Robert W. Moorman explores how experienced pilots of fixed-wing and rotorcraft prepare to become aerial firefighters.

Massive conflagrations in California and Australia last year convinced many people that wildfires are a growing problem and that more trained firefighters are needed. Aerial firefighting today is a complex and dangerous ballet for pilots, smokejumpers, ground crews and logistics personnel.

For one flight crew, the job was deadly. A C130 Hercules tanker fighting wildfires in Australia crashed January 23 in an active fire zone in the mountains of New South Wales, south of the capital Canberra. The highly experienced Captain, First Officer and Flight Engineer were killed. They worked for Coulson Aviation, a Canadian firefighting company. Cause of the crash is not yet known. But the subject of training as an important component of safety is likely to come up during the course of the accident investigation.

There is little regulatory guidance on training pilots to fight fires. Nor are there any plans to require such training. Yet the need remains.

CAT interviewed aerial firefighting companies which use various aircraft, government entities like the US Forest Service (USFS) which employ them, as well as independent training solutions providers.

“There is no current or proposed specific training requirement for pilots participating in aerial firefighting operations,” said an FAA spokesperson. “Pilots must comply with FAA training and pilot certification requirements for the level of pilot certificate and the type of aircraft they are operating.”

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation, which fights fires year-round with a fleet of BAe146 tankers, hires seasoned pilots with 3,000-4,000 hours total flying time. Neptune prefers flyers with Pilot-in-Command experience. All new hires begin employment in the right seat.

After hire, Neptune evaluates the pilot’s abilities to be Captain, which takes between 1-3 years on average. Once experienced, the pilots begin the upgrade process, which can take 2-3 additional years to become fully qualified. Said Snyder: “It’s not just a matter of moving from the right to left seat. You must have more than just good stick-n-rudder skills.”

Asked what the company looks for in a firefighting pilot, Snyder responded: “We are looking for an easy-going person, who can go from sitting to being airborne in 15 minutes. We’re looking for an individual who is confident, yet humble. Not a jerk.”

To become an Initial Attack Captain (IAC) at Neptune, the most experienced level, the pilot must be trained in fire behavior, suppression tactics, how to steer a fire toward areas of natural fire breaks, create fire breaks. An IAC can fly the aircraft to a designated point – evaluate the fire, topography, terrain, vegetation – then deploy retardant on the blaze to slow the burn until additional firefighting assets and crews show up.

The best example of what Neptune does occurred during the massive Camp Fire in November 2019 in California, a conflagration with a personal connection to Snyder. Snyder got a call from his sister, who lived in Paradise, a small town in the path of the fast-moving blaze. “We’re evacuating,” she said.

Snyder then called the USFS and state authorities and asked if they needed additional resources. They did. With one aircraft in California already, Neptune launched additional 146 tankers that day from its Missoula, Montana base.

The 17-day Camp Fire, the deadliest in California, killed at least 85 people, displaced thousands, and destroyed nearly 19,000 homes and other structures, according to accounts. The towns of Paradise and Concow were almost completely destroyed.

The Scoop on Water Collection

Appleton, Minnesota-based Dauntless Air battles wildfires throughout North America with a fleet of Air Tractor AT802F Fire Boss aircraft equipped with amphibious floats for operations on land or water. The 800-gallon tank capacity allows the nimble single-engine aircraft to operate in close proximity to firefighters on the ground.

Most of Dauntless Air pilots are hired with over 4,000 hours of total flight time. Minimum qualifications are 1,500 hours plus 200 hours in single-engine ASES (Airplane Single Engine Sea) or 50 hours in ASES, plus a Fire Boss training course offered by Wipaire of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Included in the total time is a requirement for pilots to have 100 hours of agricultural aviation time and 200 hours of mountain flying experience.

“We’re trying to bring greater structure and form to this level of the market,” Dauntless Air CEO Brett L’Esperance said.

