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The in's and out's of becoming a Firefighting Pilot By AN ANONYMOUS FORUM CONTRIBUTOR, CALL SIGN FIRE DOG

So, you're interested in flying fires? You want to know how to go about it, and what to expect, but all the different terms, requirements, and conditions are confusing. This article is meant to help answer your questions. It applies specifically to pilots, but you can find references and requirements for maintenance personnel and fuel truck drivers in the Interagency Call-When-Needed (CWN) Contract reference shown below.

Or, you're already carded and you're either already flying fires or are about to. You want to know about all the different factors you should consider when negotiating an employment agreement with an employer. There are some things for you to consider listed later in this paper.

I've split this article up into two parts. The REQUIREMENTS section is for newbies. The CONSIDERATIONS section is more for you carded types.

In both sections, the topics discussed were derived from the recurring questions generated in the forum. You experienced fire dogs out there will notice that there are a lot of topics that could be discussed that have been omitted. That is by design. It's not meant to be exhaustive or all inclusive, but it will help with the vast majority of questions.

For more detailed explanations, there are lots of references available that you should be familiar with. The online references I used that were in effect at the time this paper was written, and those that I find myself periodically referring to are:

Interagency Helicopter Operations Guide
http://www.nifc.gov/ihog/

Department of Interior Aviation Operations
http://www.oas.gov/library/dm/351dm3.pdf

Department of Interior External Loads Supplement
http://www.oas.gov/akro/akflight/pdf/supp1-ak.pdf

Interagency Practical Test Standards
http://www.oas.gov/dts/TSDocs/ihpts6-00.PDF

Interagency Call-When-Needed (CWN) Contract
http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/contracting/helicopters_cwn/helicopter_contract_cwn.pdf


REQUIREMENTS

The logical place to start is the requirements. There is no 'fire fighting experience' requirement to meet before you are allowed to fly a fire contract. You can assume, however, that an operator is going to train you before cutting you loose on a fire. It is NOT all that difficult to do, but you are going to need someone who is willing to spend the necessary time with you. At least some of the burden is probably going to fall on your shoulders.

There are operators out there who will hire you and send you out the door, and there are others who are concerned about their company image. YOU need to make sure you are adequately trained before you go charging off onto your first fire.

Find a company that is a major player during the fire season, somebody with several helicopter contracts (Rogers, Evergreen, Idaho Helicopters, Minuteman, Hawkins & Powers, Helicopter Express...there are more, but there's a start for you).

If you have the requisite time, and they are willing to hire you, make sure the company intends to train you to fly fires. Most reputable companies are willing to put in the time. They haven't been in the fire game as long as they have by churning out inexperienced players.

See if you can find a contract flying an aircraft that you have the most time in. My guess is that 5 hours of flight training with an experienced fire pilot is all you will need, PLUS WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO TO FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH AVIONICS, ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS, ETC. PECULIAR TO YOUR PARTICULAR AIRCRAFT.

If you show up on a fire not knowing how to program your GPS, 'nobody showed me how' is NOT an excuse when there was a users manual available. One thing you DO NOT want to happen is for a helicopter manager somewhere to violate you because you didn't know what you were doing, or because you did something that was unsafe because nobody ever trained you how to do it properly. Safety, safety, safety is the name of the game in this fire business. You will be given plenty of opportunity to get yourself in a lot of trouble very quickly if you do not pay attention to what's going on around you.

My point is, some of the responsibility for your proficiency is going to be YOURS. DON'T GO UNTIL YOU AND YOUR CHIEF PILOT OR TRAINING PILOT FEELS YOU CAN SAFELY HANDLE THE JOB. Maybe pay a visit to another contract the company has and spend a day or two watching what goes on.

All of that said, before you can fly on any U.S. government contract, you need to be 'carded'. "At the Contracting Officer's discretion, each pilot shall pass an Agency flight check in make, model, and series over typical terrain." This means you are most likely going to be taking a check ride with a USFS or OAS (Office of Aircraft Services) qualified pilot.

