Smokejumpers’ DC-3 retires

McCall DC-3 retirement
DC-3 smokejumper
Jump-42, a US Forest Service DC-3, retires. USFS photo, taken at Ogden, Utah, October 24, 2012.

A retirement ceremony was held Monday, October 24 in Ogden, Utah, for a 69-year old firefighter that served for 42 years. It was J-42, a DC-3 that for four decades flew firefighters and smokejumpers around the western United States. Manufactured in 1943, its radial piston engines were replaced with modern turbines a number of years ago, extending its life while providing more reliability and requiring less maintenance. Most recently the aircraft had been assigned to the smokejumper base at McCall, Idaho.

There is still one other US Forest Service DC-3 remaining, stationed at Missoula. It also went through the turbine conversion years ago, but recently serious structural problems were found which required extensive repairs. That aircraft is expected to begin flying again next year. It will probably be used for a few more years before it too faces retirement.

Approximately 607 DC-3s were built between 1936 and 1942. At that time their cost was $79,000. Most of them had 14-cylinder Pratt and Whitney radial engines.

After being around the DC-3s off and on while on fire assignments, I never got used to the strange, new turbine sound coming from the aircraft after the conversion. I loved hearing those 28 cylinders. We still get to hear it from the 36 cylinders in the two radial engines on the currently-flying P2V air tankers operated by Neptune Aviation out of Missoula. But the days for hearing that sound are numbered, as the air tanker fleet transitions to the “next generation”.

When I worked on the El Cariso Hot Shots in southern California, we were told that previously, in the 1950s or 1960s, a DC-3 had been stationed at a nearby airport, possibly Ontario, ready to transport El Cariso and the Del Rosa Hot Shots to fires.

I flew in one of the USFS DC-3s in the 1970s, from Redding, California to a fire on the Plumas National Forest. At the time I had a cold and my ears had difficulty equalizing in the unpressurized aircraft. The pain was severe as we climbed to cruising altitude and leveled off. After a while my ears finally equalized and the pain subsided. That’s when we began our descent and the process started all over again.


Thanks go out to Ken and Chris.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

7 thoughts on “Smokejumpers’ DC-3 retires”

  1. Ahhh! The DC-3. Excellent memories are evoked by that stalwart of aircraft. I was blessed with my first seasonal firefighting job in 1968 with the Roosevelt Interregional Hotshots following my freshman year at Colorado State. Based in Fort Collins back then our regular means of transport to fires was on a DC-3. We would load up at the Loveland airport and off we’d go for hours-long flights. Accomodations were lacking. There were jump seats and usually 2-3 puke barrels. The “senior ‘shots” new how to work us newbies… one or two would light up cigars. I quickly learned the secret to avoid air sickness…. pick a space on the floor, ideally away from a barrel, and lie down for the flight.

    It is a joy to have experienced the blue flames coming from the engine nacells, the bumps and drops and views and “detours/delays” associated with “low-level flight”, the incessant drone and vibration of the engines, visits with the pilots on the flight deck enroute and, of course, the sensory experience of those beautiful radial engines as they fired up, grey clouds of smoke eminating.

    I’ll tell you, getting to the fires was an adventure in itself!

    I didn’t fly in a jet aircraft until 1972 with El Cariso. Remember, Bill, the commercial jet flight from Ontario with a touchdown in Santa Barbara for a crew pick-up before landing in Monterey for a nice bus tour down the Big Sur coast to the “small” but memorable, Big Sur Fire? Mmmmm. Poison oak!!


  2. Sad to see the radials disappear. When I first started working at the local tanker base, many of the S2s still had the big radials. Now, they all have have turbine engines. P2Vs? Going, going, soon gone. I can remember as a high schooler crawling around the B-17s that worked out of Chico in the 60s. Ah yes. Life moves on.

  3. Any idea what the plans were for J42 after retirement? Or was she retired to a museum?

  4. Just like the goverment to replace something when it is just reaching its prime. In the ’70 Aero Union (remember those guys) had concept drawings and technical data that “bolted on” a 1000 gallon tank to the DC-3. It was a clean streamline looking tank which appeared to act as a lifting body with little parasite drag. The Royal Thailand Air Force operates the Basler Turbo Converstions DC-3 with the same designed tank today as a fire bomber. Maybe they will join the Canadains next fire season here in the U.S.

  5. I am in agreement with MR Coldwater in his assessment….

    But I am going to go a little further with the following:

    The turbine powered arrived with Basler in Minneapolis approximately 1988 when they were running freight and they were being fueled by Page Aviation Services and on occasion Van Dusen Airport Services when I was both as refueler and Forest Tech with the USFS. It was and still is in MANY arenas still a great machine and many folks are willing to invest in furthering the aircraft until the proverbial “wheels fall off.”

    Where my departure comes in as follows and many will not agree:

    The fanfare will wear off for ol Jumper 42 in time as did the “feelings” for Hawkins and Powers and Aero Union. We in the aviation biz saw the the conversion of many a WWII ship and would much rather hear the old radial engine and many of us got used to hearing BOTH types of engines at many an airfield at many an airport across the US. The love of aviation does not depart from many of us who maintain or fly for fun or a living. Most of us got used to change pretty quickly, but agreeably, many of us prefer radial to turbine on many ships due to history. MR Basler did, too. He just furthered the life into the DC3 series and redesigned it as the the BT67 series due to upgrades in airframe, electrical, and engines.

    What the folks ought to realize here, while the DC3 (USFS ship) did its PR missions, its service transporting the bodies of many a firefighter, and other government missions, I am, going to say here, like many a firefighter and upper echelon USFS and LMA’s have referred to…wait for it….another tool in the firefighting toolbox. Does that caption sound familiar??

    While I would like to feel all “historical” about J42, I just can’t. I understand the feelings of the WWII types who flew this series….my father was an aerial photographer in the USAAC / USN and flew in many of the radial engine aircraft still being used as transport, airtankers, and freight. He and his buddies who were officers and pilots flew many a mission. I grew up with these guys and the aircraft and even saw the early DC3 turbine conversion, 24 years ago.

    There was no fanfare over H&P or AUC, two years ago, the only last fanfare was to see the auction advertised in many an aviation magazine, when the last of the tools,tooling, jigs and fixtures were being sold….was there anybody there shedding a tear for those old aircraft that did yeomans work for the USFS??

    So as I said before, the folks in the firefighting world consider aircraft and helicopters just another tool in the “firefighters toolbox.”

    For us in the aviation world……aircraft of this vintage and even the C130 and P3’s are muuuuuuuuch more than a tool. Without them…….those tools…served with distinction and affected society in many ways that today’s land manager will never understand. J42 was much more than a jump ship and deserves the rest and respect. It was more than a tool. Hopefully the USFS and land managers, will be ready to see the last DC3 maybe head for the Natl Air and Space Museum and not just on some pedestal / or pylon in Missoula or McCall……..

  6. I can just see Buffalo Joe salivating over this if it comes up for auction. Bet he could keep that bird working for it’s living.

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