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Aerial Firefighting

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Well-known member
Dec 14, 2001

The experience requirements set forth by the Office of Aircraft Services and USFS are very low, and don't represent what is actually required. For a tanker captain, a total time of 1500 hrs with a PIC of 1200 is the minimum. Realistically 5,000 to 10,000 total would be closer. Of the 1,200 PIC, 25 must be make and model, with 200 in category, 100 in multi engine, 100 during the preceeding 12 months, 75 instrument, 100 night, and 200 mountain and low level.

A copilot needs a multi engine and instrument rating with a minimum of 800 hours total, and 100 hours instrument. Realistically, most copilots start around 3,000 or 4,000 hours total, though in a pinch pilots have been hired with much less.

Air attack positions require basic Part 135 minimums, and hiring is often done in that range with private 135 operators. Typical air attack platforms are Twin Commanders or Barons.

Upgrade time for a captain is typically 5 to 10 years, with the pilot averaging 100-150 hours annually. You need to bear in mind that an hour doing what they're doing is equivilent to hundreds of hours of point to point flying...the experience level is very intense. It's definitely not a time building job, however.

Training is on the job. There isn't really anything you can do to prepare you for this type of flying. The closest would be ag work; crop dusting. Sometimes those coming from a military or airline background are disappointed to find that they're considered entry level beginners, and treated as such, because their experience doesn't have a lot of bearing on what they're doing. In most cases, folks from these backgrounds don't last long either, because of the shock and unwilliness to get dirty and work hard.

Flying tankers will work you hard. You'll hand scrub the entire airplane every time you fly it. You'll work on it, often 14 hours a day if you're not flying it, and it's not light work. You will want to come prepared by holding a mechanic certificate, or having significant maintenance experience, because you'll use it...a lot. Crewmembers carry tools aboard and spares, and perform the duties of mechanic as well as pilot.

There are no schools. Your qualification is on the job. As a copilot, you'll be very limited in what you're allowed to do, and you will probably never perform a takeoff or landing the first year. Your wages at first won't be high; it's assumed you'll probably quit during or just after the season because so many do. There are very few openings each year, and only a few of those filling the openings will stick with it. It's a hard life, and an especially onerous one if you have a family.

A season will typically kick off with a call late at night advising you to be ready at 0600 the next morning. Crews will be up all night prepping the airplane and loading it with supplies and parts. You'll head out on a dispatch which may last 6 to 10 months, and you won't be coming home in between. You'll have fifteen minutes to be airborne from then on, whenever given an assignment, and there's no stopping to get weather or NOTAMs; you could go anywhere at any time, and sometimes you'll get a dispatch that simply says to take off north. You'll get the coordinates enroute. Often you'll be diverted. You'll never know where you'll be spending the night; it's hard for your family to keep up or stick with you.

You'll find that tanker base accomodations are sparse; often without running water or indoor toilets, and often no air conditioning. Sometimes no electricity.

Tanker positions are with private companies, except for the State of California, which uses state airplanes flown by privately contracted pilots.

The USFS and BLM do have some leadplanes (barons) and ASM modules which guide tankers and perform communications and aerial supervision. These are either Barons or OV-10's, and are flown by government employees. Training into these positions takes 2-3 years.

The USFS also has jump ships, using either Sherpas or Turbine DC-3's (Basler configuration). They also contract and use Twin Otters to deploy smoke jumpers and paracargo. These are largely flown by government pilots; often leadplane pilots are crosstrained to fly jump ships and rotate through these positions.

Private contractors fly heavy tankers which include P2V-5/7's, DC-4's, DC-6's, a DC-7, PB4Y-2's, C-130A's, a C-97G, P-3A's, etc. Sometimes you can hire directly into a seat, sometimes you can get a job flying a chase airplane with mechanics and parts, and work into a tanker position with time.

A few years ago I was in Hibbing, MN, on contract. It had been raining for almost three weeks, and I had been working in the rain doing maintenance on the airplane most of that time, for 9 hours a day. It was cold, I was constantly wet, and it wasn't a lot of fun. We had some heavy work to do, and called for a mechanic to come help. The company sent a Cessna 210 and a mechanic. The parts pilot flying the 210 was also a mechanic, so we put him to work.

While working, I questioned him about his intent. He said he just wanted to build some time and get some "heavy" time. He was disappointed when I told him how little he would be flying. He said his goal was to fly for the airlines. I pointed out that this was nothing like airline flying. I put him to work on an engine; he didn't last but a short time before he was upset about working on a ladder in the cold and rain.

I later met with the chief pilot , who accused me of costing him a pilot. Apparently this parts pilot flew home and told everyone he was quitting because he didn't want to work as hard as I did. What the truth was, who knows, but he was quickly disillousioned with tankers.

