Joined: Mon Feb 16, 2004 11:47 pm
Location: Straight outta Dundarave...
|This sticky is an attempt to head off most of the major questions that I have seen posted on here in the past about how to get into flying tankers. So, please read through this first, and then post any assorted questions that you might have…
Generally speaking, flying in the Forest Fire suppression industry is not for low-timers, time builders, or people who want a few years of adventure/fun before proceeding off to the Airlines. A slow year can see you flying less than 50 hours in 4 months, while even a busy year might only see 250. There is an upside and downside to that schedule. Upside .... lots of time off. Downside ... if you don't fly in the off season, your skills may deteriorate and it takes a lot of study to remain up to date on IFR information, and effort to bring those stick and rudder skills back after eight months off duty. This is particularly so as you become older and more experienced as a bomber pilot, but removed from other aspects of aviation.
With that little practice, it takes several seasons for a person to develop into a safe, and competent crewmember. You not only have to learn how to maneuver a heavily-laden slow aircraft close to the ground in poor vis, experiencing occasional strong turbulence and gusty winds, but you also need to develop a good sense of fire behaviour and control methods. A high degree of situational awareness while dealing with all of the above is also required. Most of us in the industry have chosen our niche, and have shaped our careers to that end – we are dedicated professional pilots, not cowboys…
So, where do you start? Well, pretty much all employers require an ATPL as an entry-level qualification, and several thousand hours of flying experience. If you think about what the job entails, then you’ll get an idea of what sort of experience will take you into a seat on a bomber. Float time is mandatory (Ontario, for example, requires 1000pic on floats) for those interested in scoopers (CL2/415 and the like, which scoop up water from lakes) while radial engine time is useful (although, sadly, the days of the big radial powered tankers are coming to an end.)
Multi-Engine time is a must, and experience on gravel and in the mountains (especially if you’d like to work for CONAIR, or Airspray) is beneficial. Considerable PIC experience goes without saying, and a background of two-crew experience using SOPs is also useful. Some companies run the Air Tractor series of planes, so if you were interested in flying them, then some tail-dragging in your past would be useful. Air Tractors are also used on amphibious floats.
Because of a resource-sharing agreement between provinces, you may be called upon to ferry an aircraft to another location (usually when your province is rained out. A strong background and confidence in IFR is very helpful in this regard. One of the drawbacks (or blessings) of the work is that IFR is rare, and instrument skills deteriorate quickly. Keeping proficient can pose a problem.
Beyond that, like your local fire department, fire bombing entails many hours of sitting around at the tanker base, waiting for the phone call to send you off flying. For some people, this is absolute heaven. For others, it is "the devil's curse." Let's look at why....
The personality of a bomber pilot likes to be kept somewhat busy all the time ... it may be tinkering with a motorcycle, building a model airplane, playing a game on the computer, having a few rounds of tennis, lawn bowling, or any one of a thousand pastimes while on-base during "Red Alert."
However, there is only so much watching TV, reading the newspaper, checking the forums at AvCanada, or napping that can be done day after day, after day, after day when you are tied to the base for the day sometimes from 0800 to 2200 looking at the same magazines, watching the same TV shows, and staring at the same walls.
That time together in a small room for hours on end can become quite wearing on a person's head, and lead to personal interaction problems with your co-workers. In all sincerity, this can become a huge safety and morale problem which has the potential to become an Occupational Health issue just as surely as walking into a prop, or falling off a wing while checking oil in a 215. The expression "idle hands are the devil's workshop" comes into play, and sometimes the most simple of things or a practical joke gone bad can spark a flaring of tempers, the effects of which can linger for a long time.
So, you'd better be able to keep a tight grip on your head to curb "stupid thoughts" before they make it out of your mouth without having thought through the ramifications completely.
Staff turnover is slow. You will be in a seat for a long time before you move up, or are assigned expanded duties. This can be frustrating when your buddies are climbing the greasy pole that is Canadian Aviation, and seemingly advancing through the ranks more quickly than you.
