People asked me quite a few times how to become an aerial firefighter. Unfortunately, there is not one single easy answer, but there are answers that might help to point in the right direction.
If you are looking for a magic formula, the name of specific companies or flight schools, vacancies or the contacts of Directors of Operations, be advised this is not the article. Most of that is easy to google.
Here we talk about patterns, decisions, and sustained professional growth. I’ll tell you what I would have liked to hear when I was 18 years old.
(Este artículo también se encuentra disponible en Español)
HOW TO BECOME AN AERIAL FIREFIGHTER
The specific professional subcategories in aviation are as varied as it could be, for example, medicine.
A family doctor is not a cardiovascular surgeon, nor does a cardiovascular surgeon has to be specialized in stem cells – regenerative medicine. It might be all linked, but there is a different path forward for them to get there.
A top-notch aerial firefighter isn’t a pilot – should be a combination of a firefighter and a well-trained aviator: elite multitaskers who understands the terrain and weather effects close to the fires; must know fire behavior and suppression tactics. Must know that fire is the mission, and their expert piloting skills are part of what they need to help the team win the war against the fire.
While fighting wildfires from the air is deeply rewarding, it is also quite humbling and puts egos in place as it requires a specific set of competencies and a lot of sacrifices.
Any pilot that looks at a Fire Boss and says ‘I can fly anything, I’m the greatest pilot in the world,’ is going to be humbled very quickly – Mike Young: Ex US Air Force war pilot – Air Spray Fireboss Chief Pilot. (See full article)
Basic competencies are that set of skills that are acquired during the first years of life and that are essential to be able to have a correct personal development; the generic ones are the attributes and qualities that are reinforced with creativity, innovation, etc.; and finally, the specific competencies refer to a piece of much more specialized knowledge. Although we tend to focus only on the specific ones, all three matter as part of an overall plan.
This article is tailored to Europe and the Fireboss, but it could be useful to other aircraft and places. If you are from the U.S you might want to check out what our friends from Dauntless Air (a world-leading company on rapid initial attack), have to say on the matter. Dauntless is one of the few companies that offered some hints to those pilots that are lost and have no clue on how to start.
If you want to know more about the Fire Boss Aerial Firefighting “know-how”, this video might help. If you want to get straight to the point, please scroll down.
Positive skills transfer across activities:
Let’s imagine that a professional athlete, specialized in long-distance running, during COVID-19 lockdown watches the “Calcio Storico” episode of the Home Games series on Netflix, and decides that he wants to shift his career to this new activity, in which Rugby is brutally combined with Mixed Martial Arts.
Would it be feasible?
Of course it would. Each individual owns his dreams and aspirations. However, both the probability of being knocked out and the severity of the injuries are relatively high for the long-distance runner.
Additionally, the cost of the training needed to transfer a long-distance runner into an explosive and violent fighter would be very high, in terms of resources and effort.
Therefore from a global perspective, it is a non-advisable option, both for the marathoner and for the Calcio Storico team’s management board, who would be making not the wisest decision.
Let’s say now that Jonah Lomu, one of the best Rugby players in history, during the climax of his career, decides to take a turn (just like Michael Jordan did with Baseball), leaving New Zealand’s Allblacks team to go to Santa María Novella in Italy- the red team in Calcio Storico.
Would it be feasible?
Of course it would. Each individual owns his dreams and aspirations.
Although he should learn the rules and bend the strategy, running 100m in 10.8 seconds, being 1.96m tall and 120 Kgs heavy, would transfer positively into the new activity, making him almost unstoppable from minute one. Just like he was as a Rugby player as seen in this video tribute to his career.
The cost of the training needed to transfer such a talented professional rugby player to an explosive fighting activity is minimal, in terms of resources and effort.
This example of positive transfer extends to mixed martial arts fighters, sprinters, and boxers (and probably the dodgy nightclub doorman who’s been involved in real street fights as life standards).
