Chapter 7 - Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)

Chapter 7

THE MORNING OF OUR first fire jump, one of the trainers rolled a TV and a VCR into the training room and hit play. Up popped a scene of a scruffy guy scribbling on a blackboard, babbling nonsense about planes and parachutes.

Wait—was that Kevin Costner? I knew this movie: Fandango. This was where the dude pulls his rip cord in midair and finds his pack is full of dirty laundry.

We trainees glanced at one another. It was funny and a little crazy. This couldn’t be the whole briefing, I thought. But when the movie clip was over, the order came to suit up—for real this time.

Ten minutes later we were taxiing down the runway. The plane’s cabin filled with the fumes of jet-A and the earsplitting waa-waa-waa of the Sherpa’s engine.

Originally designed as a small military transport, the twin-engined Shorts C-23 Sherpa has flown with the U.S. Army and Air Force in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It isn’t a pretty plane, and it’s not especially powerful or maneuverable. But its boxy body is roomy inside. Some people call it a “Flying Winnebago.”

As the wheels left the ground, it hit me that this was a one-way trip. For the first time in my life, I was taking off in a plane that I wouldn’t land in.

I looked around the cabin at the other trainees. On every face, half hidden behind a metal mesh face mask, was a look of solemn concentration.

After the first wave of washouts, we had slowly started to bond as a group. Two weeks of eating, sleeping, showering, and suffering side by side will do that. We were learning how we each responded to stress, who was good in the classroom or the tower, who was willing to circle back around after a run to make sure everyone else was in. People could still wash out—and they would—but we had done well to have made it this far together.

I looked at Hillbilly, another NCSB trainee whose absurd sense of humor was a lot like mine. He had experience as a hotshot and helitack. Usually he was a regular Mel Blanc, cracking us up with his many impressions. Right now he was quiet, though. His eyes were wide with anticipation.

It only took a few minutes to reach the jump spot, a large open meadow in south-central Oregon. The pilot started circling at twenty-five hundred feet, a thousand feet higher than the standard fire jump altitude.

Wind howled through the open door as the spotter threw out a set of streamers. The twenty-foot strips of colored crepe paper are weighted with sand at one end to fall at the same speed as a jumper under a parachute. They mark the landing zone and show the descent rate, critical info for a safe landing. Most important, they indicate which way the wind is blowing, both up high and near the ground.

From the back of the lineup I watched my classmates leave the plane one by one in a whoosh and a cloud of dust. We were doing our first jumps alone for safety.

Everyone’s exit seemed to go smoothly. Even if you made it out safely, though, there were still plenty of ways a parachute could malfunction. In class we had gone over every one in detail.

Your main canopy could not deploy at all—say, if you forgot to clip your static line, which has happened. Or it could deploy but not inflate, leaving you plummeting under a “full streamer.” In both cases your best option was to pull the handle that deployed your reserve chute, a smaller canopy packed in a case on your chest.

A main chute that only partly inflated gave you more options and a little more time. A line wrapped over the top of the canopy—called a “Mae West” for the twin-peaked shape it made—might come free with a good yank. An inside-out canopy, an inversion, was rare, but sometimes you could still steer one to a safe landing. A broken steering line meant you’d have to do riser turns, pulling on your riser instead of the line itself, which works but much more slowly.

For other problems, like a torn canopy, it was your call, depending on your rate of descent, whether to ride it out or deploy your reserve.

The spotter’s voice yanked my mind back to the present. I was next in line.

The jump door checklist passed in a blur, so familiar from all the endless training, and before I knew it I was airborne.

THE NEXT FOUR SECONDS were pure controlled excitement. Back in 1999 we still jumped in the pike position with our bodies straight and at a slight angle, like paratroopers still are trained to do to this day.

I watched my feet rise toward the horizon as I counted out loud: “Jump thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, check my canopy, check my jump partner, check my jump spot.”

The parachute deployed with a snap, right on time. I’ll never forget the sudden, total silence and clarity, seeing the canopy against the blue sky overhead.

My canopy looked in good shape. I looked down for the streamers that marked the jump spot. The voice of an instructor crackled over my radio. “Left toggle. Ok, now right toggle. Half brakes.” I worked the high-tech wooden handles that steered the parachute and controlled my speed.

Before I knew it I was coming in face into the wind and my feet touched the grass. I had made my first jump.

My classmates were waiting. We traded hoots and a few high fives—I stuck with my old-school low fives—but not for long. We gathered up our gear and hustled over to where the instructors were waiting to evaluate our first qualifying jumps in excruciating detail.

Fourteen more to go.

