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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!
Ass, Licence, Job. In that order.
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Beech: D'oh! And me an islander, too!
Ass, Licence, Job. In that order.
The pecking order goes something like this:
-Diety of your choice
-Almighty Birddog Pilot.
Thank you, thank you, I'm here all week.
The Old (lemme punch off a load) Fogducker
Hey STL: I've spent hundreds of days over a couple decades working with the fixed-wing folks, and just as many shacked up in the same camps as the fling-wingers. Things are never as luxurious (or as abysmal) as you suggest. But hey, makes for a good post. I'm just glad that we are finally - after how many decades? - working together with a reasonable degree of harmony. Well, until the next 212 lands beside a plane with open cowlings...
I know of one very talented pilot who was hired, and was all wound up to go fight fire. Rah, rah! It was, unfortunately, The Beginning of the End, in his case... But in all fairness, I don't think he ever got the whole story about standby, working conditions, etc., before he got sent out to the field. It was NOT a helpful omission.
By early July, his brain had about exploded outside his skull; he was a drooling, pacing, nervous wreck, and it all ended badly. He about tore MY door off the hinges once after I'd taxied in, SCREAMING (over the 40-knot dust/smoke storm lashing the airplane) up at me, "How in the #$%k can you STAND this #@king job??!??!?"
Yet, the next guy (or girl) could love it for life.
Your post is one of the few that at least mentions the "other side" of the business. Personally, I think fire's great. But then, I don't have any brain cells left, either.
It can be slightly different for some though. I had never even seen a forest fire up close... but that changed in a hurry when I found myself in California at the controls of a bird-dog with a huge bomber on my butt. On the job training.
If it's not appropriate, MODs just take it down. I don't work for the Globe or anything. I just thought it was decent information.
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-o ... ice=mobileThe job: Aerial firefighter
The role: The role of an aerial firefighter, also known as an air tanker pilot, is to drop fire retardant from a fixed-wing aircraft in an effort to suppress and contain wildfires.
“A large part of our day is standing by,” said Grahame Wilson, a captain with Abbotsford, B.C.-based Conair Aerial Firefighting.
Mr. Wilson, 59, explains that each day, the BC Wildfire Service sends out an alert indicating the probability of wildfire occurrence. On days with high probability, Mr. Wilson and his team are required to remain on standby at a base in Kamloops. Other days, he is assigned a response time, indicating how quickly he would need to return to base if a wildfire were to break out.
“For example, today I’m on a one-hour response time beginning at 9 [a.m.], and at noon they move that up to a 30-minute response time,” he said.
During the four-month wildfire season in British Columbia, Mr. Wilson said he spends about 200 hours in the air, and between 1,200 and 1,300 hours on standby.
When the call comes, Mr. Wilson receives an e-mail with all the necessary information, makes his way to the runway and begins the preflight checklist procedure with his co-pilot as the ground crew loads the aircraft with a fire-retardant solution.
“Based on what we received on our smartphone, we will plug the latitude [and] longitude into the GPS, and choose an altitude that’s appropriate to fly to that fire,” Mr. Wilson said. “We always work with a bird-dog aircraft – he’s the command-and-control aircraft – and we will contact him five minutes from the fire.”
Upon arriving at the scene, the bird-dog aircraft explains the manoeuvre that is required and flies the path first.
“They’ll demonstrate the run while looking for hazards, unusual things like wind drift,” Mr. Wilson said. “If I understand the run, I’ll go ahead and do just what they did, dropping the retardant at the starting point.”
Following the drop, the command-and-control officer assesses its accuracy and instructs the pilot whether to reload or remain on base.
Education: In order to become an air tanker pilot, one must obtain an Airline Transport Pilot Licence through Transport Canada. There are a variety of institutions across Canada that offer aviation training, including Mount Royal University in Calgary, Seneca College in Toronto, and the Professional Flight Centre in Vancouver.
“You are also required to have to have a ‘type endorsement,’” said Mr. Wilson, explaining that endorsements are airplane-specific pilot certifications provided by Transport Canada. Just because you can fly a commuter jet does not mean you can pilot a water bomber, for instance. “Once the candidate is ready for their flight test, we have designated examiners within the company that are authorized within Transport Canada to do the check rides. When you pass, you get an endorsement on your licence.”
Conair typically requires pilots to have 4,000 to 5,000 hours of flight experience as well as the necessary licences and designations before starting a month-long, on-the-job training program.
“Typically a person would have flown commercially for eight to 10 years prior,” Mr. Wilson said. “Often in this business, people start out as co-pilots, sometimes they start out as bird-dog pilots. It’s not normal to start out as a captain on an air tanker; that’s something you build up to.”
Salary: Salaries vary among provinces based on the demand for air tanker pilots, as well as the structure of the industry. For example, British Columbia contracts the job out to private companies like Conair during wildfire season, while other provincial governments like those of Ontario and Quebec directly employ air tanker pilots year-round.
Mr. Wilson explains that most pilots in B.C. earn between $40,000 and $100,000 a season – which lasts between four and six months – depending on their position and level of seniority. He adds that some pilots will use the off-season to earn extra income, while others are able to take the remainder of the year off.
In Ontario, there are seven CL 415 water bomber pilots listed on the Public Sector Salary Disclose list, also know as the “Sunshine List,” with salaries between $100,00 and $120,000 annually.
Job prospects: While the type of aircraft and aerial firefighting methods can differ, Mr. Wilson said that all provinces have some type of aerial firefighter on standby for at least part of the year.
“There’s approximately 300 pilots that do this in the whole country,” he said, adding that there is a lot of competition for new entrants. “When you compare that to how many pilots work for WestJet and Air Canada and the rest of the airlines, it’s a very small industry for pilots.”
Challenges: The greatest challenge to air tanker pilots is the difficult environmental conditions through which they fly in order to reach wildfires.
“We need to be able to see in order to do this job safely and properly,” Mr. Wilson said. “Smoke can definitely be an issue.”
Why they do it: Mr. Wilson said that air tanker pilots are passionate about flying but are also eager to make a difference.
“I’ve been to half a dozen fires this year that we managed to snuff that were in front of people’s houses, and that’s the reason I do it,” he said. “I never get tired of that. The other perk is the time off in the winters.”
Misconceptions: Many people are under the impression that air tanker pilots put out fires themselves, when they often aim to contain wildfires in order to assist ground crews, Mr. Wilson said.
“If the fire is small, say 100 square feet or so, then we will drop directly on it to put it out, but typically we’re making lines around the perimeters,” he said. “It’s usually the ground crews that do the work of putting the fire out. I’m there to buy them time.”