A young and brand-new rated pilot to the Air tractor 802 with no firefighting experience who managed to escape a LOC-I incident, ends his short career as an aerial firefighter due to the traumatic experience of a close call.
He was lucky to get away alive.
Through this Linkedin post, we made the event public so we all can learn from it, and we will get deeper into the case during this entry.
A letter from him as a heads-up
I received a call from him expressing his concerns about the dangers of unsustainable growth combined with deficient training. He shared the letter he had sent to the operator, and we both agreed that sharing certain details of the story here could save lives this season, in addition to reminding us of the importance of identifying deficient and sufficient training, in addition to fighting unjust culture.
The pilot is redirecting his career to other aviation forms and quitting aerial firefighting. That is why he dares to speak and help others with his experiences.
He invested time, energy, and money in directing his career toward aerial firefighting. It all went to waste because of excessive growth and contractual demands, coupled with inadequate training and lack of mentoring.
There are takeaways for everyone, organizations, experienced pilots, but especially for the new ones
The previous LinkedIn post and video covered technical aspects related to the LOC-I scenario, specifically mountainous flying illusions.
However, this article aims to shed light on the organizational and industry factors that contributed to the pilot’s predicament.
It’s concerning that the pilot had only 11 hours of experience on the aircraft without any firefighting training or related experience before being put in command of a single-crew aircraft. This situation is akin to playing Russian roulette with lives.
If the pilot had not been fortunate enough to survive, it would have been a shameful and embarrassing situation for those responsible for allowing it.
If you find yourself in a similar situation or notice someone struggling with similar circumstances, consider the following:
- Ensure that you fully understand the situation before entrusting your life to someone else.
- Listen to your colleagues and seek advice from an external, unbiased source.
- Perform due diligence to prevent putting your life at risk.
- Take your time to make a careful decision.
- Report it.
Despite everything, the fact that the pilot was able to return home safely is fortunate.
However, it’s worth noting that in a letter, he mentioned that he could have faced a similar fate as his colleague who lost his life in Portugal two months earlier as we will briefly describe.
Portugal Fireboss crash – a similar event with a fatal outcome
Our colleague Portugues colleague A.S. was killed after a LOC-I on the side of a mountain, following a tight turn after scooping.
What is not official yet are all the contributing factors leading to that:
- It was his second season after a very quiet 2021 first fire season with little hands-on.
- In 2022, all of a sudden he was already leading a formation in a very demanding area in the North of Portugal.
- In spite of previous experience in other forms of aviation, the pair’s low expertise in firefighting and their low specific experience on the Fireboss can’t be disputed.
- Again, as with the letter we are studying, there was an international contract in Greece that required the most experienced pilots from that area to be sent abroad.
This post described the accident and links to the official investigation information notice.
And this article linked to the post presents a recreation of the accident along with some recommendations.
As aerial firefighter operators, we must adopt a stronger safety culture during these challenging growing times.
Sending our front-liners abroad to face challenging scenarios during new contracts without adequate and sufficient training represents a form of negligence when it comes to operational safety. Furthermore, it is negligent when it comes to organizational growth and should shake the foundations of any modern and ethical organization. The retaliation of employees who report safety issues in addition to being illegal will discourage others from reporting similar incidents in the future.
New members should learn how to master the aircraft in their first years, focus on understanding the organization’s core values, and raise their standards, rather than representing the organization and commanding a single-crew aircraft right away.
It takes an average of 3-5 years to have pilots able to perform safe and effectively on their own.
Sending a new pilot to the frontline on the 1st or 2nd year would be the equivalent of creating Captains right after hiring because a specific airline needs Captains for a specific contract, without having to undergo the usual process that a first officer would require to become a Captain: gaining experience, attending courses, passing exams, etc.
This would be an expedited process, foregoing the usual development and training requirements required for a first officer to become a Captain.
We need to stop this trend.
A high level of safety is expected from those contracting our services. And from our families too.
We should only take what our operations are ready to absorb in a safe manner.
A strong safety culture is critical to preventing accidents and incidents. All team members need to prioritize safety and report any safety issues, not just theirs, but those related to the team’s circumstances.
We can start by showing respect and gratitude to the pilot for sharing his experience.
He is happy to talk to anyone interested in learning more.
Get in touch if you want to do so.
Here is the letter, translated from Spanish to English:
Original letter from the pilot to the operator
Background and pathway to becoming an Aerial Firefighter
It was at the end of April 2020 when I first got in touch with XXXXX Aerial Firefighting (From now XXX AF).
In those days, I had ten years of flying experience and approximately 1,800 flight hours in various fields of aviation, such as flight instruction, executive aviation, and medical evacuation.
My interest in firefighting led me to send my CV to XXX AF, which had an open selection process. My experience had nothing to do with the type of flight that is performed in firefighting operations, so I had no chance. Instead of giving up, I asked what was needed for a successful profile.
Then they told me: “turbine hours and tailwheel time.”
