What does it take to be an aerial firefighting pilot?
Eder Navacerrada writes about the importance of patterns, decisions and sustained professional growth when it comes to developing a career as a firefighting aviator, focusing on fixed-wing single crew
People have often asked me how to become an aerial firefighter. Unfortunately, there is not one single easy answer, but there are answers that might help to point a budding firefighting pilot in the right direction. If you are looking for a magic formula, the name of specific companies, flight schools, vacancies, or the contacts of directors of operations, be advised this is not the article. Most of that is easy to find on the internet. This article is tailored to Europe, and the AT802 Fireboss, but it could be applied to other aircraft and places.
The ultimate multi-tasking role
A top-notch aerial firefighter isn’t just a pilot – they should be a combination of a firefighter and a well-trained aviator: elite multitaskers who understand the terrain and weather effects close to the fires; and must know fire behavior and suppression tactics. They must know that fire is the mission, and their expert piloting skills are part of what they need to help the team win the war against the fire.
While fighting wildfires from the air is deeply rewarding, it is also quite humbling, and puts egos in place as it requires a specific set of competencies, and a lot of sacrifices.
Positive skills transfer across activities
To become an aerial firefighting pilot, certain abilities must be in place, and the process of developing new skills cannot be skipped using shortcuts. There are specific patterns you should take into account, and some activities that will favor a better adaptation of skills.
Most airline pilots of the latest generation have already acquired broad experience, airmanship, languages, and human team management. Also, though, they could have the disadvantage of a potential lower cognitive plasticity due to the long-term specialization in a highly automated task, of little variability, and framed by definition within the standard operating procedures.
If you only adhere to a standard operating procedure, you won’t kill yourself in a reckless way. You may, however, still kill yourself by the book, in a very organized and structured manner
This is not negative per se – airline pilots deserve great respect for managing the systems that grant the safety of our loved ones flying in all sorts of weather. But the truth is that such skills have little transfer to the aerial firefighting reality: in the technological race to mitigate ‘human error’ with the intervention of machines, although there have been improvements in most aspects, we have neglected some abilities that are basic to aviators.
If you only adhere to a standard operating procedure, you won’t kill yourself in a reckless way. You may, however, still kill yourself by the book, in a very organized and structured manner.
This generic assumption does not include pilots who have previously carried out aerial work, aerobatics, low level or other linked activities, in which they have developed the set of skills we are discussing. I refer to those who nowadays become pilots through highly simulated integrated courses tailored to a direct entry as first officer position in the airlines. A pilot who has developed these skills and has also acquired the additional experience of airlines operations, could potentially be a more complete aviator than an aerial firefighter who has never left aerial work, being more suitable, for example, for ferry flights.
If you are an agricultural aviation professional (crop-sprayer), it’s important to highlight that today’s equation is more complicated than being able to lift a good load and fly low in a hostile local environment (which is super tricky and deserves tons of respect). The old days, when this was a guarantee of work towards firefighting, are long gone.
Fires are a global issue. We frequently face international operations in which other skills and knowledge are necessary, such as the ability to lead teams on missions, navigate, have knowledge of local runways, and be proficient in different languages. Do not get fixated on local procedures and routines of agricultural flying. Keep working on the rest of the skills beyond the ‘air farmer’ role.
A unique challenge
Wherever you are coming from, whatever your name might be, and however many bars and stars you might have previously achieved, aerial firefighting is a non-standard, volatile, eventful, unorganized, and variable aviation activity. Each mission is different, from the water source, to the fire characteristics, and surrounding terrain.
We need to make hundreds of micro-decisions during a mission. There are no airways to follow, autopilot, procedures for every phase of the flight, or a colleague to assist with specific tasks. When flying low level by hand, there is no safe way to read a checklist. Every single detail, like headings, altitudes, and airspaces, needs to be worked out manually, while simultaneously commanding the aircraft.
Aerial firefighters are elite multitaskers who understand the terrain and the effects of weather in close proximity to the fires, learn to execute low-level flying techniques, and have a firm grasp of fire control strategies and tactics. Therefore, this highly specialized task should not be seen as a previous step job into the airlines, or a temporary solution while the airlines employ back the temporarily unemployed ones. That’s the wrong approach. It is a career that requires a specific set of competencies and a lot of sacrifices.
The ideal background package
The following shows my vision of the possible pattern to follow and the skills and attributes necessary for an optimal transfer to the activity, focusing on both the AT802 wheeled and Fireboss-type amphibious aircraft, which are the ones I know the best.