Much the same as an FAA check ride, this ride is meant to determine your level of competency and ability regarding the type of flying you will be doing for the government. Once carded, you must carry this card, and present it to whoever you're flying as proof that you are approved to fly government employees.

At time of carding, each pilot shall display:
(A) Commercial or Airline Transport Pilot Certificate with appropriate rating (Rotorcraft-Helicopter) and a valid Class I or Class II FAA medical certificate.
(B) Written evidence of qualification to transport external loads.
(C) Standard Use Helicopters: Written evidence of passing an FAA annual flight check as required by FAR, Part 135 in the aircraft make and model furnished.

You will also have to fill out an Agency form similar to the FAA form you fill out when you take your Part 135 check ride every year to attest to and document that you have the appropriate qualifications. This form will need to show that you have the minimum flight experience requirements for the contract you will be flying. As of April 2004, those requirements are:

PILOT EXPERIENCE REQUIREMENTS (from page C-35 in the Helicopter CWN Contract reference shown above)
(1) All Activities. Pilots shall have accumulated as Pilot-in-Command the minimum flight times listed below. Flight time shall be determined from a certified Pilot log. Further verification of flight hours may be required at the discretion of the Contracting Officer.

MINIMUM
FLIGHT HOURS
-----------------------
Helicopter 1,500
Helicopter, preceding 12 months 100
Weight Class 1/ 100
Turbine Engines 2/ 100
Reciprocating Engines 3/ 200
Make and Model 50 4/
Make, Model and Series, Preceding 12 months 10 5/
Helicopter, last 60 days 10
Mountainous Terrain 6/ 200
Mountainous Terrain in Make and Model 10

FOOTNOTES:
1/ Weight Class -
Type I: No less than 16 seats (including Pilot), 5000 lbs. Card weight capacity, and 700 gallons retardant capacity.
Type II: 9-15 seats, 2500-4999 lbs card weight capacity, and 300-699 gallons retardant capacity.
Type III: 5-8 seats, 1200-2499 lbs card weight capacity, and 100-299 gallons retardant capacity.
Type IV: 3-4 seats, 600-1199 lbs card weight capacity, and 75-99 gallons retardant capacity.
2/ Applicable if turbine engine Helicopters are offered.
3/ Applicable if reciprocating engine Helicopters are offered.
4/ Pilot flight hour requirements in make and model may be reduced by 50 percent if pilot shows evidence of satisfactorily completing the manufacturer's approved ground school and flight checkout in the make, model, and series offered.
5/ A list of aircraft make, model, and series is provided in Section J. This list does not specifically follow the FAA guidelines as it relates to 14 CFR 135.293 competency.
6/ Pilot in command mountainous terrain experience is defined as: Experience in maneuvering a Helicopter at density altitudes of over 5000 feet to include numerous take off and landings in situations indicative to difficult mountainous terrain. This terrain consists of abrupt, rapidly rising terrain resulting in a high land mass projecting above its surroundings, wherein complex structures in which folding, faulting, and igneous activity have taken part. These mountainous areas produce vertical mountain winds, turbulence associated with mountain waves, producing abrupt changes in wind direction often resulting in up flowing or down flowing air currents

(2) Equipment Experience. Pilots shall display evidence of experience in using all equipment specifically identified in Section C for performance of contract work (bucket, fixed tank operations, GPS, etc.), as well as equipment identified in Section B. Pilots may be required to demonstrate proficiency with equipment during an Agency evaluation.

O.K. We meet all the requirements, we're trained, we're carded, and we're ready to go.


CONSIDERATIONS

Here are some things to consider when negotiating a fire contract agreement with a prospective employer.

First, let me qualify my position. Wages will not be, and SHOULD NOT BE, the determining factor in what contract you fly. Many, many factors influence where we fly, what we fly, and who we fly for. Location of employer, how long the employer has been in business, reputation, location of contract, type and condition of aircraft and support equipment, maintenance provisions, time off provisions, length of fire season, and other work available are only SOME of the factors we consider before we even start to consider wages. That said, what you earn....