The Operations Manager of one northern bombing company compares his bomber pilots to Border Collies. They can chase sheep all day, working their hearts out, while doing a fantastic job, and never ask for anything but a pat on the head, a bowl of food, and they are ready to run another 50 miles the next day ... much like bomber pilots when fires are burning.
But, take that same wonderful dog and put it in an apartment with nothing to do all day, and it chews the legs off the coffee table, rips down the curtains, and eats a couch pillow. Further, all the neighbours hate you because the dog barks all day at the slightest noise outside. .... that is bomber pilots after several days of not flying.
Being able to keep yourself busy without getting on your base-mates’ nerves is a must. Every base has stories of quite competent pilots who just couldn’t fit in… Having a hobby where you are able to use your head or hands to keep busy while on standby is very beneficial.
Right, now you’ve got all of that, where do you go to get your foot in the door?
Below is a list (as accurately as I can make it as of August ’10) of Provinces and Companies.
BC: CONAIR (http://www.conair.ca)
AB: CONAIR and AirSpray (http://www.airspray.com)
NWT: Buffalo and CONAIR (http://www.buffaloairways.com)
SK: Government (http://www.environment.gov.sk.ca)
MB: Government (http://web2.gov.mb.ca/contact/viewOrg.p ... EN&wid=334)
ON: Government (http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/en/Business/AFFM/index.html)
QU: Government (http://www.gouv.qc.ca)
NB: Forest Protection Limited (http://www.forestprotectionlimited.com)
NF: Government (http://www.tw.gov.nl.ca/department/bran ... vices.html)
Please note, if you are Anglophone, French would be a useful language while trying to negotiate the Quebec Government site
The terms of employment vary from place to place, but essentially, you can plan on working from April or May into September, with the rest of the year off. This is a critical point to remember, as it has huge ramifications for your personal life. Some people find that the benefit of a winter free from work responsibilities outweighs the cost of having to work all summer long; others do not. Being away from family and friends of four months when a child is sick, a wife pregnant, a father is in hospital, or the garage door is broken can be very difficult to deal with when you are solidly committed to being away, on base.
Pre-season training requirements can extend the season into March or April, and a long season might see you working into September or October if forest conditions are dry.. Daily hours all depend on the fire danger level (essentially, Hot+dry+lightning+wind=fire, while cool+wet=no fire) so a good fire flap might see you flying 10 airtime hour days, with 14 hour duty days, while cool and wet wx might see you hanging around your trailer/base/house waiting for the pager to go off.
Some places (Ontario & Quebec?) will fly you to your base every duty cycle (10 days?) while others will expect you to live at your base town, and they will cover hotel and food expenses when you are not there. This is not to say that the majority of us actually live at our bases. Having the winter off allows people to pursue other jobs or lifestyles, and so some chose to live far from their summer base, or spend time out of country in the winter months.
Most employers have some sort of benefits and pension package, but those vary so widely that it is difficult to compare.
Pay levels also vary widely. Essentially, Captains can expect to get paid between $70-$100K a year, while F/Os might see from $40-$75K/yr. In many places, the birddog is the entry-level position, and pay levels there are on par with F/O pay. Some of us get that salary paid out every two weeks, year ‘round, while others get paid every two weeks over the term of a 4-month contract – leading to some rather large paycheques! If you are paid an entire year's income in 4 months, you'd better not suffer from "spending like a drunken sailor" syndrome, because like the story of The Grasshopper and The Ant, you can find yourself with an empty cupboard all too easily.
All in all, it is highly gratifying work, and the satisfaction that comes from saving a subdivision of 30 homes from wildfire, or potentially saving a life of a fire crew member is hard to describe. Even seeing the total devastion left in the wake of a fire, and knowing you are preventing that damage to the local environment is highly gratifying.
Now you’ve read all of that, ask away…
Thanks to those of you who helped with this - you know who you are!