In July 2020, I began my training with Pilatus Porter, paying 8,000 euros and adding 500 flight hours tailwheel-turbine to my logbook. With a clear horizon: XXX AF, the most successful company in Europe and, by extension, the world.
That’s what I was told.
Getting rated on the Air Tractor
As early as May 2021, XXX AF contacted me to let me know there could be vacancies for the 2022 season.
My sacrifices seemed to be paying off!
I did a flight test at the end of 2021, and in March 2022 I was offered the Air Tractor 802 theoretical course along with some foreign pilots (country omitted).
It was taught in English by a teacher who barely spoke English. To be honest, it was one of the most embarrassing theory courses I’ve ever taken. Even so, studying the airplane manual helped me pass the theoretical exam with a high score. I wasn’t worried about the quality of the course because I was about to join XXX AF, one of the leading aerial firefighting companies.
In the beginning, they said I could only take a theoretical course because there was no position available for this 2022 season.
The first jobs opportunities after the initial class rating
Two weeks later the company called me for an urgent meeting, just when I informed XXX AF that I had decided to start at another organization: ZZZ Aerial Fire Fighting (From now ZZZ AF), who had offered me a 5-year contract, at a rate of 42,000 euros per year and provided all the necessary training.
At that meeting XXX AF confirmed that they had signed a contract “in extremis” and they told me: “We need you to fly, this company is much better than ZZZ AF, the planes here are brand new, we pay more, we will offer you a job as a simulator instructor when the summer season is over, stay with us”.
I was giving up many things, my job at that time in a skydiving company which was the income for my family. I also had a job opportunity with ZZZ AF, where they offered me 40,000 euros a year. I had to make some sacrifices, but on the horizon was XXX AF “the most successful company in the world.”
My destination was a nice European Mediterranean island, at a daily rate of €390. This is a beautiful, European destination, with a good standard of living, covered healthcare, and a calm atmosphere.
While there, I could even live with my family.
A twist in the original plan – rushed training and last-minute changes
I was told later that I had to go to a further away country in the Middle East for €500/day on duty.
A more hostile country, not a European, with a very different culture, in armed conflict with the neighboring country, with all the dangers that this implies. My decision was to accept the new destination, even though it was a great sacrifice, in order to achieve my dream.
Prior to the end of the year, they guaranteed I would do 120 paid days. From here I had to be ready as soon as possible, and everything became hectic.
So after 7 hours of training flight for the Air Tractor Class Rating, I took the exam (which I didn’t actually do) as the urgency was such that we couldn’t wait for the examiner to be available. I had never experienced anything like this in aviation, but the circumstances seemed extremely necessary.
Then came the fire training itself. I did not receive any Firefighting theoretical training (LCI in Spanish), ignoring the operations manual and National Regulations (RD 750/2014 that establishes a minimum of 30 theory hours)
For the flight phase, I received 4 flight hours, disregarding once again the OM and RD 750/2014, which specify a minimum of 50 flight hours for release as an aerial firefighting pilot.
Due to years of deaths of pilots who lacked adequate training, these requirements were imposed.
Training also aims to improve customer service effectiveness.
However, these requirements are not required in countries in the Middle East, where aerial firefighting is limited and trusted by foreign expert countries.
That is the reason why those countries turn to Spanish companies to provide these highly specialized services, as Spanish companies were pioneers in the activity back in the days.
It was a very complex period, but finally, the instructor gave me the go-ahead to go to the Middle East after a total of 11 hrs. He told me that he was ready and that there was not much flying there. They would give me the rest of the training when I returned from the season.
Since I had never taken a firefighting course, I did not understand what a forest fire was.
Starting to work abroad – The Middle East experience
Thanks to a colleague I just met, I had my first experience with fire on a paper napkin.
He drew basic notions that no one had ever explained to me before. I accepted this training because I was unaware of the challenges ahead. In addition, I was motivated by a desire not to disappoint my superiors, who had committed themselves strongly to me.
Once in the Middle East, I always had a warm and familiar relationship with my colleagues. When I told my colleagues about the training I’d received, they were shocked and warned me that the operation could be dangerous.
We began doing reconnaissance flights and some real sorties. Everything ran ok during the flights. With time, I gained some confidence and ease in flying the plane, earning the recognition of my peers.
The LOC-I incident
The incident occurred on September 13, when I was about to collide with a mountain. The terrain was challenging, and I lost energy while flying in mountainous terrain. I had to turn 180 degrees while jettisoning the water as part of an evasive maneuver. I was lucky I was in the middle of a valley.
When I got off the flight, I was talking to the formation leader, who insisted on not making this sort of mistake again. At that moment, I was fully aware that I had not been trained to be able to carry out this type of flight safely. I didn’t make the right decisions, not because of negligence, but because no one had trained me for these situations.
Without the resources to deal with these situations, the team and I were faced with an extremely complex and risky operation. A few advised me not to say anything and leave it as an unpleasant anecdote.