The jumps gradually increased in difficulty. We started jumping in pairs, in the standard two-person stick. (Smokejumpers leave the plane in “sticks,” usually two people [a double stick] who jump one after the other, occasionally three [triple stick] or one [single stick].)

We also started jumping from only fifteen hundred feet AGL (above ground level) and into steeper and rougher terrain, aiming at landing spots that grew progressively smaller.

Every jump was analyzed from exit to descent to landing, as strictly as if we were pilots learning to land on an aircraft carrier. First you gave your account of what you thought happened, and then the trainers would say what they saw. When the accounts didn’t match up, there were cameras on the ground recording everything.

It’s surprising how often you’d swear you did one thing but found you did the exact opposite, like turning right in midair instead of left. It forced us to improve our situational awareness and technique. It also taught us to slow down and think through what we were doing.

As one of the smaller people in the class, I struggled with my exits. In the pike position, the rush of air kept wanting to flip me upside down. An inversion can tangle your lines or your chute.

I did invert on one jump and ended up tangled for a few seconds. Happily I was able to fix the problem before I landed.

In the late 2000s, the program switched to a cannonball-style exit position that cut down on bad exits.

SOME DAYS OF JUMP training were a blur, and others I just wanted to be over.

Eventually we all moved up to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington.

The small town sat in the long, narrow valley carved by the Methow River as it runs east and south out of the Cascades.

An old forestry, mining, and ranching center, Winthrop now draws tourists with its mountain scenery and old-timey western downtown, complete with raised wooden sidewalks and false-front buildings. One of these is the oldest legal saloon in the state: Three-Finger Jacks was named after its original owner, who lost two fingers in a marksmanship bet (which he still won, by the way).

We didn’t have much time for that kind of stuff, even on our days off. By this point we were jumping every day, weather permitting. We started pairing up with the older guys, the experienced jumpers. It was a confidence booster, though they never let us forget we still had a long way to go if we wanted to stick around. There’s nothing like getting ready to jump and having the other half of your stick say, “Stay the fuck away from me, rook!”

Everyone had his or her own way to deal with the stress of an upcoming jump. Some people stretched beforehand, while others preferred to hit the head or put in a dip of chewing tobacco. I usually hummed a tune to help me chill out, usually something out of the punk canon: Agent Orange, Rancid, Social Distortion.

Training was a constant mind-screw. It wouldn’t be fair to call it Full Metal Jacket-style hazing, designed to break you down and build you back up as an unquestioning member of a cohesive unit.

It’s more subtle than that, a raised eyebrow after a botched practical test, or the stone-cold look on an instructor’s face followed by him scribbling who knows what in his notebook.

The lead trainer who had recognized my name the first day of training ended up riding my ass the whole time. Maybe it was because I was a heli-rappeler, or because I was a California boy from Region 5, either of which was enough to earn a spot on some jumpers’ shit list. Maybe he just didn’t like the way I looked, or my makeshift house on wheels. (I was living out of my van.)

In any case, it meant I had to be that much more on top of things. During our last qualifying jump, we were all understandably nervous. My exit went fine, but on the way down I heard the lead trainer’s voice growling on the radio. “Who in the hell is that way out there?”

Someone was far downwind of the jump spot. I knew it wasn’t me, because I could see only two other jumpers were closer.

Another trainer chimed in: “That’s not Ramos, that’s your guy.” The wandering jumper was from Redmond, the lead trainer’s home base.

Ha, I thought. Nice try, dickhead.

WHEN OUR QUALIFYING JUMPS were finished, the Redmond trainees went home. We knew the ordeal had to be almost over. What else could they throw at us—another run, a hike, or some other exercise in pain management we hadn’t yet experienced?

People were still washing out as late as the fourth week, but the rest of us knew we had passed the big hurdle. We knew we could get bloody or sick and survive.

One morning after roll call, the assistant base manager stood up and said without preamble, “I want to congratulate you all for completing your training as the NCSB rookie class of 1999.”

We looked at each other, dazed. Holy shit—we made it.

The base manager gave a quick speech. “You are rookie smokejumpers now, and you know what is expected of you,” he said. “If not, we will remind you.”

One by one, he gave us each a small metal pin. Our rookie jump wings. Now our names would go on the jump board for active duty.

Every fifty jumps earns you another pair of wings. My rookie pin is the most special by far.

I was awash with relief, elation, and most of all pride. To be part of the last smokejumper class of the twentieth century was an honor I couldn’t put into words.

The ceremony, such as it was, was over in a few minutes. Afterward we gathered outside for PT. As always, we started jogging in a line.

“You’re done, rookies,” yelled a senior jumper from the parachute loft. “Stop running together!”

Everyone laughed and took off in different directions, some tripping in haste, ready to be alone for the first time in weeks, with only ourselves to answer to.