Preferred candidates have low-level crop dusting and flying in mountainous terrain experience. Military flying experience and flexibility to be away from home for an extended period of time are preferable. “Typically, most of our pilots start work in Minnesota in mid-April and come home mid- to late-September,” said Chief Pilot Jesse Weaver.

The cornerstone of Dauntless Air’s fleet, the Fire Boss, features thermal imaging to accurately target hot spots. Image credit: Dauntless Air.

Dauntless Air pilots fight fires from Alaska, New Mexico and Arizona to Texas, Oklahoma and Florida. Teaching pilots to safely scoop water is handled in-house and takes about 10 hours of basic instruction in a two-seat Fire Boss. Weaver provided CAT a snapshot of the training: On a normal scoop, the pilot makes a routine water landing into the wind. Upon touchdown, the pilot deploys the probes to collect water. This deployment causes the nose to pitch down, creating drag. To control the pitch, the pilot counteracts the drag by pulling back on the stick, while adding full power. These actions must occur simultaneously and smoothly. 

After water starts coming into the hopper, sloshing often occurs, causing the aircraft to porpoise or bounce. The pilot counteracts this with pitch control.

“Controlling the aircraft [on the water] is the hardest thing to teach pilots because the natural tendency is to be reactive and not proactive,” Weaver said. “In order to stop the sloshing you have to anticipate the next slosh and proactively put the control inputs in before it happens. If a pilot is reactive to the sloshing, he or she will always be 180 degrees out of sync and the porpoising will get worse.”

Once a pilot becomes proficient at these skills, instructors move to operating on glassy water and dealing with crosswind operations. During training, instructors also teach pilots to drop the water they’ve scooped aboard and control the aircraft’s tendency to pitch up as the weight comes off the aircraft.

Pilots also must learn to master landing and taxiing in rough water, formation flying and group flying tactics. Most of these skills are mastered during on-the-job training, while following experienced pilots.

Fire Severity Worsening Worldwide

Despite the numerous wildfires in California, 2019 was the slowest fire season in the lower 48 US states since 2015. Last year, there were 50,477 wildfires reported nationally compared to 58,083 in 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Of the nearly 4.7 million acres burned in the US in 2019, 2.5 million acres were in Alaska. Only Alaska experienced above average acres burned when compared with the 10-year average.

Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement among those in the firefighting community that the size and severity of fires worldwide has gotten worse. And more resources are needed to fighting fires in North America and elsewhere worldwide.

“In the last 20 years, wildfires are growing significantly larger,” stated Bill Gabbert, a former firefighter with 35 years experience and presently Editor of Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation. Strong winds and a lack of rain have caused fires “to burn rapidly, with more intensity and with more resistance to control.”

Aerial firefighting aircraft companies agree. “I think it’s fair to say that throughout the world, large air tanker companies have experienced considerable increases in demand over the last ten years,” said John E. Gould, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based company that fights fires with a fleet of four DC10-30s, three of which were still deployed in Australia as of mid-February.

“Most striking to me is the number of calls we receive from around the world each year, requesting help on fires the likes of which have never been seen.”

The DC10-30 is the largest airtanker fighting fires today. With an aircrew of three, Ten Tanker’s DC10s are capable of carrying 9,400 gallons of retardant, with an approximate weight of 84,600 pounds. The tanker system is able to drop a full load of retardant in four seconds. Retardant drops are performed at 200-300 feet agl, at 140 knots.

Medford, Oregon-based Erickson, a manufacturer and commercial aviation services company, provides aerial firefighting services with the large S64 Air Crane, equipped with 2,650-gallon water tanks, which are capable of dropping more than 25,000 gallons every hour. The rotorcraft’s ram scoop hydrofoil attachment refills from freshwater or saltwater sources in about 30 seconds. The company fights fires worldwide, including numerous blazes in the US, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Canada and Australia, where six Air Cranes were used in January 2020.

Erickson provides pilot training in-house. Experienced pilots receive transition training on the S64 and its proprietary tank system, and are instructed on fire behavior and firefighting tactics, Randy Erwin, Erickson’s Chief Flight Instructor said.

