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Air Tanker Pilot

Odds of Hanging On

You won't keep your air tanker pilot job simply by showing up every day. This industry demands the best from its pilots, who must constantly improve their skills and maintain a high level of performance year after year. Here's how it works.

Let's say you're hired for a copilot's position. You'll probably be flying in this right seat slot, refining your skills and gaining experience, for 5 to 10 years. At some point, you'll begin your captain training, although the timeline will vary with your experience and your employer's staffing needs. Once you achieve a captain rating, you're basically golden as long as you maintain your skills and don't tick off your employer. In fact, it's not uncommon to find a captain who's been with the same company for more than 20 years.

You're probably wondering about this "maintain your skills” stuff. First, the good news is that the FAA doesn't set a mandatory retirement age for firefighting pilots, unlike airline pilots. You will, however, have to pass a Class II Medical Exam each year. You'll also have to complete annual hands-on training, which takes about three weeks every year.

Here's the lowdown on the training. First, you'll get about eight hours on the simulator, along with another eight hours in ground school class. Try to stay awake, because you'll get two more days in ground school focused on your specific operating scenarios. You'll also review protocols for operating in specific types of terrain, such as mountains, flatlands, or canyons. Your company's contract might also require that you demonstrate your flight proficiency if your airplane hasn't flown in a while. In most fire seasons, that's probably not going to happen.

Finally, remember that while you're flying the plane and maintaining your skills, you're still expected to maintain a courteous relationship with your company's client, generally the United States Forest Service. If you tick off a Forest Service supervisor, perhaps by spewing a string of sailor's curse words or spitting at his feet, your employer will definitely hear about it. That probably won't help your boss' future contract prospects, and might also affect your job security. Considering the lack of air tanker pilot opportunities, you might want to keep your mouth shut.