How Do You Become A Fire Pilot?

A fire pilot is also referred to sometimes as an aerial firefighter. They are pilots that are specifically trained to fly over tailwheels and at low levels over a variety of terrain types. You will need to have skills in both of these areas if you wish to become a successful fire pilot. 

There is not a huge supply of fire pilots and it is often hard to find someone willing for the job. This means that there is not a specific route into the profession, and people will come to it from all walks of life. Many come from military backgrounds, although this is by no means a requirement. 

If you are used to flying in smaller, less powerful planes with little to no automation, this may be the job for you. Many fire pilots begin by serving as a pilot in an observation plane. They then move onto a SEAT or the right seat of larger aircraft. 

You will need to meet specific requirements as part of your fire pilot training. There is a certain number of hours of flight training you need to complete (often around 4,000), as well as experience in specific aircraft. 

You must also hold a valid Federal Aviation Administration Commercial or Airline Transport Pilot certificate with rotorcraft-helicopter training. You will also need a valid Class 1 or 2 FAA Medical Certificate and a valid FAA Helicopter Instrument rating. 

Ideally, you will have logged a minimum of 500 hours of low-level flights, 50 hours of Night Vision Goggle flight, and 50 hours of instrument time. 

How much do Cal Fire helicopter pilots make?

The starting salary for a Cal Fire helicopter pilot is anywhere from $93,504 to $126,060 per annum. For a Chief Fire pilot, the salary falls somewhere between $107,511 and $144,930.

Cal Fire is one of the most highly regarded aerial firefighting forces across the entire globe. Other aerial fire forces are based on Cal Fire’s operational model due to its effectiveness. The pilots have a large fleet to choose from that includes helicopters, air tankers, and air tactical planes. 

The Cal Fire pilots help with fire suppression and prevention, vegetation management, and perform preventative maintenance on helicopters. They also assist with search and rescue missions, reconnaissance, law enforcement, medivacs, administrative flights, and aerial photography. 

How much does a firefighter pilot make?

Generally speaking, Forest Service and other aerial fire pilots will make less than those in the Cal Fire aviation program. Starting salaries for Forest Service pilots are set at around $73,600 to $113,800. 

If you are a captain on a larger air tanker plane you are likely to earn between $100,000 to $360,000 depending on your level of seniority. 

Some of the firefighter pilot roles available will be on a seasonal basis. A typical season lasts for between 4 and 6 months and the salary will be given for this period. This is because wildfires are more prevalent during certain phases of the year and there will be a greatly reduced need for aerial firefighters during the lulls. 

This means that some pilots will become aerial firefighters during the off-season to make some additional money. Others will simply work as an aerial firefighter for part of the year, earn their salary, and then take the rest of the year off to spend as they like. 

Can fire planes fly at night?

Prior to the 1970s, aerial firefighters could fly at night. During the 1970s this was stopped as the United States had concerns about the safety of the activity and the increased cost. In 2014, this was reinstated by the Governor of Colorado. He also set up an organization called the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. 

One major goal of this organization was to conduct research on nighttime firefighting operations. A 2018 report stated that the complexity and cost of these night operations were substantial. Despite this, many countries including the United States have decided to reinstate nighttime firefighting activities. It is believed that the benefits of the practice outweigh the downsides. 

Many firefighters believe that working at night makes it safer and more effective to combat fires. This is due to the reduced temperatures and wind speed combined with an increase in ambient humidity. These factors work to the firefighter’s advantage, making it much easier to get the fire under control. There are also fewer aircraft in the sky and fewer communications over the aviation radio channels which again make it easier for aerial firefighters to do their job. 

Can water bombers fly at night?

Water bombers are aerial firefighting planes that carry water, or water-based gels and foams to combat fires. They differ from other aerial firefighting planes which will carry a chemical that stops fires. 

Water bomber planes will tackle the hotspots of the fire. This means that they drop water onto the worst affected areas to ‘knock down’ the temperature. This then makes it easier for ground crews to tackle and neutralize the fire. They tend to be tasked with targeting the edge of flames. 

Water bombers are widely regarded as the more effective fire management tool. This is because they can carry a huge amount of fire retardant materials and get to the scene of the fire very quickly. 

As mentioned earlier, it is often easier for firefighters to tackle flames at night time. This means that water bombers are allowed to fly at night, despite the additional dangers involved. 

Winds of 40 miles per hour are suitable for planes to fly in but would cause any chemicals or water dropped to dissipate into a mist. This would not be effective at tackling the fire and as such, weather conditions need to be taken into consideration when deciding whether it is safe and worthwhile to fly at night. 

How do water bomber planes refill?

Water bomber planes will scout out the nearest large body of water to the fire in question. This will need to be an open source of water, meaning that the planes can easily refill. The pilot will approach the water and lower the plane until the underside skims the water’s surface. 

They will then ‘keep it on the step’, meaning that the pilot taxis along the water as fast as possible without returning to the air. This is generally at a speed of around 70 knots. Scoops are then lowered into the water for the plane to collect water to fight the fire. They direct the flow of water up and into the tanks on board. 

The pressure created by the plane being kept on the step is what drives the water into the tanks onboard the plane. This means that no pumps are required to collect water. Every plane differs in how rapidly it can uptake water. One of the largest, the Martin Mars, can uptake 1,100 liters or a ton of water per second. 

The water is then kept in the tanks through the use of a check valve and vents on the upper side of the tank. This ensures there is no pressurization of the water.