Erickson and Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company, in late January 2020 signed an agreement to develop “the next generation of pilot-optional nighttime firefighting solutions.” The program will include integrating Sikorsky’s Matrix flight control and navigation technology into a digitally enabled fire management system for nighttime firefighting.

As a possible sign of a need for greater firefighting capability, the USFS announced plans recently to place an aerial firefighting base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While the base will not have a training component, it will help the USFS to better fight fires in several western states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

The Colorado Springs Air Tanker Base will provide a facility that can host air tankers of all sizes and capability, doubling the region’s fixed-wing retardant capacity for Larger Air Tankers (LAT) and Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT). “Our goal is to be prepared to suppress fires and complement other facilities we have,” said William “Robby” Cline, Fixed Wing Aviation Specialist, USFS, Region 2.

For USFS-contracted companies, there are specific training requirements for pilots (and others) on an annual and tri-annual basis with the National Aerial Firefighting Academy (NAFA). The two courses offered provide familiarization training on fighting fires and ground school instruction. They’re not aerial firefighting specific.

These days it’s rare to see tired, piston-powered World War II and Korean War era aircraft fighting wildfires in the US and elsewhere. Firefighting fleets have modernized, somewhat, in the last decade. Aircraft include: BAe146, B737, RJ85, MD87, C130Q Hercules, Canadair/Bombardier C215 and CL-415 Water Bombers and the widebody DC10.

“We’ve gone from legacy to turbine-powered aircraft,” said Cline. “Which has increased the speed and payload for fighting fires. It’s no longer a cowboy type of deal.”

An important component of aerial firefighting is the Boise, Idaho-based NIFC, the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting. Nine agencies and organizations combine efforts to manage wildfires and other incidents. These agencies include the USFS, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service and the Department of Defense.

NIFC has a mix of agency-owned and contracted aircraft to support firefighting efforts throughout the US, including Twin Otter, CASA 212, Dornier 228 and other smokejumper aircraft.

“We try to use our civilian contracted assets first before using military aircraft,” said Glen Claypool, Deputy Division Chief for BLM Aviation.

NIFC helps NAFA and the National Aerial Supervision Training Academy (NASTA) conduct various training events for aerial firefighting pilots throughout the country, explained Don Bell, Flight Operations Manager for BLM. Training for NAFA occurs in Tucson and McClellan Air Force Base, near Sacramento. NASTA training occurs in Phoenix.

When commercial aerial firefighting units are not enough, the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) is activated, using military C130 tankers capable of dousing a fire with 3,000 gallons of retardant in six seconds.

The four military units that participate in MAFFS include: the 152nd Airlift Wing, Nevada Air National Guard; 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard; 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard and 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserves, in Colorado Springs. Other government agencies involved in the training include: the USFS, BLM, North Carolina Forest Service, Texas Forest Service, CAL Fire and the Alaska Forest Service.

Aerial firefighting training for MAFFS pilots and crews rotates, according to Laura Turner, Public Affairs Specialist, 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson Air Force Base. Last year, aerial firefighting training for the C130 tanker occurred at Peterson. Boise Idaho will be the site of training in 2020.

FlightSafety and Ansett/TRU Simulation + Training

While not widespread, there are some training companies that provide specific aerial firefighting training.

FlightSafety International offers a wide variety of simulator training for both domestic and international helicopter firefighting operations and quasi-government operators in the Bell 212, 412 and Sikorsky S70 platforms.

FlightSafety developed and fielded fire models (in simulators) that allow operators to train aircrews in environments that are urban, suburban or remote. Instructors can control the size, smoke effect and intensity of a blaze during simulator training. In addition, crews are exposed to inadvertent VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), which requires pilots to fly under instrument rather than visual flight rules. Pilots also are trained in night vision goggle operations.

In partnership with Sikorsky, FlightSafety trains S70i pilots on the use of a Bambi Bucket and snorkel to scoop water to fight a fire.

