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U.S. Army Soldier & Biological Chemical Command
U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340

Date: March 19, 2001
No: 01-18

Support to Smokejumpers

NATICK, Mass. -- Chainsaws shattered into dozens of pieces caused by unopened parachutes or food caught in trees hundreds of feet from the intended target were a problem for the U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers battling summer wildfires last summer.

Still, keeping up with the firefighting effort was of immediate concern as wildfires charred more than 6 million acres of high-mountain forests, sprawling grasslands and desert sagebrush across the United States, mainly in the West.

Jim Sadeck, a research mechanical engineer with the Natick Soldier Center's Airdrop Technology Team, answered the Forest Service call for assistance by traveling to Missoula, Mont., on a special assignment Aug. 18-Sept. 6.

Along with two retired and one active but injured smokejumper, Sadeck brought relief to smokejumpers-wilderness firefighters who parachute into the affected area-with his expertise in parachutes. When he found a break from taking care of the smokejumpers' gear, he designed two prototype parachutes that save the Forest Service from lost and damaged supplies, and cost of airdrop equipment.

"There were so many fires, and the fires were so big, the smokejumpers weren't expected to repack their equipment," Sadeck said. "They needed to get some rest so they would be ready for the next fire jump."

He said all smokejumpers are senior or master parachute riggers, and they normally inspect, repair and repack their parachutes. Jumping allows them to get into areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Their equipment is their life, and they build most of their own equipment except for the canopy.

"They're speedy and efficient, most of the time jumping as a two-man team," Sadeck said. "They could be out there for a long time. The longest stretch was probably six days in the field."

The Forest Service and the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (Natick) have an ongoing research collaboration. He's assisted the department through the past four years. He said that the Forest Service seeks advice on personnel parachutes while the Soldier Systems Center has gained from drop-testing using Forest Service aircraft, dropping equipment unavailable to the Airdrop Technology Team.

"They share information, and we share information. It's interesting. A lot of the technology areas we're involved in can apply to what they do and vice versa," Sadeck said.

During his stay, he saw firefighters from across the country. Helicopters dumped fire retardants or water from buckets. Multi-engine airplanes strained to lift off and flew missions around the clock. Although a safe distance away from the fires, he could see them. Smoke created a lingering haze and irritated the respiratory system.

"Everything and everyone was tired," Sadeck said. "There was so much fire, it was scary. If we hadn't got some rain, it would've have been really bad. It was bad when I got there, but two days later it got worse."

During downtime from rigging, he worked on the problems with parachutes used to drop firefighting equipment, food, water and first aid kits.

"The problem canopy did not open consistently or very quickly," Sadeck said. "This would then cause the cargo to overshoot the drop zone. It might end up falling into a valley or becoming stuck in a tree. It took the guys away from the fire and placed an unnecessary risk on recovering it."

Sometimes these parachutes never opened. "It's not a lot of fun to pick your food off the ground," he said.

He built some prototype parachutes. The crew stocked an airplane with some test loads to drop on its way back from a re-supply mission, and he then filmed the test drop to see how it worked. He altered the design based on the data and created a parachute for loads from 50-125 pounds and another parachute for loads 125-220 pounds.

"If you don't get the supplies, you can't do the job. All you can do is run," Sadeck said. "I got lucky and was able to help them out."

The smokejumpers were pleased with the stable, soft landing that kept their dinners intact. The Forest Service is building 400 of the parachutes for Missoula and a similar amount for other locations, according to Sadeck.

For his efforts in Montana, Sadeck was awarded Employee of the Quarter at Natick.

Natick is part of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM). For more information about SBCCOM or Soldier Systems Center (Natick), please visit our web site at