Picture a scene that could have been plucked from the pages of Dante's Inferno. Even though it's midmorning, the gently rolling hills are almost obscured by a thick gray haze. The smell of acrid wood smoke is almost suffocating, driving those with respiratory ailments indoors and forcing others to use masks or wet cloths against their faces to breathe. In the distance, perhaps five miles away, a brightening red glow announces the fire's presence, or rather the fire's rapid encroachment on the nearby town. A long line of vehicles snakes down the single road away from that town, as its residents flee what is almost certainly their homes' total destruction.
In the distance, a mechanical hum gradually gets louder, becoming a deafening din as drivers crane their necks out of their vehicle windows. Finally, two Air Tractor airplanes, two large twin-engine aircraft, and two helicopters break through the haze and disappear toward the fire line. Drivers closest to the fire can just barely see the planes and helicopters drop a long line of red fire retardant along the fire line. Circling back, the pilots reposition their aircraft for another pass, hoping to beat the fire down enough for ground crews to seize control.
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” in the United States. The term “air tanker pilot” refers to the pilots who fly these aircraft, regardless of the planes' sizes or tank capacities.
To better understand an air tanker pilot's job, let's look at look at the aerial firefighting industry's history. Back in the 1950s, when World War II surplus airplanes were a dime a dozen, a small number of planes were retrofitted with water tanks so the aircraft could assist ground firefighting teams in remote areas. Larger military planes, ex-commercial airliners, and even helicopters eventually joined the fleet. Although many of the older aircraft are still in use, modernizing the aerial firefighting fleet has recently become a higher priority.
Within the United States, private firefighting companies contract their services to the United States Forest Service, which administers the contracts and serves as the contractors' client. Air tanker pilots generally work for one of ten companies, eight of which support 44 Forest Service contracts, plus separate contracts for Minnesota and Alaska. Although contracts may begin in late February and end in the fall, most contracts run from June through October. Of course, in a severe fire season, all bets are off, which means crews can be activated anytime.
You might wonder how these fires start, and what region of the country sees the most action. We're generally talking about forest and wildland fires, which can be started by lightning, careless campfire use, or perhaps a maintenance operation that ignited super-dry wood fuels. The timber-rich Southeast generally sees the first fires, with crews moving west until they reach California. Of course, it's not a linear trip, as you've probably got fires popping up in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, to name a few. Your contract will probably have you work six days in a row, with one day off before your next round. You'll probably work between 9 and 14 hours each day, although you can only fly the plane for 8 hours a day. Typically, you'll report around 9 a.m., although you could be called in as early as 7 a.m. if conditions require it. When you're on standby on the ground, you might handle aircraft service and maintenance work, wash the plane, perform flight planning tasks, and even complete the dreaded paperwork duties. If you get a “launch” order, you have 15 minutes to get yourself and your aircraft ready to deploy to a hot fire scene. “Whoa!” you think. An air tanker pilot has to do all this maintenance work? Actually, you might be surprised to learn that you'll start your air tanker pilot career in the right seat, as a copilot. Yes, the copilot has to perform all the ground-based tasks we just mentioned, plus support the captain as he flies the plane. We'll talk more about your progression to air tanker pilot captain later; stay tuned.
You might also be surprised to learn that your aircraft is considered a national asset while it's under contract to the Forest Service. Therefore, the aircraft (and you, along with it) can be deployed to any fire scene in the continental United States that needs more aerial firefighting support. That means you might be assigned to one base, and suddenly receive an immediate order to fly your plane halfway across the country to another base, with no definite date of return. If you've leased an apartment, booked a hotel room, or towed your camper to your initial base, you've got yourself a logistical nightmare. We'll let you figure that one out.
If you've read this far, you've realized that an air tanker pilot career is not for someone who wants a mundane, predictable job. In addition, 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 if you've got excellent flying skills and a desire to keep improving them, this could be the career you want. Perhaps you also want to work as part of an elite team, to know your work truly makes a difference to people on the ground terrified of losing their homes or livelihoods.
Finally, perhaps you'd like to fly in a slightly different direction. Although you can't get enough of soaring through the skies, you don't think an air tanker pilot gig is your cup of tea. You might consider a career as a flight instructor, crop duster, cargo pilot, or corporate pilot. After all, there really is room up there for everyone.