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Air Tanker Pilot


It all begins with your private pilot license. First, you'll need to pass a medical exam given by an FAA-approved physician. No, your neighbor's friend's brother-in-law who used to be an EMT won't work. Next, you must pass your private pilot written exam with a score of at least seventy percent (although you'll probably want to shoot a little higher).

Now we get to the flying component. You'll have to complete forty or more hours of documented flight time, including at least twenty with a certified flight instructor. While you're flying with the flight instructor, you'll need to fly three hours at night, plus another three hours of instrument-focused flight time. 

You'll also need to complete three hours of cross-country flying time during which you visit other airports. Feeling exhausted yet? Well, wake up, because we're just getting started.

After your preliminary flight hours, you'll rack up ten solo hours that must include cross-country trips and stops at three airports with working control towers. Then you'll get to spend three hours huddled with your instructor before the FAA practical exam, where you'll demonstrate specific flying skills and aviation smarts.

Congratulations, you're now a private pilot. "Okay," you say, "now I can apply for the air tanker pilot job, right?" Not so fast, Skippy. Many aviation professionals say that a private pilot's license is actually just a license to learn, and they're right. 

Plan to tally as many flight hours as you can, improving your skills and learning new ones while building your confidence. Just don't get cocky (that may have worked for Tom Cruise, but he's an exception).

Fast-forward a few years, and you'll have met the minimum requirements for a Forest Service contract copilot position. You've racked up 800 documented hours as an airplane Pilot-in-Command, 100 of those hours in the past twelve months. You've obtained FAA multi-engine and instrument ratings, along with your Commercial certificate. 

You're healthy and fit, of course, which means you've easily gotten your Class II medical certificate that extends through your contract period. Finally, you've met the criteria for the FAA's Flight Review and Second-in-Command Qualifications regulations. Wipe the sweat off your forehead—we'll spare you the details of those here. Finally, you must pass a United States government security-focused background investigation.

Next, during hiring and training, you'll need to complete four interagency computer courses mandated by the United States Department of the Interior. Knock those out, and that juuust about covers the skills, qualifications, and certificates you'll need to get started. 

Of course, you'll be a better candidate if you can document additional skills, such as airline or charter pilot work, a flight instructor gig, or experience flying larger aircraft over 12,500 pounds, but it's really up to you how above and beyond you feel like going at this point. After all, you've been through a lot already.