There are also single engine air tankers, which I'm doing right at the moment. SEATs generally require significant conventional gear and agricultural experience. These can be challenging airplanes to fly; they're very unstable and have a lot less intertia. They're flown much closer to targets, and into tighter spaces and deeper holes than heavy tankers. They operate from smaller, more remote aircstrips, and experience a higher loss rate, accordingly. A minimum of two years is required for a SEAT pilot to gain a Level 1 card, which is an "initial attack" qualification for the pilot. I was awarded a level one card immediately, but only because of prior fire experience in heavies.

You can glean some good info by navigating this site: http://www.airtanker.com/aap/aap2.htm

Air attack platforms are aerial observation, command and control, air traffic control, etc platforms that may be single or multi engine airplanes, flown by pilots who meet minimum IFR Part 135 requirements. Air attack flying is fairly generic work, and doesn't require a lot of training. Most air attack pilots only do it for a season or two, in th hopes of "time building."

It took me seven years of begging and bothering tanker companies to get my first position, and I got that as a parts pilot and mechanic in the company repair station. Getting a position is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time. You're always better going to the operator and meeting them in person. A handshake goes a lot farther toward the overall picture for hiring, than does a mailed resume. This is ag work, and hiring is done by people who are more interested in what you can do than what is in your logbook. Go visit each operator, and keep after them.

Get to know the risks before you begin. Don't count on quitting during the season. When you sign on, you buy the whole ball of wax; you commit to sticking it out regardless of what happens. With that in mind, know what you're getting into, before you start. Tanker pilots are not a dime a dozen, and finding someone to fill in when someone quits isn't easy. Airplanes do not get downed or take unavailability; they fly and do the job. You're facing some tough odds, some potentially spooky flying conditions, and some ways of operating that may seem to fly in the face of everything you think you know. You'll see mountainous terrain in new and interesting ways, and you'll see performance envelopes for airplanes utilized in full.

Get used to dealing with emergencies and malfunctions. You'll be putting airplanes into some stressful environments that can hurt the airplanes, or hurt you. Certainly reduce service life. You'll likely be dealing with more interesting events during one season than you'll face during your entire career in other areas of the industry.

What specific questions do you have?
I spent a good part of the summer doing Air Attack and Recon flights from Santa Fe, in a C-340.

It was definitely interesting work, an experience you really will not get anywhere else. I did get some good photos of air tankers on their drops.
It does involve lots of duty time, and very few days off, and some days you will not fly a whole lot, and some days I did 8 hours.
Air attacks and leads will typically fly a lot more than tankers; I put several hundred hours on twin commanders doing overhead work in a season. On tankers, typically a party is thrown when the tanker breaks a hundred hours for the season. The past few years this hasn't been a problem; tankers have been getting two or three hundred hours in some cases, but not always. The SEAT I'm in has clocked a whopping 35 hours this year.
What about the Helo's?

Avbug, excellent article. You forgot to tell him about smelling like the fire when and if you get done for the day. I spent a good number of years fighting fires in CH-47 and BV234 helicopters using 2000 gallon buckets and long lines. Talk about an experience. Was involved in the Yellowstone fires in the late 80's, Idaho fires in the ealry 90's, Texas fires in 98-99, and several fires in Hawaii 94-96. I didn't need to be OAS carded because we were mil aircraft but worked directly with the air boss and guys like you. Some of the most fun I have had in my flying carreer. Like you said, it is very demanding, but it is also very rewarding. That is one of the reasons I get so freeking board flying point to point with the airlines. There is just no comparison. Good luck to you and keep up all of the good work. ;)
Helicopters are a specialized requirement. Military operations don't have the same reqirements and are further specialized. The military conducts both helo and fixed wing fire ops (MAFFS), as well as supplying ground troops occasionally for fire, and even has used airborne control and command equipment to include AWACS in the past couple of years. (Montana, last year).

Helicopters are used extensively, and generally fly a lot more than fixed wing. Helicopters range from Hughes 500's/OH-6's to Skycranes.

Helicopters and fixed wing are often operated in very close proximity, and often in large numbers. The application for each may be the same, or very different, depending on the circumstances.

From a civillian perspective, a lot of experience is required to get into a helicopter position. The vast majority of pilots flying fire in helos are ex-military. Virtually no civillian trained pilots end up flying fire. A lot of the helo pilots tell me that on a going fire, their flying is reminiscent of their combat experiences.

There is a high loss rate for helicopters over fires, too, but much lower by percentage than the fixed wing, simply because there are a lot more helicopters out there.

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