I am writing in response to the letter from John Townsley in the May 4 edition (Tough pilots, tough planes, tough flying). John’s letter disputes a comment in your article on the Museum of Mountain Flying (Tough planes, tough pilots, tough flying: Montana Mountain Flying Museum showcases the best of aviation in the Big Sky state, April 20 issue) that “Smoke jumping got its start in Missoula.”
I will not dispute for a minute that the field experiments that led the Forest Service to conclude that parachuting men onto forest fires was a viable concept were conducted at the North Cascades Smoke Jumper Base in Methow Valley, Washington. I would like to clarify, however, that the first jump onto an actual fire did not originate from Methlow Valley.
As a result of the 1939 experiments the Forest Service formed two small squads of “smoke jumpers” for the 1940 fire season. One squad was formed in Region 1(Methlow Valley) around the nucleus of men who had jumped the previous fall conducting the field trials. The second squad was formed in Region 6 (Missoula, Montana) and consisted of seven men who had never jumped before and were not part of the field trials. On July 12, 1940, two of those men, Earl Cooley and Rufus Johnson, jumped onto a fire at Martin Creek in the Nezperce Forest from a Travel Air piloted by Dick Johnson of the Johnson Flying Service. This was the first operational use of “smoke jumpers” and was done by a Missoula-based crew jumping from a Missoula-based airplane. The entire account of the training and jump can be found on pages 19-33 in “Trimotor and Trail,” a book authored by Earl Cooley, and published by Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.
I leave it up to your readers to judge for themselves as to whether Methow Valley or Missoula can lay claim to being the place that gave smoke jumping its start.
As an aside you might be interested in knowing that Earl Cooley is 96 years young, still resides in Missoula, and is a member of the Museum of Mountain Flying.
JOHN M. SEEBERGER