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What is aerial firefighting training and how is it taught?

A firefighting helicopter flying over a forest fire in the mountains.

Inside the training and techniques required for fighting fires by air

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were 66,255 wildfires in the U.S. in 2022. Rising temperatures, reduced winter snowpack, earlier snowmelt, reduced summer precipitation and increased evaporation have all combined to increase the length and prevalence of wildfires in the summer months, leading to a longer fire season and more severe fires.

Aerial firefighters are a crucial part of combating these wildfires. With their ability to reach a fire quickly, place water or fire retardant exactly where it's needed and support firefighters on the ground, aerial firefighters are especially adept at attacking fast-moving fires in difficult terrain. And the demand for them is growing. With the global aerial firefighting market expected to grow over 4% to a value of $6.2 billion by 2028, the need for more aerial firefighters will grow alongside it.

Aerial firefighting training is an essential aspect of preparing pilots to join the firefighting ranks. But what is aerial firefighting training, and what does it take to become an aerial firefighter?

Learn more about firefighter equipment, training, and more when you read The ultimate guide to firefighter training in 2024.

What is aerial firefighting?

Aerial firefighting is the use of aircraft to contain wildfires and minimize damage. When an aircraft drops a load of water or fire retardant, it often does so to help create a fireline around a fire so that ground crews can combat and contain it. Planes and helicopters that drop water directly on top of a fire are attempting to tamp it down so that it can be more easily controlled.

Many operators of aerial firefighting equipment say that aerial firefighters are firefighters first and pilots second. This means that the specialized knowledge of how fires spread and how to contain them using aircraft is critical to being an aerial firefighter. Aerial firefighting training, therefore, is about imparting this specialized knowledge.

What is aerial firefighting training?

Aerial firefighting training encompasses all of the knowledge required to be an effective aerial firefighter, from working with large teams, supporting firefighters on the ground, environmental awareness, familiarity with specialized equipment and, of course, flying a firefighting aircraft. Aerial firefighting is a highly specialized field of knowledge requiring years of education and thousands of hours of flight time.

It is not a field for beginning pilots. In fact, few (if any) aerial firefighters begin their flying career as aerial firefighters. Most aerial firefighters are experienced pilots before they ever take to the skies in a firefighting aircraft.

Experience as an agricultural, bush, military or commercial pilot not only provides valuable flying experience but also a wealth of additional skills. Agricultural pilots, for example, will come into aerial firefighting trained to fly at low altitudes over varying terrain and familiarity with the cadence of aerial firefighting in which a pilot will often rise early and be in the pilot's seat for long hours involving multiple take-offs and landings. Military pilots will come trained in how to work with large teams to accomplish a specific mission, a mindset that is critical for fighting fires.

Whatever their background, pilots seeking to become aerial firefighters must train in the skills required to support firefighting operations, such as learning to deal with multiple aircraft flying in one small area, flying both at high altitudes and at low levels with low visibility due to smoke and terrain and when and how to deploy a load of water or retardant.

Adding to the complexity of aerial firefighting training is the fact that there is also a wide variety of firefighting aircraft available. Aerial firefighters will need to demonstrate proficiency with the specific type of aircraft in use by the service they are applying for, whether that’s an aircraft specifically designed to combat fires, like the Bombardier CL-415 “Super Scooper” or an airplane that’s been converted to fight fires, like the Boeing 747 Supertanker.

Different types of aerial firefighters

Aerial firefighting is more than just dumping water on a fire. It’s a category of aircraft piloting that encompasses multiple operations and types of flying.

Tanker plane

Tanker planes are what most people think of when they think of aerial firefighting. These planes take on thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant, fly to the location of a fire and deploy their load, sometimes as close to the ground as 50 feet.

Lead plane

A lead plane often flies to a fire location ahead of other aircraft and firefighters to assess the fire and help deploy other assets to combat it. These are often smaller, twin-engine propeller planes such as the Beechcraft King Air 90.

The job of lead plane pilot is a niche specialty in the already niche field of aerial firefighting. The lead plane, in addition to assessing the fire, will communicate with other pilots and release puffs of white smoke where tankers should deliver their loads. This requires considerable piloting skill, as well as familiarity with the behavior of wildfires, understanding of environmental concerns related to deploying gallons of retardant onto a fire and the ability to communicate clearly while helping to coordinate the efforts of other pilots and the firefighters on the ground.

Attack plane

The attack plane is the fire Incident Commander’s “eyes in the sky” providing detailed information on terrain, entry points for combating and containing the fire and locations for deployment of tankers. An attack plane typically flies with a crew of two: a pilot and an Air Attack Group Supervisor (ATGS). This plane, often a twin-engine aircraft, will fly close to the fire so that the ATGS can continually assess the fire and coordinate the efforts of other aircraft and firefighters on the ground.

Smokejumper plane

A smokejumper aircraft, typically a twin-engine plane like the DeHavilland Twin Otter, flies at around 3,000 feet to safely deploy parachuting ground firefighters (known as “smokejumpers”) and their equipment. This can often be the only way ground firefighters are able to access wildfires in remote areas or in areas where roads are blocked or destroyed by fires. The pilot of a smokejumper plane must be familiar with not only how to fly the aircraft but also how to deploy parachutists safely and navigate around smoke and terrain hazards.

How aerial firefighters are trained

With so much to learn and be aware of while fighting fires from the air, aerial firefighting training is an intense and demanding regimen. Many aerial firefighters will train for weeks or even months on top of having already qualified as pilots in order to meet the requirements for becoming an aerial firefighter.

Those requirements will vary depending on the government or private institution the pilot is applying to fly for, but typically include 1,000-2,000 hours flying any type of aircraft, familiarity with the specific aircraft an organization deploys, plus a certain number of hours of flight time in low-level situations and in mountainous terrain. Some organizations will provide training for specific situations or aircraft, but it is expected that a pilot will come to the table with a well-rounded resume of flying experience before applying to become an aerial firefighter.

Aerial firefighters are then trained in the specific situations they will face when fighting fires, from flying through smoke and around mountains to deploying water or parachutists literally on top of burning fires. Learning to drop a load of water or retardant exactly where it needs to be is a specific skill that can take some time to master. Pilots will also train for emergency scenarios, such as an engine failure or the need to rapidly descend. Training tends to be focused on failures, providing aerial firefighters the ability to develop muscle memory for what to do when something goes wrong.

Aerial firefighting training is also not a one-and-done. Aerial firefighters are constantly studying and reviewing operations and flight manuals to learn and understand the systems they use for flying and fighting fires. Aerial firefighters retrain annually, as well as attend regional gatherings to gain opportunities to learn from other aerial firefighters through lectures, hands-on training and flying.

How Axon can help

Training can be demanding. You need a training partner that understands the demands of the job and can provide detailed support. Axon provides the tools and support that can help you streamline your training and increase its effectiveness. Axon Fire Solutions has the rugged, high-performance body, helmet, and aerial cameras you need to take all aspects of your fire training to the next level. To learn more about how Axon can help, reach out today.