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Aerial firefighter a rare breed with demands for highly skilled flying, fighter pilot's nerves

Pilots for single-engine retardant planes hard to come by, company owner says

HELP WANTED: Single-engine firefighting pilots. Must be willing to fly one-seat aircraft low enough to high-five the ground crew, make circus-ride turns over mountain ridges, buzz smoky mountainsides, drop fire retardant in swirling winds, work long days followed by hours of tedium, then consider it all as routine as driving a Honda on I-15. Will need a fighter pilot's nerves, plus hundreds of hours of flying experience and ground school.

There is a shortage of pilots who are qualified to fly single-engine air tankers — about 100 in all of America, says one expert. The only thing there is no shortage of these days is wildfire. The West is on fire, and those fires are being put out by land and air.

"I've got airplanes in the hangars because I don't have pilots to fly them," says Andy Taylor, pilot and owner of New Frontier Aviation, an aerial firefighting company based in Montana.

On Monday morning last week, Taylor and fellow pilot Wayne Faw were on call at the Tooele Valley Airport with nothing to do but wait. They have been contracted by the BLM to be ready for firefighting duty, but today there is a rare lull in the action. In the last few weeks, firefighting pilots have flown 350 missions and dropped 250,000 gallons of fire retardant in BLM's West Desert District, which is everything west of I-15 to Nevada, and then south to Beaver and north to Idaho. Today there is nothing to do but wait in a trailer.

"It's a thrill a minute, followed by hours of boredom," Faw is saying, as he stands by his plane on the tarmac.

It's good work if you can get it, which, translated, means you have serious skills and there must be, well, fires. Faw and Taylor aren't exactly cheering for rain. There have been seasons when they just couldn't find enough fires to make a living. So far, 2012 has been a bonanza.

It takes a special breed to do what these pilots do. Flying single-engine tankers, which look like World War II fighters, demands highly skilled flying. The big tankers have the advantage of being able to carry bigger loads of fire retardant, but because they require large runways to land for refueling and reloading retardant, their turnaround time is slow (in Utah they have to land at either Hill Air Force Base or Cedar City). The small, single-engine planes can get into tight places that tankers can't reach — canyons and steep sloping ridges — and land on short dirt runways and back roads to reload, which puts them closer to the fire.

Most of their missions occur on summer afternoons, often in mountainous regions, a combination that produces "hot windy conditions and crappy air," says Taylor. They fly 60 feet off the ground to make their drops on the fire (to put it in perspective, their wing span is 58 feet) while managing to hit their target with accuracy at 100 to 140 miles per hour.

On final approach for a pass over the fire, pilots are thinking primarily of their exit strategy, which means having sufficient air speed and power even if the doors jam and they can't release the extra weight of the retardant. At the moment of release, the pilots have to ease the stick forward; otherwise, the suddenly lightened plane would nose straight into the sky. They also have to be prepared for ever-changing winds coming out of the canyons and off of ridges – downdrafts, updrafts, crosswinds, sheer. The low-level flying leaves them little margin for error.

"There have been times when I'm on final (approach) and catch a downdraft or some bad air and I just have to pull out," says Taylor.

If all this weren't enough, the pilots try to apply the retardant delicately. If they "slam" the retardant into the fire, it coats one side of the grass and trees, which means the other side is apt to rekindle. Instead, they try to gently "rain" the retardant on the fire.

The pilots' job is to cool the fire for the ground crews, or slow it down (hence, the name "retardant"), since they can rarely actually put it out. They might reduce 15-foot flames to 4 feet or cool a fire to temperatures that make it more approachable and controllable for firefighters on the ground.

"We are helping the guys on the ground," says Taylor. "If we don't have those guys on the ground, the fire could burn through the retardant."

During the fire season, pilots fly 12 days on and two off. They are limited to 36 hours in six days, and as many as 14 hours in a day, but then they are required to have 10 hours of uninterrupted rest.

Taylor's company flies an 802 Air Tractor and an M-18 Dromadier capable of carrying between 500 and 800 gallons of retardant. They cost about $1.7 million each. "These airplanes are built to crash," says Taylor. "They absorb impact. The front folds up and the cockpit absorbs 41 Gs. I've seen these things with the tail and wings sheered off and the cockpit intact."

Three of Taylor's pilots have died in crashes – "really close friends," he calls them – during his 22 years in business

It's a rough ride for the pilots. They experience heavy vibrations and turbulence. Faw says his head has bounced off the side of the cockpit, which is why they wear helmets.

"People pay for these rides at a carnival for a few minutes," says Faw. "We do it all day."

If only they could sell tickets to spectators. When a fire is spotted, it starts aerial protocols as choreographed as D-Day. The operation is directed by the incident commander or IC on the ground. He communicates with ground crews and his eye in the sky, the air attack supervisor or AC, who flies circles above the fire and serves as an air traffic controller for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. In the first hours of a fire, numerous aircraft converge on one point in a hurry. The AC has to organize things fast and think three-dimensionally to prevent mid-air collisions and attack the fire strategically.

Like many such pilots, Taylor developed many of his skills as a crop duster. He got his pilot's license in 1981 and began crop dusting professionally. In 1989, he needed extra work to pay for a new airplane, so he began doing fire suppression work. He now owns 22 planes, and his company has put out fires in 14 states while also continuing his crop-dusting enterprise. He's gone about 100 nights a year, from May through October, either to fly or to monitor his operations.

"The people we pull from are the crop dusters," says Taylor. "You have to have time in those planes."

Faw went broke after five years as an Oregon farmer and used his pilot's license to take up crop dusting for the next 24 years before switching to fire control.

"I have the skill and I like to exercise it," he says. "And I enjoy being part of a bigger system and helping others."

The challenge for Taylor and his company is the feast-and-famine nature of the business. If there are no fires, they don't fly, and if they don't fly, they don't make money. About 50 pilots left the business after a slow fire season a couple of years ago.

"This business has been good to us, but it consumes your life," says Taylor.

Late Monday morning he received word that smoke had been sighted. A spotter plane was dispatched and later reported the news: No fire. The waiting continued.