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The life of a fire suppression pilot

Career profile by KENNETH ARMSTRONG – first published fall 2003

Conair Lockheed Electra

Conair Lockheed Electra attacks a sawmill fire at Merritt, British Columbia, July 1997.

How does this sound? Travelling around scenic Canada saving our forests and urban interface, hanging out with a group of aviation buddies all summer and only working a third of the year? Are you surprised that such an amazing aviation career exists? Moreover, it pays well!

For a select cadre of aviators, there is an industry that caters to the fixed-wing aviation needs of forestry’s fire suppression program. Companies such as Abbotsford, British Columbia’s Conair and Red Deer, Alberta’s Air Spray have large fleets of aircraft to meet the needs of the provincial forest protection agencies.

From my perspective, one of the greatest benefits of this type of work is that most of the year is off duty–time to be spent with family, working on the house or a tan in Mexico while a blanket of snow covers the homestead. Comparatively, senior airline pilots have lots of time off and travel opportunities, but it doesn’t come in a block of 250 days.

Although fire suppression aircraft can accomplish a number of functions, they typically fall into two categories. Smaller twins such as the Piper Aerostar and turboprop Rockwell Aero Commander serve as bird dogs. With a pilot and forestry air attack officer aboard, the bird dogs assess the fire and serve as an overhead asset to guide helicopters, fire fighters and the “borate” bombers. Bird dog pilots are commonly a starting position with the tanker companies, and based on the amount of flying may earn $40,000 to $50,000 for a contract of 100 to 130 days. Although it is possible to have a permanent job within a tanker company, most pilots simply work the contract summer period. Many of them have secondary jobs in the off-season, such as flight instruction or businesses they operate from their home. Others who are not compelled to pursue the work ethic know how to budget their summer income to last an entire year and spend the other eight months “kicking back” and enjoying life to the fullest. It’s your choice.

Tanker pilots follow the flames. For instance, there are 19 air tanker bases in British Columbia with 36 aircraft ready for dispatch at a few minutes’ notice to any base or fire within the province’s jurisdiction. These pilots have a more lucrative life. Incomes are quite variable in the $45,000 to $90,000 range–dependent on flying hours. One Lockheed Electra pilot came in near the bottom of the pay levels last year when a quiet fire season saw him log only 19 hours! However, by mid-summer 2003 in Kamloops he had already flown over 200 hours and would likely set a personal record for fire suppression flight time and income.

The burning question
So, what’s fire suppression flying really like? Very challenging, very dangerous. Wending a multi-engine airliner around narrow smoke-filled mountain valleys and threading your way through mountain peaks in extremely turbulent air may constitute a hazard to any plan for a lengthy life span. To this recipe add the potential for numerous aircraft milling around and it’s a mix that keeps pilots on their toes.

Not only can the smoky air and turbulence weigh heavily on aviators, but the fatigue associated with hours of standby and suppression duties take a toll. To counter these risks, operators have detailed safety programs that promote communications between company management and flying crews. Pilots are given the authority to reject a mission if they consider that the risk exceeds reasonable expectations. As one manager observes, “It’s only a fire.” Still, the personal cost sometimes associated with this occupation is easily recalled with the loss of a Lockheed Electra air tanker crew (CFIT) near Cranbrook this season when they were flying the downwind leg in anticipation of a pass on the fire. Yet another challenge for pilots and their families is the summer separation period when it is often difficult to get spouses and children to rendezvous with the roving aircrews.

Although a few suppression pilots dream of the relative safety and full-season flying associated with airline operations, most of them realize they have the best of both worlds–especially at a time when airline pilots are worried not only about their jobs but also their pensions.

Conair training captain John Laing put it all in perspective when he took me on a tour of his 2,100-gallon capacity Convair 580 twin turbine tanker. “Where else can you fly a high-performance, fully-IFR aircraft that cruises at 272 knots over a four-month job and have eight months off?” Add the thrill of demanding low-level flying and the opportunity to make a direct contribution to the successful control of wildfires and you have the potential for a fulfilling career. |

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