The demand for aerial firefighter pilots is steadily increasing, but the pathway to entering this field remains somewhat unclear. Industry experts, like Dean Talley, an air tanker captain and board member of the Associated Aerial Firefighters, highlight the disorganization within the sector. “There are opportunities, but it’s not very well-organized,” says Talley. With retirements creating vacancies and brisk airline hiring draining the already small pool of candidates, the challenge of filling positions continues to grow.

Employment Opportunities and Pathways

Aerial firefighter pilots can be employed by federal agencies or work under seasonal contracts for companies these agencies hire. The U.S. Forest Service, the largest federal contractor for aerial firefighting services, employs 52 full-time pilots. Other federal entities, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service, also contract aerial firefighting services. Additionally, various state agencies and individual states have their own contracts for these vital services.

Both fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft are utilized in aerial firefighting. Fixed-wing aircraft range from single-engine air tankers (SEATs), often adapted from crop-dusters like the Thrush 510 and Air Tractor 802 Fire Boss, to larger tankers capable of carrying more than 3,000 gallons, including repurposed jet transports. Despite this, helicopters from a host of municipal agencies dominate the aerial firefighting fleet, serving multiple purposes beyond firefighting.

Some pilots operate aircraft like the King Airs or OV-10 Broncos, which serve as observation platforms for forward air controllers who direct fire attacks. “Flying these planes requires a natural ability,” says Cliff Hale, chief pilot and vice president of flight operations at Global SuperTanker Services. “There’s no automation to help you, so if you rely heavily on automation, this isn’t the place for you.”

Experience and Training

Global SuperTanker Services owns and operates the world’s largest fire bomber, a 747 converted in 2016 with a 19,000-plus-gallon capacity. According to Hale, “Experience in underpowered, small airplanes is actually preferred because that’s where you really learn this stuff.”

There is no standard training program for aerial firefighting pilots. One common career path involves starting as a pilot in an observation aircraft, then transitioning into a SEAT or the right seat of a larger tanker. This hands-on experience is invaluable and often necessary for handling the unique challenges of aerial firefighting.

Aerial Firefighting Salary and Job Outlook

The salary for aerial firefighter pilots varies widely based on their role and the type of employment. The average annual salary for a Forest Service pilot ranges from $73,600 to $113,800. Contract SEAT pilots have traditionally been paid by flight time, which means their income can be quite variable. During a busy season, earnings can reach “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, says Talley. However, the SEAT fleet is evolving towards fee-per-season contracts with “minor incentives for extra hours,” offering more stable earnings.

Captains on large air tankers might earn from $100,000 in their first season to $360,000 for a senior captain. The seasonal nature of the job appeals to many pilots who enjoy having their winters off. However, the demand for aerial firefighting services is growing, especially in the Southern Hemisphere and with the extended fire season in North America. This trend is pushing the industry towards more full-time employment opportunities. “California recently had its largest fire ever in December,” notes Hale, underscoring the need for year-round schedules.

The Growing Need for Aerial Firefighters

As climate change continues to exacerbate the frequency and intensity of wildfires, the need for skilled aerial firefighter pilots will only increase. This profession, while demanding, offers unique challenges and the satisfaction of making a significant impact on public safety and environmental protection.

For those interested in this career, gaining experience in various types of aircraft and understanding the intricacies of firefighting operations from the air is crucial. It’s a path that requires dedication, skill, and a willingness to take on one of the most challenging roles in aviation. With the right training and experience, becoming an aerial firefighter pilot can be a rewarding career choice that plays a critical role in protecting our natural resources and communities.

Conclusion

The journey to becoming an aerial firefighter pilot is not straightforward, but it is filled with opportunities for those willing to navigate its complexities. From the variety of aircraft used to the diverse employment arrangements and the evolving salary structures, this field offers both challenges and rewards. As the demand for aerial firefighting grows, so too will the need for skilled pilots ready to take on the skies in the fight against wildfires. For those with a natural flying ability and a passion for making a difference, this career path offers an unparalleled chance to protect lives and landscapes from the devastating impact of fires.