The Real Poop
Imagine a scene that could've been plucked from the pages of Dante's Inferno: A thick gray haze looms over a small mountain town, bringing with it the smell of acrid wood smoke. A brightening red glow pulses behind a long line of vehicles scrambling to flee the imminent destruction of what may be every home in the village.
Suddenly, two Air Tractor airplanes, two large twin-engine aircraft, and two helicopters break through the haze and race toward the fire line. Drivers closest to the conflagration can just barely see the planes and helicopters drop a long line of red fire retardant, hoping to beat the inferno down enough for ground crews to seize control. The next few minutes will decide everything.
You've just witnessed (in your mind's eye, granted) a coordinated aerial firefighting operation that includes several types of aircraft, plus an unseen higher-altitude incident command aircraft that directs the other pilots' actions.
The fixed-wing firefighting aircraft (specifically the planes that drop the retardant or water from specially configured tanks) are commonly known as "air tankers." Perhaps unsurprisingly, the term "air tanker pilot" refers to the pilots who fly them.
Air tanker pilots usually work for private firefighting companies who usually work for the United States Forest Service...which pretty much works for all of us. And no, adding middlemen between firefighters and fires wouldn't be our first idea on how to run things either, but considering the fact that we're not all on fire right now, the system in place appears to work okay.
It also works for getting these pilots paid consistently for what can often be some pretty inconsistent work. The numbers change depending on where and how often pilots work, but the average typically comes in at about $48,270 (source).
Air tanker pilots may wind up working on fires caused by anything from lightning to careless campfire use to Smokey the Bear's little-known evil arch-nemesis Matchstick the Squirrel. Usually though, they're busy with wild forest fires that can sometimes grow to cover over 300 square miles. To put that in perspective, we're talking one fourth of Rhode Island. Sheesh.
Fortunately, these forest fires typically follow a schedule (which is, like, so considerate of them), raging from June through October, beginning in the Southeast United States and burning on through to the woods of California.
And where the fire goes, so go the pilots. So, no, Smarty Pants, you can't just move to Hawaii in the summer and then sit on your keister watching the beautiful beaches there not burn to the ground while the paychecks pour in.
While air tanker pilots are sort of like teachers in that there's some mega downtime in the off-season, they're working a ton when things heat up. (Get it? Heat up? Because fire is hot? We're so clever.) Most contracts keep pilots busy six days a week, and between nine and fourteen hours each day...with only eight of those hours (at max) spent actually flying the plane.
Ground time means handling aircraft service and maintenance work, washing planes (Dirty aircraft fighting forest fires? That simply won't do.), performing flight planning tasks, and even completing dreaded paperwork duties. Just don't get too involved polishing that wing...pilots have only fifteen minutes between receiving a launch order and deploying to a live fire scene.
"Whoa!" we hear you thinking. (Don't be alarmed—we only use our telepathy for good.) "An air tanker pilot has to do their own maintenance work too?" Trust us, by the time you're finally allowed to work maintenance, you'll be so relieved to be done with the job's prerequisites that scrubbing out the winglet joints will feel like that Hawaiian vacation you've been on about. Before you've earned even the chance at a contract, you'll have put in years of training, over 1,000 hours of flight time, and be holding more certifications than you have fingers. And even then, you'll only be a co-pilot.
By the time you can finally call yourself Captain, the government's got something it wants to call you, too: All air tankers and their pilots are considered "official national assets" while under contract to the Forest Service.
But while the title "official national asset" might sound like pretty much the greatest way to introduce yourself ever, in practical terms, it means that you must go where the United States needs you, when the United States needs you.
That means a pilot might be assigned to one base, then suddenly receive the order to fly halfway across the country to another with no definite date of return. If you've leased an apartment, booked a hotel room, or towed a camper to your initial base, well...suddenly you've got yourself a logistical nightmare.
Considering the incredible qualifications required to get started paired with the unpredictable nature of the job, an air tanker pilot career is definitely not for someone seeking the mundane. If your family simply can't bear to have you gone for even one night, this isn't the job for them, either.
On the other hand, if you thrive on challenges and are prepared to develop some excellent flying skills (and can maintain a desire to keep improving them), this could be the career you want.