In some fire-prone regions, such as California – which was ravaged by calamities like the autumn 2020 ‘Glass Fire’ that took more than three weeks to contain and laid waste to almost 67,000 acres of land – the long-standing policy of letting wildfires run their course is now giving way to a strategy of rapid response in an effort to put fires out as soon as possible after the first outbreak. That means local agencies need to expand their ability to deploy their own aircraft or have fixed-wing and rotorcraft contracted from private operators.
During the 2022 wildfire season in Canada, some private sector operators have said that they were unable to respond to requests from government agencies because no rotorcraft pilots were available, with some operators saying the pilot shortage has finally become critical. With hundreds of wildfires erupting in western Canada in early summer 2023 – significantly more wildfire activity for the time of year has been seen than any time in the recent past, according to Wildfire Alberta – the region’s aerial firefighters are likely to be under even greater pressure this summer and in years to come.
Aircraft manufacturers are scrambling to gear up production of fixed-wing planes and rotorcraft for a wide range of firefighting missions, from Air Tractor’s nimble single-seater Fire Boss to Airbus’s workhorse H125, H135 and H145 aircraft and the big beasts of the Super Puma family or the Erickson S-64 Air Crane helitanker. Retrofitted behemoths like the DC-10 and B-747 Supertanker airtankers flown by companies such as 10 Tanker and Global SuperTanker Services are also much in demand. Texas-based Air Tractor, which equips the fixed-wing firefighting fleets of Spain, Greece, Croatia and numerous other regions worldwide with the single-engine, single-seater AT-802F Fire Boss, has reportedly exceeded its target of building more than 200 aircraft over the past 12 months. Expanding the global aerial firefighting fleet, though, may be just half the battle.
More wildfire activity for the time of year has been seen than any time in the recent past
As reported in AirMed&Rescue in May last year, the proliferation of ex-US military Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters suitable for conversion to the aerial firefighting role, plus the advent of the new Sikorsky S-70M which went into full production in 2022, is also pushing demand for trained S-70 pilots. The Portuguese Air Force has recently taken delivery of the first of six converted Black Hawks from Alabama-based Arista Aviation Services under a contract which includes training for six pilots and 21 mechanics.
“New and modern helicopters will increase the safety and efficiency of firefighting operations,” said an Airbus Helicopters spokesperson.
The question is: who’s going to fly them?
Interviewed by AirMed&Rescue in May last year, Rafael Beltrán of Titan Aerial Firefighting in Spain – a major user of the Air Tractor Fire Boss – warned of a looming pilot shortage and urged operators to look at the long term and invest early in training a new generation of firefighting pilots. The skills and experience required for a wide variety of firefighting missions can’t be acquired overnight.
A need for training
As long ago as 2018, operators were warning that they faced a shortage of pilots. If anything, that situation has become more challenging, according to some industry voices.
There are lots of helicopter pilots, but finding individuals with firefighting skills and training is rare
“We have seen this for the past several years,” said Dennis Hahn, S-64 Pilot and Training Manager at Erickson Aviation, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for the S-64 Air Crane helitanker. “There are lots of helicopter pilots, but finding individuals with firefighting skills and training is rare,” he said. Erickson’s solution to the pilot shortage has been to train within.
“This was a financial and strategic decision to deal with the shortage of pilots. Each spring we host a two-month training period where we bring in all our pilots, including new hires, to attend our Safety and Firefighting Training Program,” Hahn said.
More aircraft and more missions inevitably means greater demand for aircrew and ground crew with the specialist skills needed for effective aerial firefighting missions. Those skills typically include low level flying over rugged terrain and the confidence to fly without over-relying on automation.
For pilots of specialized rotorcraft such as the S-64 Air Crane, vertical reference requires extensive training to master. Hahn explained: “Vertical reference is a critical skill when operating with a pond snorkel as you are hovering close to the water. The water spray and visual illusions off the ripples in the water require focused concentration and it’s not a time to be practicing while picking up to 2,000 gallons of water.”
Erickson also operates with sea snorkels that use ram pressure to fill the water tank in 30–45s. “This requires us to fly at 10 feet above the water at 40 knots, following the curvature of the waves to keep the dive plane just below the surface of the water,” noted Hahn.
Aerial firefighters also have a crucial role to play in directing firefighters on the ground. “Knowledge of fire crew operations and fire behaviour is also a critical skill for aerial firefighting, as you are the support for the ground crews and need to understand how the fire is going to act or move,” Hahn said.
Erickson sends ‘as many pilots as [they] can get seats for’ to the three US National Aerial Firefighting Academies (NAFA I, II, and III), where courses vary from two to five days. Hahn explained: “Our company training varies in length but typically has four days of ground training focusing on safety, standardization, company and firefighting topics, followed up with practical exercises, to include emergency egress training and safety equipment, aircraft systems, snorkel operations, concluding with flight training of two to six hours, which covers Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recurrency requirements and United States Forest Service (USFS) check rides. We also conducted night vision goggles and long line operations this year for selected pilots.”
