Today’s post is written by Richard Elsom, an Archives Technician at the National Archives at Denver.
In the West, wildland fire is a regular threat to populated spaces as well as the rugged backcountry found in forests and wilderness areas. In 1939, in an effort to improve response time on fires in remote areas, the U.S. Forest Service began to experiment with dropping firefighters from aircraft. These early parachute tests conducted in Washington State were so successful that they spawned a new type of wildland firefighter that still serves today, the smokejumper.
However, 1939 was not the first time the Forest Service tested the idea of dropping firefighters by parachute. The History of Smokejumping, produced by Region 1 of the Forest Service in 1976, states that T.V. Pearson “proposed and initiated” the first parachute tests in 1934 in the Intermountain Region (also known as Region 4), but the project stalled due to a belief it was too risky.
At the National Archives at Denver, we have documents relating to this first test in Record Group 95: Records of the Forest Service, within the series Historical Files, 1901-1962 (NAID 23944420). While Pearson may have proposed parachute tests in 1934, there is no mention of it among the files of that year. However, there is evidence of Pearson’s parachute experiments beginning in 1935. These tests were fairly extensive with a total of thirty successful parachute drops, twenty-eight using a 155 pound iron weight and two manned drops by professional parachutist J.B. Bruce. Pearson likely would have made more drops, but an inspector from the Airways Division of the Department of Commerce halted his work in early April 1935 and required that Pearson obtain the proper permit in order to conduct additional drops. In the letter below, Pearson had to plainly describe what exactly his tests entailed in order to secure the permit.
While waiting for approval, Pearson wrote a memo on May 13, 1935, explaining how dropping firefighters from the air would greatly reduce the time it takes to arrive at a fire and would thus limit the size and destructive force of a given fire. He also details his experiments and notes his desire to remain involved with the project if the Forest Service decided to conduct additional tests. Unfortunately, Pearson could secure no converts to his method outside of Region 4 other than his partner in the experiments, the civilian parachutist J.B. Bruce. Bruce wrote a letter to Forest Service Headquarters asking to travel to Washington, D.C. and present the case for continuing the project, but his request was denied.
The lack of support for the project in 1935 was due in part to the early nature of parachuting, but more importantly, Pearson failed to convince anyone from Region 1, Region 5, or Region 6 of the importance of his work. With the seasonal fire danger in Region 4 largely confined to its portion of central Idaho, their ideas about fire policy were overruled by the major fire players of Regions 1, 5, and 6 with their extensive fire danger areas in Montana, California, Washington, and Oregon. In a July 19, 1935, letter to Earl Loveridge at Forest Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Evan Kelley, Regional Forester for Region 1, writes that he has heard from experienced fliers that “all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy” and parachuting men into mountainous terrain would be far too risky. “The point of my letter is that I have no hankering to assume the responsibility for men risking their lives in any such undertaking.” Consequently, Pearson’s promising results went nowhere.
The parachute project remained dormant until 1939 after “strong sentiment [had] grown up for experimentation with dropping of firemen from aircraft with man parachutes,” according to Roy Headley, Chief of the Division of Fire Control at Forest Service Headquarters. Headley’s July 6, 1939, letter to the Regional Forester of Region 6 confirms that Region 4 lacked influence on fire matters when he states that he did not take the early parachute experiments seriously, but if “a group of men in any of the major fire regions comes to believe the idea worth experimenting with, I am quite ready to admit that I may have been wrong before.” C.N. Woods, Regional Forester for Region 4, writes Region 6 on September 5, 1939, and forwards the 1935 memo from Pearson in which he details his experiments, but Woods notes that additional information on the tests is missing and likely stayed with Pearson when he left the Region.
Despite being responsible for carrying out the first manned parachute tests in the Forest Service and paving the way for future work in the field, T.V. Pearson receives little more than a brief mention in the overall history of smokejumping. Who was T.V. Pearson and why was he the one to give the idea of parachuting firefighters a serious test while others dismissed the “scheme” as the exclusive domain of barnstormers and crackpots?
Pearson, as a member of the regional staff in Ogden, Utah in the Operation section, first appears in our records in Denver among the 1922 Administrative Bulletins within the series Historical Files, 1901-1962 (NAID 23944420). In these bulletins, Pearson shows himself to be forward thinking with a short article encouraging forest rangers to continue to learn and try new things on the job. He also suggests that supervisors back at the office should spend time with their subordinate rangers in the field and see what they can do to work together and be a more efficient team. In June 1922, Pearson oversaw the establishment of a centralized telephone dispatch system on the Boise National Forest that connected the district ranger directly to his lookout posts and firefighting assets. Centralized dispatch also removed the Regional Office from direct control during a fire and gave district rangers the authority to orchestrate the response as they saw fit. Pearson touted the benefits of this new system and, once it was established on all Region 4 forests, stated it improved response time on fires and reduced related correspondence to the regional office by 98%.
Pearson next appears in 1932 in correspondence between himself and the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation. Pearson writes to inquire about the possibility of using a Goodyear zeppelin to transport men and equipment into the backcountry to fight fire. In a very candid response, Goodyear cautions Pearson against the use of zeppelins and notes that they cannot fly in strong winds, are unable to carry more than 1,200 total pounds of personnel and equipment (further reduced if operating at the high elevations of the Intermountain Region), and are rather expensive at $75,000 per zeppelin.
Despite the zeppelin dead end, Pearson continued to work on ways to improve transportation of firefighters and their equipment. He modified the standard parachutes he had access to and added a rubber tube running inside the outer edge that he would inflate after he packed the parachute into a bag or metal case. This now inflated tube ensured that the parachute opened immediately upon release from its case and allowed for accurate drops as low as 100 feet from the ground. It was with this modified parachute, among others, that he conducted his experiments in 1935.
Our last glimpse of T.V. Pearson in our parachuting records comes in a letter dated October 22, 1943, in which he asks for smokejumper stats from Region 4 while serving as Acting Chief of the Division of Fire Control at Forest Service Headquarters. The records indicate Pearson left the regional office for Washington, D.C. at some point between his parachute tests of 1935 and the revival of the program in 1939, but did he continue to advocate for the development of aerial firefighters after leaving Region 4? Based on his firsthand experience and his record of forward thinking, it is likely that he continued his efforts upon arrival at his new job in the Division of Fire Control, but that is a mystery for another time and another National Archives location.
One final question we can tackle is what is Pearson’s full name? In our records, he is only ever referred to as T.V. Pearson, TVP, or simply Pearson. The July 2015 edition of Smokejumper magazine includes an article on T.V. Pearson that mentions his first name is Thomas. From there, a quick search on Ancestry.com turns up Pearson’s draft card from the First World War and we meet Thomas Virgil Pearson, Forest Service innovator and pioneer.
 Draft card accessed via Ancestry.com from U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line]; Original data: United States, Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. Microfilm roll M1509.
All other information, images, and documents come from original records at the National Archives at Denver within the series Historical Files, 1901-1962 (NAID 23944420), Record Group 95: Records of the Forest Service.