Without going into details, neither Jonah Lomu nor Calcio Storico players, nor boxers, fighters, or sprinters, should assume a positive transfer of skills towards this activity because they are top-notch in other high-level activities.
On the contrary and most likely, John McEnroe, a great professional tennis player of the 80s, who spent his entire life developing eye-hand coordination and reflexes, could well be a pickleball star (who knows if this one in particular, according to the temper and desire to win he shown during his career, would have probably adapted to the fighting riot as well as to the Pickleball!).
Likewise, a professional Table Tennis, Paddle, or Badminton, would also adapt quickly.
With these two extreme out of context examples, we should start getting the point I want to bring:
To become an aerial firefighting pilot, certain abilities must be in place, and the process of developing new skills cannot be skipped using shortcuts.
Genetics predispose but rarely is a determinant factor. Abilities, skills, and knowledge
In very basic terms, abilities are natural or inbuilt whilst skills are learned behaviors.
Skills can be developed and improved over time, by combining our abilities and our knowledge, but the underlying abilities are needed in order for the skills to be developed.
Abilities, likewise, can be improved and honed to some extent – running fast is a skill, but the ability to run fast comes in part from having strong leg muscles, which can be developed through regular exercise.
Ability and knowledge combine to create skills that can be used.
Some abilities are either boosted as part of a common plan working on both fine and gross motor skills, together with activities encouraging multiple intelligence at an early age or when you are older things complicate. The fact you might successfully pass a coordination test at your medical check-up doesn’t make you suitable or safe to perform as a firefighting or ag-pilot.
If it is a hobby, trying outside of your area of expertise, could be fun and advisable.
Hen it comes to a job that needs such abilities as a survival mechanism, not having developed sufficient spatial intelligence or body kinesthetic, showing bad coordination between limbs (hands and feet – gross motor control), or poor emotional intelligence, its bad news and puts us in a bad spot from the beginning.
Starting a career as a fire fighting pilot
If you are new to aviation
Suppose you are beginning in this exciting and challenging world and want to point towards aerial fire fighting as that is what you wanted to do since you were a kid.
In that case, you should know that even if it is a small closed world, it is absolutely possible to get there and if the drive is powerful enough not even Hulk would stop you. Do not let pessimistic and energy drawers take your will and drive away. Find the right ones to give you advice and learn to filter the signal from the background noise.
There are specific patterns you should take into account and some activities that will favor a better adaptation. I will explain the potential pathway below.
We know, in the words of Aristoteles, that:
“excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines our destiny”.
If you are experienced in other segments of aviation
If you are an aviation professional specialized in the airlines business*, cargo, or other activity that does not have a direct positive transfer, and due to circumstances, either because of watching some captivating videos or by a situation of global unemployment due to COVID-19, or simply just because it is what you want to do, you must take into account the same things the novel pilot did.
(* Authors note: some colleagues feel that I have generalized here. I want to clarify that I am referring to the last generations who no longer have the opportunity, interest, or need to go through general aviation or aerial work. Europe is not the US in terms of possibilities when you leave a school with 150-200 hrs, nor EASA the FAA in terms of regulations. The range has been significantly reduced, there is hardly any crop-spraying, banner towing is residual in a world of digital marketing, and photography is centralized in the large operators. It is not easy to make a living in something other than commercial air transport. The large operators’ and schools’ trend is towards highly simulated integrated courses focused directly on a first officer position in the airlines. This bag does not include pilots who have carried out aerial work or other activities previously, in which they have developed the skills we discuss in this article. These will need to be refreshed, and it will take a while to adapt to the operation, but once you have learned to ride a bicycle or motorcycle, it stays. I would even say that a pilot who has developed these skills and has also acquired the additional experience of CAT operations could potentially be a more complete aviator than an aerial firefighter who has never left aerial work.)
Most airline pilots of the last generations have the advantage of an already acquired broad experience, airmanship, languages , and human teams management.