Skills and competences:
- Communication: excellent communication skills. Able to read, write, and understand English. ICAO level 5 or above
- Interpersonal skills: able to work as a student, open to learning regardless of previous experience
- Task management: able to prioritize tasks with a good understanding of ‘urgent’ and ‘important’, and their differences
- Professional demeanor: ability to maintain professional relationships in adverse conditions.
Abilities, knowledge, expertise:
- The ideal package: stick and rudder manual flying, aerobatics, low-level (below 100ft), formation flying, float planes, turboprop, crop spraying, mountain flying, and any other activities to develop co-ordination, spatial intelligence, and kinesthetic intelligence
- Aeronautical decision making: awareness of associated risk factors and the ability to make consistent, conservative, and timely decisions. During this type of flying, hundreds of micro-assessments should be made, as single pilots, in a volatile, eventful, unorganized, and variable environment
- Airmanship: apply knowledge, experience, training, situational awareness, skills, and discipline to command the aircraft
- Troubleshooting / critical thinking: determine cause and effect through expert understanding of aircraft systems, malfunctions, and procedures
- Computer and technical equipment: able to read and use flight planning tools, electronic flight bag tablets, and GPS
- Technical comprehension and writing: ability to reference and understand manuals
- Optimum health, both physically and mentally: fatigue is a safety concern. The workload could imply one water landing and one fire drop every three to five minutes during three-hour non-stop flight periods.
The path forward after getting rated as Fireboss pilot
So, you finally made it as a rated pilot, so now what? Can you just get down to treetop height and start putting fires out? That should not be the case. If the organization is the right one, you will continue with mission training and a mentoring process. In this context, just as a co-pilot new to the cockpit of a 737 should not be allowed to shift to the left seat after obtaining clearance, a newly licensed Fireboss pilot has a long way to go. We should start a student in the back seat of a two-seater, observing and learning from an experienced instructor in the front seat.
If the company asks you to immediately take the lead after being rated, or too soon after, be suspicious. Think twice and seek outside advice. They are using you, and your desire to progress, in a way that will harm you in the long run (or in the short run, like many who have killed themselves due to inexperience).
If the company asks you to immediately take the lead after being rated, or too soon after, be suspicious
In our world of big-nosed yellow aircraft, the two-seater concept is key to safety, knowledge transfer, firefighting ab-initio training, and subsequent mission training, beyond flight synthetic training devices and what the non-flying sales office people have to say.
Unfortunately, in our industry, I have seen dealers who are reluctant to sell two-seaters so as not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. They sell the training flight hour at €4,000, and the whole rating course becomes way more expensive than that of a B737 or A320 rating course. You don’t kill the goose, but you might be killing some pilots, or putting them in danger from the moment you sell low-cost training at a gourmet price.
That isn’t good for anyone, even for the brand. The most important issue, though, is that it affects new pilots’ safety, since that necessary mentoring process of sharing the cockpit with an expert is not available.
In an ideal world, once the instructor is happy with the student performance in the rear seat, they should switch positions. Here we continue under the ‘telling and doing technique’. The trainee jumps in front, under the instructor’s supervision from the rear seat. At a later stage, the instructor should decide when to release a trainee from the two-seater to the single-seater as a trailing aircraft on the same formation. Here is when the development of the judging and decision-making process starts.
Long-term investment in flying capability
As a rule of the thumb, if we want to be able to provide a progression that makes sense, teaching them from the ‘known to the unknown’ according to the classic Thorndike’s Law, the ratio of experienced vs inexperienced in our organization should be 1:2 – at least one experienced pilot for every two inexperienced pilots.
Some companies tend to ignore this process and see it too complicated. If they win a tender including numerous aircraft, they just see the short-term financial reward getting as many new pilots onboard as needed to fulfill the contract requirements. This is a ‘getting fat in the short-term’ approach, by companies who got stuck in the old ways when it was about jumping on a new aircraft and trying to survive. It has nothing to do with sustainable growth, and it will result in accidents, poor performance, or both. We should take only what your operations and safety systems are prepared to absorb.
Another important point on an effective transition to becoming an aerial firefighter is that you should continuously seek action and position yourself in the frontline. Just a few double seasons between hot spots in the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere might bring more expertise than 20 years of flying seasons of 30 hours a year. Sitting around does not add experience. With the rating endorsement, we also acquire the responsibility of representing an entire group, which, due to the type of task that is carried out, should always be held to the highest of standards.
Full article: doxasticsafety.com/en/how-to-become-an-aerial-firefighter/