Friday, September 16, 2016

Flying the Ford: Early smokejumpers take to skies again with aircraft visit

NAMPA — Rocky Stone walked toward the waiting 1928 Ford Tri-Motor airplane, shrugging on his green and white Smokejumpers jacket from his four-summer stint working for the U.S. Forest Service in McCall in the late 1950s.

The first thing 82-year-old Stone noticed Thursday, when he came to the Nampa Municipal Airport for a ride, was the sound: The Tri-Motor he jumped from to fight forest fires back in the day had different engines.

“This is quiet,” Stone observed from his seat inside the cabin when the three engines started up. “This is not as loud as it used to be.”

The interior of the Tri-Motor that he jumped from had a lot less of everything. Instead of the wood paneling and padded seats, it was empty down to the aircraft’s stark metal walls so the smokejumpers could have plenty of room for their gear. They would parachute from the airplane at about 1,000 feet to the scene of a wildland fire, leaving their packs inside. Then, the plane would make a low pass again, and a spotter would push the packs, which also had parachutes attached, out after them.

Stone, a college student and former paratrooper in the Korean War, was one of several dozen smokejumpers stationed in McCall from June through August, ready to head to the airstrip at a moment’s notice. McCall may be a nice vacation resort town now, but back then it was a bit different, Stone remarked with a small smile. It was a post-war period, and there was “a lot of freedom” for the college students and war veterans working there.

“A lot of personalities running around,” Stone explained.

Everyone there grew close, remarked 90-year-old J. Charles Blanton, also known as “The Hawk” to his smokejumping buddies.

Blanton, a native of Nampa, was part of the first group of post-war jumpers.

The smokejumper program started in Montana in 1940, just before the U.S. entered World War II. In 1943, the Forest Service opened two more smokejumper bases, one of which was McCall. They were staffed mainly by conscientious objectors to the war at the time. In 1947, McCall was designated as a training facility and had 53 smokejumpers, according to a history on the Forest Service’s website.

Stationed there from 1947 to 1950 while a law student, Blanton made jumps in Idaho and neighboring states for the Forest Service. He has many memories of the Tri-Motor; his first jump, when he was kicked out of the plane by his trainer, was from that aircraft.

“I never had a problem getting out of the plane after that,” Blanton said, laughing.

Before leaving, he was filmed in a training movie created for smokejumpers. That movie is being shown at the Nampa EAA hanger while the Tri-Motor is in town.

Early smokejumpers like Stone and Blanton had the chance to relive those days this week when the Tri-Motor came to town on tour with the Experimental Aircraft Association.


Although not the only airplane the smokejumpers used, the Tri-Motor was liked by the jumpers because it was a smooth ride, explained Joseph Jamison, one of three chairmen with the EAA’s Ford Tri-Motor Tour.

“They have a love affair with the Tri-Motor because it has such a stable jumping platform,” Jamison said.

The Tri-Motor is famous for being the world’s first mass-produced airliner. Weighing in at 12,499 pounds with a wing span of 77-and-a-half feet, length of 50 feet, 3 inches, and cruising speed of 122 mph, the Tri-Motor helped usher in the era of commercial air service.

The airplane at the Nampa Municipal Airport through Sunday was never used by smokejumpers, but it has a local history. The Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT-B No. 8 was in commercial service from 1929 until 1953 when damaged in an accident and put into storage.

The No. 8 was then purchased by Eugene Frank of Caldwell, who stored it until 1964 when it was bought and restored by Nevada casino owner William Harrah.

After Harrah’s death, Gary Norton of Athol purchased the No. 8 in 1986. Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, acquired the aircraft a few years later and proceeded to restore it to flying condition.

It is now owned by Ed Patrick and the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio, and it is on loan to the EAA to be shown across the country.

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