The latest generations of Airline Pilots have the advantage of an already acquired broad experience, airmanship, languages , and human team management. Also the disadvantage of a potential lower cognitive plasticity due to the long-term specialization in a highly automated task, of little variability and framed by definition within the standard operating procedures.
This is not negative per se, airliners deserve great respect for managing the systems that grant the safety of our loved ones flying above FL300 in all sorts of weather. But the truth is it has little transfer to the firefighting reality: in the technological race to mitigate “human error” with the intervention of machines, albeit there have been improvements in most aspects, we have neglected some abilities that are basic to aviators. Humorously and friendly, this video explains the potential long-run consequences of burying the heuristic way by the academic-automated way.
If you only adhere to an S.O.P. you won’t kill yourself in a reckless way, you will still kill yourself but by the book, in a very organized and structured manner.
There Is Always a Well-Known Solution to Every Human Problem—Neat, Plausible, and Wrong
If you are an agricultural aviation professional (crop-sprayer), it’s important to highlight that today’s equation is more complicated than being able to lift a good load and fly low in a hostile local environment (which is super tricky and deserves tons of respect). The old times when this was a guarantee of work towards fire fighting, are long gone.
At present, fires are a global issue. We frequently face international operations in which other skills and knowledge are necessary, such as the ability to lead teams on missions, navigation, airport knowledge, and proficiency in different languages.
Do not get stuck on the local procedures and routines of Ag-flying. Keep working on the rest of the skills beyond the “Air farmer” role.
Wherever you are coming from, whatever your name might be and how many bars and starts you might have previously achieved. Aerial Firefighting is a non-standard, volatile, eventful, unorganized, and variable aviation activity. Each mission is different, from the water source to the fire characteristics and surrounding terrain.
Besides, we need to make hundreds of micro-decisions during a mission. There are no airways to follow, autopilot, procedures for every phase of the flight, or a colleague to assist us with specific tasks. When flying low level by hand, it’s obvious there is no safe way to read a checklist. Every single detail, like headings, altitudes, and airspaces, needs to be worked out manually while alone commanding the aircraft.
Aerial Firefighters are elite multitaskers who understand the terrain and the effects of weather in close proximity to the fires, learn to execute low-level flying techniques, and have a firm grasp of fire control strategies and tactics.
Therefore, this highly specialized task should not be seen as a previous step job into the airlines, or a temporary solution while the airlines employ back the temporarily unemployed ones. That’s the wrong approach. It is a career that requires a specific set of competencies and a lot of sacrifices.
The ideal background package
The following shows my vision of the possible pattern to follow and the skills and attributes necessary for an optimal transfer to the activity, focusing on both the AT802 wheeled and Fireboss-type amphibious aircraft, which are the ones I know the most.
Skills and competences:
- Communication: Excellent communication skills. Able to read, write, and understand English. ICAO level 5 or above.
- Interpersonal Skills: Able to work as a student, open to learning regardless of previous experience.
- Task Management: Able to prioritize tasks under a good understanding of Urgent and Important, and their differences.
- Professional Demeanour: Ability to maintain professional relationships in adverse conditions.
Abilities, knowledge, expertise:
- The ideal package: Stick and rudder manual flying, aerobatics, low-level (below 100ft), formation flying, float planes, turboprop, crop spraying, mountain flying, and any other activities to develop coordination, spatial intelligence, and kinaesthetic intelligence.
- Aeronautical Decision Making: Awareness of associated risk factors and the ability to make consistent, conservative, and timely decisions. During this type of flying, hundreds of micro-assessments should be made, as single pilots, on a volatile, eventful, unorganized, and variable environment—fast and flexible mind.
- Airmanship: Apply knowledge, experience, training, situational awareness, skills, and discipline to command the aircraft.
- Troubleshooting / Critical thinking: Determine cause and effect through expert understanding of aircraft systems, malfunctions, and procedures.
