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What it takes to be an Airtanker Pilot

September 2020 – Each year hundreds of pilots from around the globe reach out to Conair to enquire about landing a seat in the cockpit of an airtanker, hoping to apply their aviation skills to fighting wildfires. But the transition from pilot to aerial firefighter is not a quick one.

There is no national or global accreditation program to become an aerial firefighter. Each individual governmental body or private company that operates or contracts an aerial firefighting fleet has their own specific criteria with regards to pilot experience and training. Every organization around the world has a minimum number of hours of flight time on aircraft type and minimum number of hours spent in the air aerial firefighting in order to achieve Captain status. And the requirements to be a Conair Captain are second to none.

At Conair, safety is paramount. And our culture of safety has taken decades to build, supported by intensive training programs developed over 50 years of service. Aerial firefighting is unforgiving if not performed by a skilled pilot with appropriate experience, training and mindset, within exceptionally maintained aircraft. There are immense risks and complexities involved that are unique to flying in fire conditions.

Only a small percentage of pilots that apply are selected to be aerial firefighters. Those selected must have strong skillsets in both the highly controlled, protected, and complex automated environment of instrument flying, which typical commercial pilots obtain, as well as expert ability in the uncontrolled, unsupported, low level world using ‘hand flying’ within challenging circumstances, such as might be gained by flying military or agricultural missions low over diverse terrain, performing accurate drops. It takes years to build the technical skills and experience necessary to progress to airtanker pilot, with a diverse resume that offers expertise flying a host of aircraft types as well as a variety of services.

The lifestyle of an aerial firefighter requires sacrifice, dedication and passion. Pilots are away from home, family and friends for up to four months at a time during fire season with only two 1 week stints of reprieve. Often the location of the bases are remote, with few facilities. Days are unpredictable with some being maxed out flying stressful missions, including countless take offs, drops, and landings, while other days are spent on the ground waiting for a call out.

The personality traits of aerial firefighters are unique. They must be self-motivated, independent and social, being accepting of support as well as supportive of the entire team to ensure everyone works in concert, from dispatch through ground crew and in the cockpit, with no need for individual heroics or accolades. They must be able to self-dispatch within a highly complex theatre of operations while aerial firefighting. They are humble, recognizing their own limitations and responding with a willingness to continually learn and improve their skills so that for each mission they are performing at their best. And they are tough as nails, working tirelessly in extreme conditions, staying calm, collected and laser-focused within chaotic environments. At Conair, the hiring process for an aerial firefighter is demanding, with a focus on a TAIS assessment to determine an individual’s ability to function within a high stakes environment in close proximity with others. Over 80% of applicants do not have the traits that make a successful aerial firefighters. And up to 20% of pilots who attempt a career in aerial firefighting ‘wash out’ or elect to leave after the first few years. It is an essential position, but not an easy one.

At Conair, we evaluate prospective pilots and partner with those who are best suited to advance to the Captain’s position of an airtanker. Most of our roster of 90 pilots are from across North America, however some are from other countries, including three from Australia. One pilot, Nick, is currently on quarantine in Sydney after arriving home upon finishing the summer season with us as a Bird Dog Captain in Alberta, Canada. It was Nick’s first year with Conair, bringing to our team a wealth of experience from operations in both Canada and Australia as an Air Ambulance Captain, Bird Dog Pilot, and Simulator Instructor. He aspires to becoming an airtanker Captain one day, but is aware the road is a long one. His progression will require multiple fire seasons and will include advancement to single engine Captain, such as on a Fire Boss, or First Officer on a large airtanker before he reaches his goal of Captain on the much larger and more complex Q400AT or RJ85.

At Conair, to become a Captain of a large airtanker, pilots must have a minimum of 4000 hours with 1000 hours of firefighting experience. But that is the minimum requirement – Captain Dave with the Q400AT, now based in Queensland, Australia, has over 15,000 hours of flying experience with 7,000 hours on the Dash 8 and over 15 years/2,500 hours aerial firefighting; First Officer Brendon has over 8,000 hours of flying experience with 1,000 hours on the Dash 8 and 2 years/200 hours spent in the air aerial firefighting.

Nick, along with all our pilots including those with thousands of hours of aerial firefighting experience, undergoes intensive specialized training each year which includes ground, flight, and line training from experts with decades of experience in aerial firefighting. Pilots undergo aircraft systems instruction within aircraft used for fire suppression before virtual hands-on time within appropriate aircraft simulators, allowing them to integrate fire suppression tactics while flying in various environmental conditions or responding to various simulated emergencies. Training also includes guest speakers, briefings from lessons learned from past seasons, and sessions on maintenance. In addition, pilots learn about the mechanics of fighting a fire, from strategy to fire behavior, fire weather, and human factors.

As the Conair fleet grows, so will our roster of trained, specialized pilots to support fire suppression missions. We are not constrained to borders – our aim is to protect our world from wildfires, and as demand dictates, we will have a fleet and crew positioned within any country to support our customer agencies and communities when needed.