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Air Tanker Pilot

Physical Danger

Let's play a little game. We'll name several risk factors faced by an air tanker pilot (that'd be you) in the course of a typical mission. You'll lump all the risks together, and figure out how much physical danger this job entails. Oh, you think this is too easy? And you want to know if there's a prize for the right answer? Of course you do. We'll get to that.

Risk #1: You rev up the airplane's engine(s) and take off. Anytime you leave the relatively safe confines of terra firma, you run the risk of not coming back...in one piece. Risk #2: You're likely flying for many hours at a time, which means the fatigue factor might start to creep in. Risk #3: You're probably flying in the same airspace as other air tankers, a spotter plane or two, perhaps a few helicopters, and maybe even a huge C-130 that can drop mucho water or retardant at one time. Translated: the airspace has gotten a bit crowded. Risk #4: Since you're flying over a fire, you'll face decreased visibility from haze or smoke...sometimes pretty dense smoke. This means it might be difficult to see other aircraft, trees...or even mountains.

Finally, Risk #5: Fires can spread incredibly fast even in moderate wind conditions, say about 20 mph. If you're flying in southern California, you might encounter the dreaded Santa Ana winds that can scream through the canyons at 50 mph or more, with gusts over 100. In south Texas, you'll see straight-line winds howling across the flatlands, hurling airborne embers and creating unpredictable updrafts and downdrafts. We probably don't have to tell you that flying an airplane in these conditions will be a tad difficult. We also don't have to tell you that you'll probably encounter multiple risks at the same time.

Okay, you're smart enough to figure out that an air tanker pilot job is off-the-charts dangerous. We can't think of too many jobs that put you in more danger...except, ironically, for underwater welding.