- Computer and technical equipment: Able to read and use Flight Planning tools, EFB -tablets, and GPS.
- Technical comprehension and writing: Ability to reference and understand manuals.
- Optimum Health condition: Both physically and mentally. Fatigue is a safety concern. The workload could imply one water landing and one fire drop every 3-5 min during 3 hrs non-stop flight periods. It would be best if you were in good shape, as there is no rest for the mind or the body.
Keys to succeed, for pilots and companies
A win-win relationship
Most of us learn to base our self-worth on comparisons and competition. We think about succeeding in terms of someone else failing–that is if I win, you lose; or if you win, I lose. Life becomes a zero-sum game. Stay way from unfair deals, better a no deal than a bad deal, that is the beginning of a bad end.
Putting first things first: the important
The first question coming to the instructors should be: is the candidate suitable? Has the organization made a good assessment under the right principles?
Most likely yes, (if you are in the right organization under the right management), but do not take it for granted when economic interests are part of the equation. Remember that at the end of the day, it would have been you in the air mitigating the risks associated with poor ground based assessments.
Honesty is the best policy for instructing. The situation where you may attempt to make a non-suitable student suitable, driven by interests beyond the specific task (organizational factors such as financial reward, business strategy, hierarchy issues) jeopardizes your professionalism as an instructor and it will come back to you in the future.
Money comes and goes, your reputation will remain with you for your entire career
Candidates must know exactly where they stand and be given specific suggestions to be suitable if they have been declared not suitable for the course.
Right people in the right seats – literally
Fireboss candidates will end up flying a single-engine, half boat – half aircraft, single crew, low-level, high-risk operation under a hostile environment. So it is of utmost importance that candidates’ backgrounds and learning capabilities are thoroughly and professionally assessed before enrolling the course. In an ideal world of theory, a great instructor should be able to get the right behaviors from the wrong people, but that in our industry, kills. Everyone is free to try, but Aerial firefighting is not for everyone.
A hard time assessing the right candidates, means a safer time instructing
The only purpose of the AT802 Fireboss is Firefighting, so instructors fulfill an important role: acting as a filter and representative of the whole Aerial Firefighting Industry. Getting the right people from the beginning is key.
But, are we showing our future pilots the right path to be the right people when it comes to job opportunities?
The Fireboss Instructor:
To student Fireboss pilots, their flight instructor is one of the most important people in the world at this phase of their lives. They expect you to have a thorough knowledge of the subject and a sincere desire to help them. They expect you to be capable of teaching everything necessary for them to become proficient aerial firefighter scooper pilots.
They trust that flight instructors will not only consider safety in the day-to-day progress of the course but in their ability to judge when they will be competent for solo operations or moved to another phase. They expect a lot and they have every right to do so.
The responsibilities of a flight instructor are therefore large, but what about the rewards? Leaving aside financial considerations, instructing offers opportunities for much greater recompense. For example, the personal satisfaction of contributing to raising the industry standards, setting up an example, increasing overall fixed-wing safety, and leaving a positive legacy for future generations beyond filling up the pocket with money.
The path forward after getting rated as Fireboss pilot:
So you finally made it, so now what? Can you just get down treetop height and start putting fires out?
That should not be the case.
If the organization is the right one, you will continue with mission training and a mentoring process.
In this context, just as a co-pilot new to the cockpit of a 737 should not be allowed to shift to the left seat after obtaining clearance, a newly licensed Fireboss pilot has a long way to go, whoever you are and what your name is. What’s your name.
We should start as a student in the back seat of a two-seater, observing and learning from an experienced instructor in the front seat. In teaching, we call this “the performance by demonstration method.”
If the company asks you to immediately take the lead after being rated or too soon, be suspicious. Think twice and seek outside advice. They are using you, and your desire to progress in a context that will harm you in the long run (or in the short run, like many who have killed themselves due to inexperience).
