Just shy of her 70th birthday, Jump-15 can still spool up faster than the smokejumpers she carries.
The young men and women going to fight wildfires have 10 minutes to get dressed out, briefed and loaded.
The old DC-3 needed just eight minutes to rev her engines and quit the Earth on the first shakedown flight of 2015.
But to the dismay of many of her pilots and passengers, this will be Jump-15’s last firefighting season.
“It has been flying since my grandpa was in the Army Air Corps,” smokejumper Colby Jackson said as the big plane’s engines howled through a pre-season test run. “He always gets a kick seeing pictures of us with the DC-3. He was stationed with them in Africa, when they were C-47s.”
Jump-15 (its radio call sign) is the last DC-3 still hauling smokejumpers and backcountry cargo for the U.S. Forest Service. Pilots love her ability to land and launch from tiny forest airstrips, her muscle and endurance. Jumpers love her big exit door and reputation for reliability. With room for 16 parachute-strapped firefighters and all their gear, Jump-15 has twice the capacity of any other jump plane on the runway.
But it’s still an old plane.
Forest Service pilot Jeff Ebiner described flying Jump-15 as “like a pickup without power steering.” While a 1990 upgrade replaced most of the wiring, navigation and engine parts, the steering works by cable and pulley. British aviators sometimes joke the DC-3 is really “a collection of parts flying in loose formation.”
Those parts, or the lack of spares, are a big reason why the DC-3 is finally joining its World War II brethren in retirement. Museum of Mountain Flying director Stan Cohen said flocks of DC-3s continue to fly, but each one is essentially a malfunction away from becoming the supply cache for another.
“If the Forest Service was going to donate it, we would want to part it out and get the nose cone off it for our DC-3,” Cohen said. A crown jewel of the museum is the plane that delivered smokejumpers to the famous and tragic Mann Gulch fire of 1949 near Helena.
Somewhere in its history the Mann Gulch DC-3 was modified with a nose radar unit, and lost its classic eagle-beak profile.
“I really feel pretty lucky,” said Forest Service pilot Joe Sannella, who’s been flying Jump-15 since 1999. “This is the first plane they put me in. I had a lot of tail-wheel experience, so that helped.”
Douglas Aircraft Co. started building the tail-dragging DC-3s in 1935. TWA director Charles Lindbergh reportedly made the requirement that it should always be able to fly with just one of its two engines. That’s a feature smokejumpers loved too.
The DC-3 was the first to be wide enough for side-by-side sleeper berths – a first-class requirement for the propeller-age jet set. It could fly across the United States in 15 hours with three refueling stops, the first commercial plane to make that trip entirely in daylight.
When America entered World War II in 1942, the civilian plane put on an Army uniform. The military redesignated it the C-47 Dakota and ordered more than 10,000 before 1945.
Dwight Eisenhower ranked it along with the Jeep, the half-ton truck and the bulldozer as the Allied Forces’ most effective tools in winning the war.
After VE-Day, the re-labeled DC-3 was one of the most common surplus planes on the market. Commercial airlines around the globe replaced the jump benches with seats and made air travel a growing business. For a while, nine of every 10 airliners in the world were DC-3s.
Although the C-47 flew “The Hump” over the Himalayan Mountains to resupply Allied forces against the Japanese, it was never designed for high-altitude, pressurized flight. Jump-15 actually has windows with little vent ports that passengers can open for fresh air.
According to its log books, Jump-15 started life as a C-47B with serial number 33567. It was built by the Douglas Aircraft Co. on June 19, 1945, just two months before the end of World War II.
While a lot of stories swirl around its cargo door, Jump-15 did not fly on the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which took place a year before it came off the assembly line.
The records go dark for much of the mid-century, except to note it was assigned to British military service for most of the 1950s. On June 16, 1964, the Forest Service Intermountain Region acquired it from the U.S. Border Patrol for smokejumper use.
The 1990 upgrade swapped out Jump-15’s old 14-cylinder rotary engines for turbine engines. That boosted her payload, speed and range, while dropping about 1,000 pounds of structural weight.
“You always want to have as much capability as you can,” said pilot Tony Sleznich, one of the very few people who’s both flown the Doug and jumped out of her as a smokejumper. “If I had to lose an engine in an emergency, I can still climb on one engine to get away from the ground.”
Military special forces troops often come to train with smokejumpers, learning to land in mountainous terrain and extricate themselves from trees. The Army Golden Knights parachute team and an Iraqi Army unit each left insignia stickers on the forward bulkhead with tags of other smokejumper squads the Doug has ferried.
A few years ago, Sannella flew Jump-15 from Missoula to staff a fire in the Lolo National Forest, then crossed the Idaho border to drop jumpers at another blaze in the Panhandle National Forest, and then picked up 19 jumpers who’d demobilized from a fire near Priest Lake and brought them to Missoula – all on the same tank of gas.
Jumpers love that big gas tank because it means they can spend time over a fire looking for the best place to drop. The Doug can also loiter for hours as a communications relay – particularly appreciated when someone gets injured and rescuers are getting prepared.
“It took the initial attack from Missoula to Broadus, 360 nautical miles,” Sannella said. “There’s not another airplane that could do that last year.”