Fire Birds

Although common now, the concept of firefighting from the air was not an easy sell to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) before WWII because aircraft had not yet been designed for safely deploying men and equipment using parachutes. In 1939, Henry Ford’s all-metal Trimotor airplane quickly became the USFS’s best hope to use in an experimental parachute program.

The First Smokejumpers

With government funding, training began in Washington.  By the summer of 1940, the USFS had recruited sufficient volunteer rangers and contracted with Johnson Flying Service (JFS) of Missoula, MT, to provide Travelairs, Trimotors and their crews. The Eagle Parachute Company (of Pennsylvania) supplied parachutes, protective clothing, and instructors. 

Earl Cooley (1911-2009) was among the first to parachute into a forest and join ground crews. His personal story is told well in his book, “Trimotor and Trail,” which I bought from Cooley during 1994. I was attracted to the colorful painting of a Ford Trimotor circling over a flaming forest on the cover, but of course this book wasn’t about Trimotors — it was about the men who parachuted out of them.

Then, as now, U.S. forests and wild lands were divided into USFS Regions, manned by ranger stations and/or towers for spotting fires. Full-time rangers like Cooley trained seasonal firefighters who often returned to college in the fall. Crews hunted and fished for food where supplies could not be packed in. Mules, horses and manpower created trails through forests, over boulders and ravines. Smokejumpers had the added responsibility to build their own cabins and lofts with 30-foot towers in which to hang parachutes. 

Recruits for the parachute program were required to pass ROTC cadet physical exams at Ft. Missoula, MT. Crews were trained in specialized assignments for rigging and instructing other firefighters. 


In the first few days trainees learned how to pack a parachute and how to pack and drop cargo. They also watched “dummies” being dropped from the air. After a very brief description of parachute apparatus, Cooley’s instructor simply said, “Tomorrow we jump.”

The first jumps were made at Blanchard Flats near Clearwater Junction, MT, from the open door of a Travelair owned by JFS. Cooley’s first practice jump went well. “Two firsts for me that day,” Cooley recalled, “my first parachute jump and my first ride in an airplane.” Just weeks later, on July 12, 1940, Cooley and Rufus Robinson were chosen to make the first official parachute jump into a fire at Martin Creek in the Nezperce Forest in Idaho. Cooley landed in a spruce tree, leaving his chute hung up in branches while he rushed to collect gear dropped with burlap parachutes. He and Robinson managed to contain the fire, meeting up with an incredulous ground crew leading pack mules and horses. Cooley later wrote,

“And so ended the first fire jump in the history of the USFS and the culmination of the experimental project of smokejumping. That jump introduced a new firefighting technique and paved the way for many advancements that followed in my 38 years with the Forest Service, much of it spent in the parachute project.”

In the following years before and during WWII, smokejumping crews perfected their parachuting skills mostly by trial and sometimes, fatal error. When manpower was scarce throughout the war, Cooley supervised conscientious objector volunteer crews which he praised for their dedication and skills. USFS crews were segregated, as they were in the U.S. military at the time. The all-black 555th Parachute Battalion was instrumental in protecting NW forests from the threat of fires caused by Japanese balloon bombs.

The Planes

Many types of aircraft were pressed into experimental service for the USFS as early as 1947, including the Douglas DC3 (aka C47) which carried between 16 and 22 firefighters with their equipment. Between 1946 and 1947, the USFS and the Air Force quickly abandoned the use of helicopters to deploy smokejumpers after tests proved it to be dangerously impractical. Helicopters thereafter began a long and successful role in dumping loads of retardant and making rescues. 


The first attempts to drop fire-retarding slurry began in the late 1950s, using a Ford Trimotor fitted with a 250-gallon tank with external gates that the pilot could open and close from the cockpit. “The Trimotor was slow,” remembers Cooley, “ but the principle looked promising. Soon the first really effective retardant tanker, a Grumman TBM fitted with a 600-gallon tank, was in common use in Region 1.” (This was Idaho, Montana and parts of Alaska). Several vintage aircraft were adapted for slurry bombing. In 1967, the taxiway for loading slurry in Region 1 “looked like an airplane museum,” recalls Cooley, where in addition to the TBMs he saw a B-26, a B-17 and “some old Navy patrol plane.” Before he retired in 1975, the Travelairs and Trimotors to which Cooley had often entrusted his life were eventually replaced with DeHavilland Otters and Beechcraft E-18s.

The Dangerous Work of No. 91586

The TBMs which Cooley saw loading slurry are similar to one now sitting on the simulated deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, NY. “It is a TBM-3E, Serial No. 91586,” says Joshua Stoff, senior curator at the museum, who found the old bomber advertised for sale in Trade-A-Plane during the 1980s.

“I was glad to find this Avenger which had once been a tanker although it was pretty beat up.” The museum doesn’t have all of No. 91586’s log books but Stoff was able to give me most of its ownership history. 

Overwhelmed with production at its Long Island plant, Grumman contracted to General Motors to build TBM-3E, Serial No. 91586. The U.S. Navy took possession of it at Trenton, NJ, in 1945, then ferried it to San Diego where it was tied down among dozens of its twins on the deck of an aircraft carrier. TBMs are beefy, rugged tail draggers with folding wings (opening more than 54 feet). Originally built to carry a torpedo or four bombs, plus rockets on the wings, TBMs were powered by a Wright R-2600 engine (~1900hp). Serial No. 91586 served several different squadrons, returning safely home after the war.

In 1956, the U.S. Navy sold this veteran of the air to Sonora Flying Service in Columbia, CA, to be used as a tanker on contract to the USFS. At that time the warbird became a civilian, sporting its new tail number N9433Z. Records indicate that N9433Z fought fires during the 1960s in California and possibly for Intermountain Aviation based at Marana, AZ. 

Between 1970 and 1987, No. 91586 changed hands three more times, alternately serving as a tanker and crop duster first in Arizona, then in Nevada, Washington, California and Idaho.

“We bought the TBM-3E from Northwest War Birds around 1987,” says Stoff. It was flown cross country from Twin Falls, ID, to Grumman Airport in Bethpage, NY, over the course of two days with an overnight stop in Canton, OH. Grumman retirees restored it at Grumman in the late 1980s and it was trucked to the museum. “ The TBM-3E was among the exhibits revealed when the new and expanded Cradle of Aviation Museum opened in 2002.

The End of an Era

When modern aircraft replaced the Ford Trimotors, Cooley and some of the other old-time smokejumpers wanted to rescue one for display at the local Missoula airport. “We lost out to airplane collectors,” Cooley lamented.  “Without one of the Trimotors around, the Aerial Fire Depot just wasn’t the same.  We knew this was indeed the end of an era.”

Earl Cooley retired from the USFS in 1975.  It was indeed the end of an era.

Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian, magazine columnist and author who has received the DAR History Medal and honorable mention from the New York Book Festival. She has appeared on the History Channel and in PBS documentaries. For more information, visit

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