How Smokejumpers Work

Smokejumper History
These smokejumpers, seen in 1963, are getting in place to jump; note the spotter on the floor next to the airplane door. Forest Service Northeast Region/Used Under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License

Smokejumpers have been active in the United States since 1939, and, since then, about 5,000 people have been officially certified to jump [source: USDA]. Airplanes, aerial photography and other aviation-related technology had already been implemented for firefighting efforts in some areas of the country, but it wasn't until 1939 that the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project focused on developing a parachute delivery system for firefighters.

After a year of practical experimentation and program development, the first generation of smokejumpers was ready to fly, and on July 12, 1940, Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson took the first official plunge into the proverbial frying pan. All in all, smokejumpers would parachute into nine wildfires that first year, saving approximately $30,000 in damages.

Over the years, operations gradually expanded, and in 1981, women entered training for the first time. Deanne Shulman was the first female smokejumper in the United States, and Charlotte Larson was the first female pilot in the program. A variety of planes have been employed, too, from the Stinson that flew the experimental jumps of 1939 to the DC-3, Twin Otter, Sherpa, Dornier and CASA 212 aircraft that are commonly flown today.

Not everyone can hack it in the world of smokejumpers, however, and that is perhaps demonstrated most profoundly during their annual training regime. Get ready to meet "The Mutilator" on the next page.