How aerial firefighters are trained to fight forest fires

  • Aerial firefighters go through intense training before they fight active wildfires from the sky.
  • These firefighters work with government agencies like the US Forest Service and state governments.
  • Insider spent three days with Bridger’s training team in Arizona to see pilots train.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Barrett Farrell: After we’ve gotten back from flying, we saved someone’s house or saved someone’s crop, because that’s their livelihood and that’s how they make their living. That’s well worth the risk that we take.

Narrator: When wildfires spread, they can be too powerful for firefighters on the ground.

Instructor: Flaps 10. Ready for the water.

Narrator: That’s where aerial firefighters come in.

Trainee: Set power.

Instructor: Power set. Feathers armed. Right there, feel that? There it is. Scooper 282 is inbound, loaded for the drop.

Trainee: And three, two, one, drop.

Instructor: Load’s away.

Narrator: These are the pilots who operate specially built aircraft to target a fire with more than 1,000 gallons of water, working with agencies like the US Forest Service and state governments.

Tim Sheehy: We’re seeing a massive wildfire threat worldwide, and it’s straining the infrastructure of a system that was designed for a two- to three-month fire season into a persistent year-round threat. Our people are trained and tailored to ensure that we’re providing the absolute best support on time, on target, because after all, the fires are won and lost on the ground.

Narrator: In January, we spent three days with Bridger Aerospace in Mesa, Arizona, to see its pilots train and recertify ahead of what’s expected to be a very busy fire season. CEO Tim Sheehy is a former Navy SEAL, and he’s also getting his annual retraining to pilot the Super Scooper himself during wildfire season. This is the weapon these pilots use to fight fires: the $30 million CL-415EAF, more commonly known as the Super Scooper.

Sheehy: They are the only aircraft that’s purpose-built to fight fires. That’s all they do, and they do it well.

Tim Cherwin: This aircraft skims across the surface of the water, picks up 1,400 gallons of water, and you carry that water to a fire, drop that water on the fire to assist wildland firefighters who are on the ground. A few months goes by after not doing a lot of flying. It’s good to get back in the seat, get some reps on the water, some scoops.

Narrator: Pilots in training practice handling the aircraft in a variety of scenarios.

Cherwin: Scooper pilots, you’ve got to be a master of all things. You’re often dealing with multiple aircraft in an area. You have to be able to fly up in the altitudes, and you also have to be able to fly low level, down and dirty in the smoke, in the mountains, where there’s low visibility and high terrain.

Narrator: At 30,000 pounds, the Scooper is 30 feet tall and has a 93-foot wingspan. “Nimble” may not be the first word that comes to mind.

Sheehy: We’re flying it in extremely narrow canyons, very low altitude, banking high-g turns at a high rate of turn. Flying an aircraft this big that low in that dangerous of an environment is very rare.

Farrell: It’s gonna be, you know, max power. We’re already at flaps 10. My name’s Barrett Farrell, and I am a first officer on the Scooper here at Bridger Aerospace. In 1990, I was 4 years old. There was a forest fire on the mountain just south of where I grew up. I was able to watch a B-17 tanker dropping retardant. And after experiencing that, when I was about 12 years old, I always knew I wanted to be involved in aerial firefighting.

Instructor: You have control?

Trainee: I have control. Clear to take off.

Instructor: Ready to go?

Trainee: Yep.

Narrator: In training, pilots react in simulated emergency scenarios, like an engine failure.

Trainee: OK, simulated a right-hand engine failure.

Narrator: Where they practice feathering, or adjusting the pitch of a failed propeller to reduce drag and fly safely to a landing spot.

Instructor: Confirm right-hand ultimate feather?

Trainee: Confirmed.

Instructor: Feathering down. Has it feathered?

Trainee: Positive feather.

Instructor: Positive feather.

Farrell: With an engine failure, we never know when that’s going to happen, and so we want to train to make sure when we have that engine failure, the muscle memory is already there for what we have to do.

Narrator: Pilots also practice making an emergency descent.

Instructor: Hey, 172, 12 o’clock, right in front of us. 4,000.

Trainee: OK, starting to level.

Instructor: OK, we avoided the traffic.

Sheehy: Training is focused on failures and being ready for those failures so that when they happen, we can respond quickly, with certainty and with assurance that what we’re doing is the best outcome for what that failure has done.

Narrator: But the most important part of training is practicing the aircraft’s main function, performing the scoop and the drop.

Sheehy: One of the things that’s unique about aerial firefighting, of course, is you’re not flying at 30,000 feet. You’re not flying at 10,000 feet. That aircraft will come in, and it’ll be dropping 100 feet, 50 feet.

Instructor: Get ready for the water. Now, see how you kept that speed up? Keep that nose coming down. Right there, get ready to add some power, now. Ope. Airborne.

Narrator: Before making contact with the water, the aircraft slows down to 90 knots.

Farrell: Once we actually decide we’re coming in to pick up a load of water, the flying pilot will call for “flaps on speed.”

Trainee: Flaps on speed.

Farrell: We come in, we touch down, we’re on the water for approximately 12 seconds with the probes down. I’ll call “probes up.”

Trainee: Probes are up.

Farrell: And now the aircraft will begin to accelerate so we can come up out of the water with a load of water. The most challenging part is definitely making sure you get the load of water where the ground firefighters want it. There’s a lot going on with it when we’re coming in to make that drop there versus our airspeed, what the wind’s doing, and the topography of the terrain. It can be very challenging to make sure we get that right where they want it.

Pilot: Since it’s already on your side, how about you take a good look for me here, Jim. And then we’ll make a left down one.

Farrell: We’re contacting the air attack, who’s our communication between the ground firefighters and us, so we’ll tell him, “Hey, we’re inbound with a load.”

Instructor: Air attack, 262 inbound for the drop.

Farrell: Now, once we’re getting set up for the drop, captain will say, “OK, I’m lined up.”

Instructor: Scooper 282 is inbound, loaded for the drop.

Farrell: And I’ll reassure him that, “You’re armed and ready for the drop.”

Instructor: You’re armed, ready for the drop.

Farrell: And once we get there, we’ll actually press the water-drop button.

Trainee: And three, two, one, drop.

Farrell: And returning back to our water source to go pick up another load of water. Mainly the main feeling is like, man, I want to make sure I’m helping that guy on the ground, because he’s the one who really needs this. And so that’s the pressures I have.

Cherwin: Training really never stops. You’re always constantly studying. You’re always constantly having to review your manuals and procedures and systems on the aircraft.

Farrell: When you have other people from the community come out and tell you, “Thanks for the help,” or, “Thanks for being here, guys,” you know, “You saved my house,” it lets you realize the big picture of what we’re doing here.

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