birds of prey in Venezuela, supported by The National Geographic Society and The American Museum of Natural History. He also received his private pilot’s license and built two tail-wheel airplanes.

Along with reaching his goal of learning to fly, he discovered seven previously unknown dinosaur track sites and several bone sites in the American Southwest. Some years ago he retired (and then re-entered the work force) and is now an associate professor of Environmental Science at Navajo Technical University on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. His wife, Penny, is a family nurse practitioner at a Navajo hospital. Reach him at P.O. Box 2072, Crownpoint, NM 87313 or bmader@navajotech.edu.