TRU Simulation + Training developed a Level D full-flight simulator for the Canadair/Bombardier CL415 Water Bomber, the enhanced successor to the CL215. (In 2016, Viking Air acquired Bombardier’s amphibious aircraft program, which included the Type Certificates for the CL215 and CL415.)

TRU’s FFS can mimic water landing, scooping and deploying water on a wildfire. Also included in the data package, which, in part, came by way of subjective feedback from aerial firefighting pilots, are the updraft, crosswinds and tailwinds caused by the heat from the fire, high winds and shifting weather patterns in mountainous areas. Also challenging for the simulator maker was recreating the aerodynamics of a water-bombing aircraft in flight, floating and taxiing on water.

“We haven’t any significant requests [for firefighting-enabled simulators] from our fixed-wing customers, but have on the helicopter side,” TRU CEO David Smith said. “Customers are looking for the whole bouquet of services” in one simulator.

TRU has not posted any additional orders for a firefighting-enabled FFS, but Smith believes that will change “if the number of fires continues to increase.”

Ansett Aviation’s Training Center in Milan currently trains pilots on the world’s first CL415 FFS. (For a detailed report on the Ansett-TRU simulator, read Chris Long’s firsthand report, “Flying to Fight the Fire,” in CAT 5-2019 -

The use of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft to fight wildfires of increasing size and severity is likely to increase globally in coming years. So too will the need for highly trained aerial firefighters and ground crews.

Sikorsky-United Rotorcraft Firehawk Debuts

Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and completions expert United Rotorcraft, a division of Air Methods, delivered in 2019 the first three new version S70i Firehawk helicopters to California fire agencies: Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE); the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD); and the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. All three agencies use the Firehawk to fight wildfires throughout California.

To help pilots transition to the Firehawk, Kevin Bredenbeck, former Director of Flight Operations and Chief Test Pilot for Sikorsky, now a consultant and training instructor for United Rotorcraft, took it on himself to author a training syllabus that kicks in after initial simulator training by FlightSafety International. Bredenbeck and other certified Firehawk trainers stair-step pilots through all the systems plus basic flying experiences of the Blackhawk.

Initial transition training takes about 12 hours. At the eight-hour point, when pilots begin to grasp the systems, instructors roll in the Firehawk particulars, which include snorkeling water from a nearby water source and ground-loading foam and gel into the 1,000-gallon tank. This is followed by emergency procedures, which include diveaways and engine cuts.

Bredenbeck ticked off other segments of training:

  • approaches and departures for picking up water;
  • approaches and tactics for dropping water on the fire, then maneuvering away from the fire;
  • spot drops and hovering over or near a fire;
  • and how to handle brush fires, which are typically a long-line fire.

Instead of dropping all the water at once, the pilot learns to set up a sequence where 1,000 gallons of water or other retardant is dropped on a brush fire at, say, a 20-second interval. Pilots also learn tactics of flying in windy conditions.

“It sounds like a common-sense approach, but the training locks in the do’s and don’t’s of aerial firefighting into the pilot’s muscle memory,” Bredenbeck said.

After initial training, customer pilots arrive in Denver to pick the customer’s Firehawk and obtain additional training. Which includes preflight systems knowledge. Acceptance and procedures training can last up to a week. Bredenbeck or another Firehawk-certified pilot then accompany the customer’s pilots to their base, where Firehawk pilots receive additional training.

Public use operators of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft often lack standardized training and this syllabus makes the transition to the Firehawk smoother, Bredenbeck said.

Jumping into the Breech

Smokejumpers are the Marines of the firefighting fraternity. They’re the first into a wildfire and often the last to leave when the embers go dark. Their contribution to the overall firefighting mission is incalculable.

First, the basics for consideration to be a smokejumper: a prospective smokejumper must be at least 18 years old, weight at least 120 pounds but no more than 210, have acute hearing, and the ability to run 1.5 miles in less than 11 minutes. A high school diploma is mandatory. Postsecondary education is not mandated, but could be helpful in this highly competitive field. And that’s just for starters.