...depends on the contract. There will be a 'wage determination rate' in your contract. Your pay cannot be less than that minimum rate. There will be an additional amount allowed for benefits (a little over $2/hour, around $400/month). At the time of this writing, the wage determination rate was around $21.75/hour (I've seen it vary slightly from contract to contract). Your level of experience should influence your wage rate. A new guy, first fire, flying Type III's is most likely going to make the minimum. A 'new' medium driver should expect to make more than the minimum wage. $24-$28 per hour is a reasonable expectation for Type II's.

CWN or Exclusive Use. If it's CWN, you need to decide on a minimum # hours/day guarantee, and that figure should include flight pay. i.e. not less than 9 hours per day plus 2 hours per day flight pay guaranteed (the flight pay can be cumulative but NOT the minimum hours - many operators are paying a 4 hour per day flight pay guarantee). If it's an Exclusive Use contract, there will be a minimum number of hours per day guarantee provided in the contract. Make sure that guarantee applies to you as well!

CWN and Exclusive Use have their own benefits and disadvantages. The flying in Exclusive Use contracts is more evenly dispersed and more varied. You'll make fire detection flights, personnel transports, and you'll fly to all those single tree smokers that the fire lookouts report. You'll have a dedicated crew to work for. When the big fires come, you're probably going to get sent back to your base, and the CWN ships will take over. You might even have a big one burning right near your base and not get called.

CWN pilots spend a lot of time laying around waiting for something to happen, but when it happens, you'll fly, fly, and fly. This is the hours and hours of boredom interspersed with hours and hours of action position. You'll see a lot more territory than an Exclusive Use ship will see. You'll be constantly on the move to wherever the action is, or is predicted to be. You'll be in the thick of it most of the season. Pilots seem to be evenly divided on whether CWN or Exclusive Use is best.

Flight Pay. Flight pay of $35/hour is typical. Some pay less, some pay more. Some first year pilots are making $30/hour, two hours per day guaranteed. With experience you should expect $40 and 4, cumulative. I heard of one operator paying $60, no guarantee. Some operators don't pay anything. Some pay $20. Some only pay flight pay to Type II pilots. Get the picture?

Overtime. Relief Pilot or Primary Pilot? Is your overtime going to start at 40 hours/week or 8 hours/day? If you fly as a relief pilot and you work three 14 hour days, and then go on break or have to travel, you only get 2 hours of overtime. Because of that, relief pilots will generally charge a flat daily rate. If you are the primary pilot on the contract, you'll want the hourly rate plus overtime. You should be paid a flat daily rate consistent with what you would be making if you were flying a full time contract. At the end of the month, or the end of the season, you shouldn't be penalized for being a relief pilot. Some will say you should make more because of all the traveling you had to put up with. Others will insist that's what you get for being the new guy.

Extended Availability. You're going to hear a lot about this one. Operators are paid this Extended Availability rate when they go over the daily number of available hours they have to guarantee in the contract. It is NOT a pilot overtime wage rate. It is to reimburse the operator for the extra expense they incur when they have to make their helicopter available for more than the contract guarantee. Nevertheless, some operators pass on the extended availability rate to their pilots. Others pay a 'time and a half' overtime rate. Which is best? It just depends.

As I said before, and I want to continue to stress, you have to weigh the whole package out. Hourly rate, flight pay, time off provisions, length of contract, length of season, etc. all have to be considered. You could be making $15K a month, but if your season is only 3 or 4 months long, you might end up making less than someone else who's making less, but working longer, with more time off, better working conditions, and better equipment. It doesn't do much good to negotiate a real 'killer' contract, and then break down 3 weeks into the season on a fire that you were flying 8 hours a day on, especially if you're flying for someone who doesn't have the maintenance ability to get you quickly and safely back in the air.

