Development of Forest Service Aviation

     Time is the critical factor in the control of any kind of fire, the time it takes to pin point a fire's location, firemen and equipment to reach the scene and begin containment operations.  Early in this century, the U.S. Forest Service was formed with the primary responsibility of managing the thousands of square miles of timber land found in the United States and protecting it from destruction by fire; numerous fires involving millions of acres prompted the Forest Service to improve its fire organization.  The rapid development of forces was a principal concern, but detection was also considered crucial.

     World War I brought aviation to the attention of the Forest Service, and with the close of the war, aircraft were put into service to detect fires.  Early aerial experiments were initiated in Wisconsin on August 2, 1915.  Jack Vilas and E.M. Weaver flew missions in a Curtis flying boat from the Trout Lake Headquarters demonstrating the feasibility of utilizing airplanes for fire recon flights; poor weather conditions and a lack of communications, however, forced abandonment of the project.

     The first successful aerial forest fire patrol in the United States was flown over California in 1919, involving the Forest Service and Army Air Service in a cooperative venture.  This civilian-military effort was soon extended to include parts of Washington State, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.  In 1921, blimps were also put into service for fire patrol flights in California.  The L.A. County Fire Service and U.S. Forest Service used the blimps extensively over the Angeles National Forest in September of that year.  The aerial flights led to massive altitude mapping programs which assisted in setting forest boundaries and establishing pre-attack plans for fire suppression in differing terrain and fuel type areas.  This mapping program was especially beneficial for pin pointing a fires location as squares could be drawn on duplicate maps by the observer in the aircraft and ground personnel.

     Daily routes were laid out for the pilots to fly; one California route covered 560 miles and the service was extended from the original five to include fifteen national forests in Region V.  Beginning September 1, 1920, "eight airplanes covered twice daily more than 16,000,000 acres of national forest land... and 5,000,000 acres of privately owned timber lands.  Eight additional airplanes were used on alternate days to allow for necessary repairs and relief of pilots.  Sixteen pilots and twenty-two mechanics were assigned to the work.  Up to the first of October only six forces landing with one fatality and no injuries to pilots or observers occurred.  Damage to the airplanes, considering the number of miles covered and the rough terrain patrolled, was negligible.  No figures as to the cost of the experiment have been made available."

     After these initial experiments involving the Army Air Service and the U.S.Forest Service in California, "there was only light sporadic aircraft use for many years.  In the late 1930's, cargo transportation got its real start.  Free-fall methods were first tried followed by use of burlap sacks as parachutes."  Large fires in Oregon and California occurred in 1937 and provided the opportunity to improve cargoing, packaging and dropping techniques.  Air cargo supplied and then re-supplied as needed many of these fires in a month long campaign to combat the blazes.

     The next utilization of aircraft with the Forest Service occurred in the initial smokejumper experiments in 1937 and 1940 which is detailed in another part of this paper.  In 1955, two years before a smokejumper base was established permanently in Region V, larger aircraft were used in successful experiments in California to drop a mixture of water and chemicals to slow a fires rate of spread.  "Operation Firestop" provided many of the modern techniques of air operations in fire control.  "The first operational air tanker project was organized in northern California in 1956 using small aircraft of less than 200 gallon capacity.  Water was first used alone followed by borate (sodium calcium borate) mixed with water to form a slurry."

     Air operations in fire control work are now essential to the U.S. Forest Service.  From the small beginnings with military aircraft in about 1920, air activities have increased until they now are part of almost every fire effort from prevention to suppression.  The use of aircraft now covers a wide spectrum from the detection of fires to direct attack with chemicals.  Other regular uses also include carrying smokejumpers other firefighters, overhead teams, supplies, tools, mapping devices, water, chemicals, prevention materials, incendiaries for back firing and burning out and special infrared flight to pin point hot spots on the fires.  As with the smokejumper operations, it is the people not the machines that the Forest Service depends on to make each operation safe and effective.  Below is a list of some of the pilots that have served with the California Smokejumper Unit in Redding.

Skip Alderson, Hank Jori, Carl Barchfield, Dale Larrabe, Hal Bayley, Bob McGregor, Bob Clarke, Glenn Reynolds, Jim Eakin, Grant Ruth, Cal Ferris, Dave Schas, Bill Frost, Andy Anderson, Fred Fuchs, Mike Tank, Ernie Gentry, Stan Nye, Don Griffis,