Smokejumper candidates must be able to carry 115 pounds of gear a distance of three miles in 90 minutes or less over a level course.

Trainees must be able to demonstrate a high degree of proficiency in various aspects of parachute jumping. The tasks include:

  • aircraft existing procedures,
  • parachute malfunction and emergency procedures and maneuvering,
  • timber letdown procedures,
  • cargo retrieval and tree climbing.

Once on the ground, smokejumpers suppress fires by digging fire lines using various tools. That skill is practiced as well.

Candidates also learn the basics of rugged terrain parachuting and fire management operations. A minimum of 25 jumps is conducted during the five-week course.

The smokejumper’s performance is continually evaluated during training. Those candidates unable to master these performance skills are terminated and placed in another job if available.

All smokejumpers attend 8-24 hours of medical training during annual recurrent. Some smokejumpers become EMT-qualified. A goal of most smokejumpers is to become Crew Boss and obtain an FAA Parachute Rigger certificate at the McCall Smokejumpers Base in McCall, Idaho.

Many of the prospective smokejumpers are trained firefighters recruited from other fire crews across the US. Annual salary can range from $31,087 to $35,657, but published figures vary.

The CAT Interview - Shane Sullivan, GM, Aero-Flight

Aero-Flight, an aerial firefighting company based in Spokane, Washington, has been in this space since 1963 and currently operates the Viking CL415 and the Avro RJ85 aircraft.

CAT: Tell us about your pilot training programs for your fleet.
Sullivan: Avro RJ85 training utilizes an FAA-certified Level D flight simulator that we own and operate. We can accomplish our FAA-required 61.58 and 61.55 sign-offs and also Avro type ratings. We accomplish our required USFS tactical training in Southern California every spring utilizing Hot Shots in the field making radio calls and directing airtankers from the ground.

The CL415 simulator we use is located in Milan, Italy. We then perform our FAA 61.58s and 61.55s in the aircraft and also perform our required USFS tactical training.

CAT: Could you give us a snapshot of Aero-Flite’s unique capabilities?Sullivan: Historically, when we were based in Kingman, Arizona, there were no simulators for the CL215s and DC4s we were flying. So we conducted two weeks of ground school followed by aircraft flight training required at the time by the USFS. Since then, we have dramatically improved the quality of our training to ensure our team members have the best resources available to them to conduct safe, effective, and efficient operations to support our customer, the ground firefighters.

Now our training is much more robust, which incorporates flight simulators, ground schools, and tactical ground firefighting techniques using sand table exercises and tactical aircraft flights. By going above and beyond normal and abnormal aircraft procedural training and integrating tactical training, Aero-Flite is able to train our pilots with a crawl, walk, then run methodology. This allows our pilots to begin the wildfire season ready to exceed our customers’ expectations.

In concert with Conair Canada, we will start using a state-of-the-art Training and Tactics center, which will include five FTDs that link together to allow pilots and aerial supervisors to work together in a synthetic wildfire environment, with highly accurate fire modeling. These FTDs are modular, which will enable the training of multiple different types, allowing for highly realistic training scenarios. The facility will also have a “TopGun” military-style debriefing facility, allowing full replay of the training scenarios, which enables the best training possible.

CAT: You’re certified as an FAA Part 142 training center?
Sullivan: We achieved our training center certification in November 2019. This allows us to conduct pilot proficiency checks and type rides in the simulator. Furthermore, it enables our crews to experience extremely realistic training scenarios in a risk-controlled environment without exposing them to the inherent risks of the live-fire environment.

CAT: Do your pilots need to develop specific skills to fight wildfires? 
Sullivan: Yes. They need to develop proficiency in crew resource management, low-level tactical flying, energy management, retardant delivery and communication skills in the dynamic and challenging fire traffic area.

CAT: What do you look for in an aerial firefighting pilot?
Sullivan: A person that adheres to our company values and has the ability to learn and adapt to dynamic and evolving situations. Must be forward-thinking, yet comply with established policies and standard operating procedures.

Published in CAT issue 2/2020