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Qualifications

It all begins with your private pilot license. Seriously, unless the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, issues you this entry-level flight ticket, you don't have a prayer of flying an air tanker—ever. Let's briefly summarize the private pilot requirements so you'll know what's expected of you.

First, you'll need to pass a medical exam given by an FAA-approved physician. No, your brother-in-law who's an EMT won't work. Next, you must pass your private pilot written exam with a 70 percent score (although you'll probably want to shoot a little higher). Note that you might need to complete a ground school class to prepare yourself for the test, as many students find that studying on their own just doesn't cut it.

Now we get to the flying component. You'll have to complete 40 or more hours of documented flight time, including at least 20 hours 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.

After your preliminary flight hours, you'll rack up 10 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. Don't get too comfortable with your instructor, though, as you must pass your check ride with an FAA-approved examiner who doesn't know you from the next 20 guys in line.

Congratulations, you made it! You're now a private pilot! Okay, you say, now on to the air tanker pilot job. Not so fast. Many aviation professionals have said that a private pilot's license is actually 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, and building your confidence without getting cocky. Hire instructors as needed, and soak up all the knowledge and practical experience you can squeeze out of them.

Fast-forward a few years, and you've 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 12 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. We'll spare you those details here. Finally, you must pass a United States government security-focused background investigation.

That covers the skills, qualifications, and certificates you'll need. 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. Here's what you don't need: You don't have to possess military pilot experience, and you no longer need an A&P Certification and aerial application (or crop dusting) background.

During your hiring and training process, you'll need to complete four interagency computer courses mandated by the United States Department of the Interior. The courses inform pilots of single-engine air tankers, or SEATS, about firefighting procedures and hazards. For example, you'll learn about fire behavior and situational tactics.

Finally, a National Aerial Firefighter Academy course will demonstrate the tasks of single- and multi-engine air tanker planes, firefighting helos and airborne command aircraft. After all, you've got to learn how to combat a fire while staying out of your teammates' way.

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