Missoula Smokejumper History

Early Aerial Recon

Not long after the end of World War 1 in 1918, the Chief Forester for the U.S. Forest Service, Henry S. Graves, contacted the Chief of the Army Air Service--later known as the Army Air Corps--inquiring about the possibility of cooperating with the Forest Service for the purpose of providing aerial fire detection over some of the forests of the Western States.

Col. Hap Arnold, who would later become head of the U.S. Army Air Force during WW II, was in charge of the Western Department of the U.S. Air Service at the time and did much to help initiate aerial fire patrols. The Missoula Sentinel paper of Missoula, Montana on Saturday, May 17, 1919 had this comment: "District No. 5 Establishes Patrol Over Angeles Forest; Will Be Extended, if Successful, as Expected. Officials of District No. 1 of the forest service have received word of the establishment of the first air patrol of national forests, to begin June 1, making the sky pilot who will give early warning of fires a reality at last. The initial patrol will be established over the Angeles forest, in district No. 5, which is located conveniently near the army balloon school at Arcadia, Cal...This will be the beginning of experimental work in which the adaptability of aircraft to forest patrol work is to be tried out thoroughly. If the tests prove as successful as it is thought that they will be, it is expected that the airplane patrols will be extended before the end of the 1919 season and that airplanes will become a permanent feature of the forest service forces."

Aerial fire patrols in Region 1 (Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington at the time), began in 1925. The Spokane Chronicle, June 25th, 1925, said: "Lieutenant Nick B. Mamer of Spokane today received appointment as forest fire patrol pilot for eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. He will leave Spokane tomorrow night for Rockwell Field, San Diego, to get his Liberty-motored deHaviland Airplane which will be used on the patrol..." The Army Air Corps (name changed from Army Air Service in 1925) had loaned two DH-4 deHaviland aircraft to the U. S. Forest Service for use on fire patrols out of Spokane. The other pilot at that time was R. T. Freng.

Nick Mamer was a legendary pilot, who had served with the U.S. Air Service during WW I, and later settled in Spokane, establishing the Mamer Flying Service and Mamer Air Transport firms. He taught Bob Johnson of the Johnson Flying Service of Missoula how to fly. During the time that he flew aerial fire patrols he never experienced a forced landing.

On August 15, 1929 he undertook a transcontinental non-stop flight, with Art Walker acting as mechanic and refueling hoseman, in a Buhl aircraft named the "Spokane Sun-God". The flight progressed from Spokane to San Francisco, on to New York and back to Spokane five days later. Aerial refueling was accomplished at a number of points along the flight path (one was over Missoula on the return trip). Mamer and Walker did not sleep during those five days aloft. They set a number of records, one of which was a world's record non-stop flight of 7,200 miles.

During the period 1925-1935 Forest Inspector Howard R. Flint and Nick Mamer were inseparably connected with the pioneering of aerial activities in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region. Then on January 10, 1938, while flying as a chief pilot for Northwest Airlines on a Lockheed Model 14-H Super Electra during a flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, parts of the tail section were torn from the aircraft while over the Bridger Range about 15 miles northeast of Bozeman, Montana and the plane went into a dive. Mamer, copilot Fred West and eight passengers died instantly. There wasn't any stewardess on the plane. Later, an investigation revealed that the tail structure had failed on the new design from what is known as "natural resonance, or period of vibration". So ended the life of one of the very first aerial fire patrol pilots in the northwest, a pilot who at one time was known as "Mr. Spokane Aviation".

Howard Flint became ill while on a trip down the Salmon River in Idaho with a National Geographic expedition in 1935. He was flown out of a small, dangerous strip-Mackey Bar--along the river by Dick Johnson in a Travel Air, but died shortly after at Missoula on October 14th of that year. R. T. Freng, who, along with Nick Mamer, flew aerial patrols out of Spokane beginning in 1925, passed away at Palo Alto, California July 23, 1952.

It was during 1925-1935 when aerial photography in the Forest Service expanded from a small experimental stage to large-scale production. Cargo dropping from aircraft was first employed on actual fires in 1929 and became a very practical means of supplying and resupplying fire fighters about five years later.