Trust me when I tell you that as talented as Floyd Mayweather is, he wouldn’t have gone undefeated with an impressive record of 50-0 if it weren’t for a carefully managed career. Now with 50-0, he is a showman cover in gold, in his own right because he has earned it, but if when he had a couple of fights, they face him against the toughest of the moment, the gold would perhaps be in his teeth because they would have beat the sh**t of him!
In our world of big nose yellow aircraft, the two-seater concept is key to safety, knowledge transfer, fire-fighting ab-initio training, and subsequent mission training, beyond Flight Synthetic Training Devices and what the non-flying sales office people have to say.
Unfortunately, in our industry, I have seen dealers who are reluctant to sell two-seaters so as not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. They sell the training flight hour at € 4,000, and the whole rating course becomes way more expensive than that a B737 or A320 rating course. You don’t kill the goose, but you might be killing some pilots, or you put them in danger from the moment you sell low-cost training at a gourmet price.
That isn’t good for everyone, even for the brand. The most important thing is that it affects new pilots’ safety since that beautiful and necessary mentoring process sharing the cockpit with an expert is not available.
In an ideal world, once the instructor is happy with the student performance in the rear seat, they should switch positions. Here we continue under the “Telling and Doing Technique”. The trainee jumps in front, under the instructor’s supervision from the rear seat.
At a later stage, the instructor should decide when to release a trainee from the two-seater to the single-seater as a trailing aircraft on the same formation. Here is when the development of the judging and decision-making process starts.
As a rule of the thumb, if we want to be able to provide a progression that makes sense, teaching them from the “known to the unknown” according to the classic Thorndike’s Law, the ratio experienced vs inexperienced in our organization should be 1:2. At least one experienced for every two inexperienced.
Some companies tend to ignore this process and see it as Science-Fiction. If they win a tender including numerous aircraft, they just see the short term $ and get as many new pilots onboard as needed to fulfill the contract requirements. This is getting fat under short term minded approached, by companies who got stuck in the old ways when it was about jumping on a new aircraft and trying to survive with your own means. Nothing to do with sustainable growth, and it will come around sooner than later in the form of accidents, poor performance, or both. You should take only what your operations and safety systems are prepared to absorb.
An aerial firefighter is not made in a week, nor a year. Much less an instructor. Summarizing the professional growth process of a Fireboss pilot, and probably in any other similar model, we should come up with something like this:
Another important point on an effective transition to becoming an aerial firefighter:
You should continuously seek action and position yourself in the frontline. Just a few double seasons between hot spots in the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere might bring more expertise than 20 years flying seasons of 30 hrs. Sitting around does not add. With the rating endorsement, you also acquire the responsibility of representing an entire group, which due to the type of task that is carried out should have elite standards.
The importance of increasing Human Capital
People are the greatest asset of a company. True leaders know it.
Increasing Human Capital by recruiting, retaining, and creating top talent, thoroughgoing management in group performance; by putting the right people in the right seats and letting them do their jobs, we will get to a highly motivated leadership board, that will naturally take us all to Blue Oceans (where the magic in business happen).
People are the greatest asset for companies. True leaders know this.
The new generation of talented pilots should bring new knowledge, experience, and capabilities to the team: languages, safety, vision in R&D, and strategy—instructors and examiners with an expert level in amphibious operations, aerobatics, mountain flying, and tail-wheel
Depending on the personnel hiring policy, the endless days of standby until the fires spark and the horn sounds can be downtime or hyper-productive. Some pilots spend their standby periods combining 3-hour naps, video games, Netflix series, and practicing the national sport: badmouthing and gossip. Some generative aviators lead the way, improve processes, stay physically and mentally trained, and try to infect the rest of their colleagues positively.
Remember that great talents choose companies, not the other way around!
Don’t waste time begging for a new job or keeping the one you already have while offering the same as hundreds or thousands. Your CV will go unnoticed, and your requests will be ignored.
Dare to be different. Becoming a super talent is up to you and no one else. Only you can stop you from achieving that!