Per Diem. Per Diem of $35/day, and the company provides lodging is average. Some pay more, some less. Decide ahead of time if you are going to allow double occupancy if the company provides lodging. Some operators pay a flat daily per diem rate. I'm an advocate of the 'subsistence plus lodging' formula. You'll see a little per diem rate book the fire folks will carry around. It specifies what the per diem rate should be for different areas of the country. It's a good reference, but should not be definitive. A flat rate of $100 a day might sound good, but you'll be crying the blues if you get stuck on a fire in beautiful Lake Tahoe.

I am a strong proponent of a daily allowance for food, plus the employer provided lodging. Per Diem is not meant for the pilot to make money on. Too many times I've seen flat rates paid for per diem, and the pilot ends up sleeping in a tent so they can save the money they were given that was intended for a room. You need proper rest when you fly fires, and you need to maintain a healthy diet. Scrounging around fire camp for left over MRE's just before you climb into your tent doesn't cut it. Use your per diem for what it is intended to be used for.

How is the company going to handle your days off? Do they provide transportation back and forth for your breaks, or do they let you choose between transportation expenses or some wage allowance plus per diem? If you don't get paid during your time off, what happens when you're in the middle of nowhere and it's time for you to take a couple days off? Does it all come out of your pocket? Are you going to have to pay for your own room, plus expenses, plus you're off the clock?

Most companies provide transportation, OR a daily minimum wage plus per diem on days off (the days off are mandated by the contract). If the company requires you to take MORE days off than what is mandated, what then? If you work 12 days on and 12 days off, with no wage allowance on your time off, when the fire season is over, you'll need to find work immediately.

Before reading this next paragraph, remember....IT DEPENDS. The figures below are GENERALLY industry average. They can go much higher, but should not be much lower. You could be above or below them for a whole slew of reasons. These figures do not include per diem. You should 'do the math yourself', and consider EVERYTHING.

For a Type III pilot, you can expect to make $40-$50K for a season, depending on your season length and flight pay, if any. Figure on $8K - $10K per month wages, plus flight. For a Type II pilot, you should expect $10K - $14K per month. Second season Type II for 5 months full time work should be $60K. I'm not going to even try to address Type I pilots because they're all over the board.

I know pilots who make $70K for 6 months work, but they work 12 on 2 off all season, with longer breaks worked out ahead of time (i.e. a couple of 7+ day breaks to prevent burnout - some employers require this! You should strongly consider it, too!). However you negotiate whatever with your employer, the numbers should come out to something similar to the above figures. THEY ARE INTENDED AS A GUIDELINE. YOU HAVE TO WEIGH THE WHOLE PACKAGE.


Here's what's included in the 'whatever' above: A daily or monthly wage guarantee, hourly flight pay, minimum daily flight pay, per diem, lodging, travel, some compensation scheme for days off, and some sort of agreement for how long your season is going to last. If your paychecks can abruptly stop after 4 months of work, do you have a contingency in place?

Finally, does your employer offer any type of Retainer Fee to get you to commit for next season? It's becoming more and more popular as the pilot pool slowly turns into a puddle. I personally think it's a good idea, but again, YOU NEED TO WEIGH THE WHOLE PACKAGE. If you keep jumping ship looking for the best price and most money, you'll end up with a resume that nobody wants to look at no matter what kind of experience you have, longevity incentives will never be something you become familiar with, annual raises won't happen, and other opportunities will probably pass you by.

Bottom Line. Find an employer you like, preferably with someone who also likes you, in an aircraft you enjoy flying, in a location you like being in, with co-workers you have fun with and can relate to, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Fire fighting is an extremely rewarding endeavor. How rewarding is entirely up to you, but YOU NEED TO CONSIDER EVERYTHING, and don't feel slighted when you come across someone who's making more than you are. I guarantee, it only seems like they are. In the long run, you might be better off because of some benefit you have that they don't have, and it could be something that means a lot to you, and nothing to them. DON'T GO FOR THE MONEY, GO FOR THE ENTIRE PACKAGE!

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