Just two months before my incident, our Portuguese colleague had just died in a crash, after only a season. He had performed a maneuver similar to the one I had to do to save my life. Moreover, he was the formation leader of a formation without the necessary experience. The most experienced pilots had been transferred to Greece to fulfill another contract signed last minute.
Reporting the incident
After speaking with the Safety department, I decided to make a safety report, as it was my responsibility after such a serious event.
In accordance with the company’s safety policy, we were asked to report on operational and safety issues.
After describing the incident in detail, I concluded as to what I believed had caused it.
In an effort to prevent absurd and unnecessary deaths, it was always my intention to improve, to add, and to inform my superiors of the dangers that such inadequate and urgent training entails.
Without reporting, I would not be at peace with myself.
My experience could help others avoid these failures in the future.
Retaliation – unjust culture
There were warnings from some about the possible consequences of exposing the shortcomings and defects of a supposedly world-renowned company.
‘I hope they don’t consider firing me,’
My next question was to myself:
Is there something I’m guilty of?
In a situation for which I was not prepared for, didn’t I still save the plane?
Isn’t a report an appropriate means of spreading the word when it comes to safety?
I had no reason to think of any retaliation.
By phone, I told the head of training about the incident. The response he gave was clear: “You stay at home until we give you proper training as God commands.”. Thank you for being honest and I apologize for your experience.”
When my temporary contract ended on October 3, I signed the permanent contract, which gave me peace of mind and confidence that things were going well, and that I would complete my training when it was possible.
The company did not contact me again after that. Just as I was told, I awaited their news.
In this period of time, I consider that I have behaved like a gentleman and expected the same back since I maintained the necessary discretion so that I did not harm anyone by refraining from commenting on this situation that I was experiencing or disclosing this letter, either with colleagues or the Fire the executives from the Middle East contract, who continue to contact me to find out when I was returning.
The information was not disclosed to the relevant authorities, such as AESA and EASA.
I received a bank deposit on December 22 titled “Liquidation settlement”. HR confirmed that my contract had been terminated. I did not receive a burofax, which they asked me about. Since the permanent contract was signed, no one has contacted me.
Burofax? What a shock.
Are there any real reasons for dismissal?
A failure to observe the company’s internal rules, apparently.
It made no sense. In my opinion, this argument is a crude lie unworthy of an “all-time great company”.
Furthermore, it is very offensive to me, since I have always been honest and given my best efforts, even more, I have given everything. Considering my life was risked, I deserve to know the truth, as I could perfectly appear on Linkedin in a black crepe, like some colleagues this season.
“The best company in the world”
In my opinion, “the best company in the world” is afraid and has been carried away by it. A fear of admitting wrongdoing, a fear of facing reality.
The title of “best company in the world” does not come easily. A title like that must be defended day by day. It is not worth having your own “NASA” facilities, new planes and paying more than the competition.
The time I spent at “the best company in the world” has been the worst “professional” experience (to put it mildly) of my life, both because of the training I received at the ATO and because of the termination of the contract.
Consequences to my career
Likewise, for the falsehoods and the iniquitous arguments. In addition, it has meant the end of a long-term life project, in which I have invested the qualification of an airplane valued at 8,000 euros, I have resigned from my old job, did not take the offer from another operator, with 5 years of salary at 42,000 euros per year, which add up to 210,000 euros in total, I have stopped receiving half of the 120 promised duty days, which are 30,000 euros, I have not received the training that corresponded to me, valued at more than 50,000 euros, three years of my life, which have no price, dedicated entirely to getting into XXX AF, not to mention the years that could have been spent in XXX AF if it had been “the best company in the world” for real, let’s say an average of 50,000 euros per year, 250,000 euros in 5 years (speaking in economic terms ).
Due to the lack of decent training, my life has been put at risk. In light of all this, I have decided to abandon aerial firefighting, motivated by my traumatic experience.
Their negligence thwarted my plan to develop professionally in the field of fire for the next 30 years, but at least I am still alive.
My damages have been very severe, and I feel a great deal of injustice. By means of this letter, I only wish to let you know how deeply I feel about injustice.
It is my conviction that there was no bad intention involved in my unfortunate training process.
All that was present was hurry, a lot of hurry, too much hurry, a careless hurry that nearly ended in tragedy.
Meanwhile, in my dismissal, there was bad intent, and an overuse of lies, along with the arguments used that I had repeatedly violated the company’s internal regulations during the period I awaited training.
My training problem could have been solved. The world’s best company just had to admit its mistake and correct it, especially when that was the intention.
This would have been a very simple process. We would have helped each other grow and become better. Instead, XXX AF has chosen the path of fear and arrogance. For all the reasons mentioned above, this has resulted in a more harmful scenario for both parties.
Also, it’s clear to me that it’s not the best company in the world, it’s just a famous local firefighting company due to some very sad reasons.
Therefore, I request, with the aim of concluding these matters, that appropriate measures are taken in order to ensure that this does not happen again to any colleagues interested in joining the firefighting aviation profession, which already involves daily risks, both in their personal lives and on the job.