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This is the website where you will find all the job details when they are offered, although it doesn't look like they are hiring fire pilots right now.
I don't know just how these jobs are "who ya know" compared to airlines, but from what I understand of the hiring process it doesn't seem nearly that bad. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to properly apply and the process seems to still work the same way it would have thirty years ago technology wise, so be prepared. This does seem very seasonal in the hiring. Late last fall they were looking for a lot of pilots, now they aren't looking for anyone.
I applied for one of those jobs earlier this year, but have not heard anything yet.
Pilots who judge themselves and others by what size plane they fly, and think if it is not 121, its crap, would not like this job at all. That would be one benefits of being in firefighting ops, you will not have to be around those types. I have met some guys who ditched the regionals to fly lead plane, and love it.
But those who enjoy flying, like being operationally involved in something, making decent pay, not having to get involved in all the union/management problems, it could be a great job.
Pay is not bad at all, and the retirement is good too I think, with good benefits. Downside is being gone a good part of the summer, and some of the hazards inherent in low level mountainous operations around fires.
I think one thing that really really helps in getting lead plane jobs, is having some fire experience, even from the ground. Doing air attack or tanker flying would really help. I wouldnt be surprised though if there are more than a few tanker guys looking to get out of tankers and into lead though right now.
Lead positions are few and far between. There are several types out there; the USFS posts are Leads, and the BLM posts are ASM's, but it's essentially the same thing. It's definitely not who you know; this is a government position, and it's based on preference points and experience.
These days the lead posts are combination posts in many cases with lead pilots rotating between up to three aircraft types. Often they'll fly lead for a couple of weeks, and then rotate to a smoke ship such as a Doug or a Sherpa. Then back to the Baron or King Air.
Not a lot of folks come from tankers to lead positions, but a few do. The most experienced (and quite possibly the best) lead pilot in the business right now is a former long-time tanker driver.
Generally it takes two years to get qualified in the lead seat, depending on the season, needs, etc. There is a lot more involved than you might think.
Preference points involve disability, vetran status, etc. It's typical civil service, in that respect.
The lead program is likely going to exist for some time, but it's on a perpetual experimental basis; it's reviewed regularly to determine if the program will exist next year.