“Agility, precision and remaining calm under pressure are key skills for aerial firefighting pilots,” said the spokesperson for Airbus Helicopters, who also notes that these are also requirements for pilots in the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) and search and rescue (SAR) sectors.
“They need to be experienced to work in a congested area, with many aircraft in a small area, and under conditions of low visibility,” the spokesperson added.
Private operator sources concur. In Canada, for example, when combating a severe wildfire, pilots may take off at first light and fly shifts of up to seven hours in highly challenging conditions that may include high winds and thick ground smoke, normally operating at low altitude and under day visual flight rules, with 10 or more aircraft operating in the same mission space in low visibility. Flying a giant like the B747 SuperTanker – the world’s largest aerial firefighting aircraft, with a speed of nearly 600mph and, according to operator Global SuperTanker Services, capable of deploying almost anywhere in the world in less than 20 hours – is clearly a different proposition from piloting the nimble little Air Tractor Fire Boss.
“Firefighting operators are in competition with other services like HEMS and SAR that are non-seasonal,” said Airbus’ spokesperson. “One aspect for sure is the financial resources available compared with the competing services.”
They are also in competition with virtually every aviation sector, from corporate piloting to scheduled airlines who are also facing a pilot shortfall as a generation of ‘baby boomers’ takes retirement. Commercial helicopter fleets across the board are growing. According to Transport Canada, the overall rotorcraft fleet grew by almost 500 aircraft between 2008 and 2022, while the pool of trained pilots shrank.
Firefighting operators are in competition for pilots with other services like HEMS and SAR
Unlike HEMS and SAR, aerial firefighting is a highly seasonal sector, with lengthy (though shrinking) spells of ‘down time’ for operators in cooler, wetter months of the year in their home regions. Larger private sector operators on contract to state fire agencies in both hemispheres can keep their fleets and aircrew busy by repositioning aircraft, for example, from the US and Canada during the northern winter to tackle blazes in the South American and Australian summer.
Struggling with the work–life balance
That nomadic lifestyle may have attractions for some pilots who enjoy the challenge of relocating – sometimes to the other side of the world – when one hemisphere's fire season cools down and another’s kicks off.
For many aspiring pilots, though, a career in airlines or corporate aviation may seem more attractive than the occasionally exciting but unpredictable lifestyle of the firefighting aviator. Firefighter pilots in the private sector in North America, for example, may be away from home for more than half the year during a typical fire season, making the job a hard sell for recruiters. There are psychological challenges too.
“I would say the fatigue is more of an issue than the stress. There is stress, but it can be managed with proper preparation and training,” said Hahn. “It’s more likely the tediousness of sitting around for multiple days waiting for a call, to then be working extended days fighting is more likely the cause of exhaustion. Both of which, though, can be fatiguing on their own.”
Staff recruitment and retention
“Given wildfire seasons have become longer around the globe, we recognize the importance of maintaining a keen focus on hiring and retaining quality pilots to support our operation,” said Nick Nenadovic, President of Billings Flying Service (BFS). Based in Billings, Montana, BFS provides aviation services to the utility aviation and defense industries including firefighting, precision external heavy lifting, aircraft refurbishment, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services, and aircraft sales. BFS has two multi-use hangars capable of housing the largest rotary-wing aircraft.
We recognize the importance of maintaining a keen focus on hiring and retaining quality pilots
“As a pre-eminent operator of the CH-47D, BFS continues to attract the best and brightest in the industry. Our hiring program draws from long-time industry professionals with decades of experience, and we pride ourselves on promoting a ‘people-first’ culture. We offer competitive salaries, industry leading company sponsored days off, a competitive 401(k) plan among other benefits to keep BFS an attractive employment option,” Nenadovic said.
Hahn agreed and confirmed that Erickson also goes beyond just offering higher salaries in order to retain staff: “Pay is certainly an incentive in any industry, but Erickson’s investment in world-class training, and potential for advancement, has been a compelling incentive for pilot retention.” He concluded: “Unfortunately, many operators don’t invest in training and only do ‘on-the-job training’, or they strictly hire co-pilots with little chance of advancement. Erickson invests in our pilots and we like to say we don’t hire co-pilots, we only hire future Pilots in Command / Captains.”
Demand for skilled aerial firefighters is only going to increase as the competition within the industry grows, as more aircraft are available for conversion, and as wildfires continue to increase in frequency. Pilots with the right stuff may not quite be able to name their price – but when it comes to negotiating pay and conditions, they are likely to be in a strong bargaining position for the foreseeable future.