More Than Filling a Hole in The Sky: The Aerial Fire Fighters of the Florida Forest Service

Jun 18, 2019

The life of a pilot invariably provides a challenging and fulfilling career. For the aerial fire fighters of the Florida Forest Service (FFS) this is particularly so, according to FFS Aviation Manager Brian McKee, himself a fixed wing flyer. 

“It’s a great job for a pilot - you’re not just filling a hole in the sky,” Brian says. “There’s lots of variety - you could be working to save someone’s family home, protecting a plot of timber that is someone’s college fund or ensuring precious natural resources aren’t being destroyed. You don’t know what the day will hold.’’

Brian was born with a desire to fly, and it was the only thing he ever wanted to do, and the only career his family ever recalls him talking about. ‘’It was really just an innate desire, looking up into the sky and wanting to be part of it.’’

After completing a four year degree in aviation technology (Brian is also a qualified aircraft engineer), he started with the FFS after a short stint as a flight instructor. ‘’Once I smelled that smoke the fire fighting got into my blood as well,’’ he says of the two passions that have delivered a varied and challenging career.

While his management duties restrict his flying these days, Brian has over 4300 flying hours under his belt, and still loves being in the sky. With children almost out of college, Brian also hopes to have more time and resources for recreational flying in the future.

Florida is synonymous with impressive beaches and colourful cities, but it also has a substantial and crucial forest resource. The FFS protects 26 million acres of public and private forestland from wildfire. Unlike some other parts of the country, the FFS has complete responsibility for any wildland fires within its boundaries, with authority to go anywhere to detect, prevent and fight fires.

‘’We have some unique fire problems here in Florida,” Brian explains. “The southeast USA is quite fire prone overall and Florida is the lightning capital of the USA. In recent times we’ve had less fires than the West Coast but it goes in cycles.’’

Brian explains that Florida’s geography and climate makes it highly susceptible to lightning. ‘’In summer we experience daily thunderstorms as moist air travels over warm land, and with that comes regular lightning.’’ So common is this pattern that some tree species in the state have adapted to it and require fire to propagate. This means the FFS can both have a fire fighting role responding to lightning strikes, but also a fire ignition role when required for forest propagation.

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Certified firefighters piloting a fleet of fixed wing and helicopters

15 aviation units across Florida help manage and respond to fire risk, managed from state headquarters in Tallahassee. The service currently employs 15 single engine pilots (including Brian), two multi-engine pilots and has seven helicopter pilot positions available, although not all of the latter are filled.

The FFS fleet consists of eight helicopters; six Bell UH1 ‘Hueys’, which are former military aircraft; two OH 58 Kiowa’s. Additionally, are 20 fixed wing craft - two multi-engine PA-31 Piper Navajo’s, eight single engine Cessna 182 T’s and 10 single engine PA-28 Piper Cherokee’s. The FFS enjoys the benefit of the Federal Excess Property Program, which enables them to acquire ex-military craft at no capital cost. ‘’We have to fund some modifications and the ongoing maintenance, but we don’t have to pay anything to acquire the aircraft which is a significant saving,’’ says Brian.

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The staff operating these aircraft are not just pilots; they complete over 700 hours of training to become Certified Florida Wildland Firefighters. ‘’All of our pilots go through exactly the same training as the ground-based fire-fighters,” says Brian. “They are no different in terms of that training, they just end up in a different role.’’ Brian himself spent six years in a non-aviation job at FFS to gain more ground fire fighting experience, as well as developing supervisory skills.

Fixed wing pilots focus on routine patrols and detection of fire events, and in the event of a wildfire they provide information to ground crews. ‘’They can help identify risks and barriers for the ground crew, and help coordinate safety,’’ says Brian. Insect and forest diseases control programs are another important role fixed wing pilots play.

Helicopter pilots are more focused on direct suppression, using Bambi Buckets to collect water from lakes, rivers and ponds.

A dedicated focus on aviation safety

It may be an exciting job, but as with any piloting it’s not without risk. In Brian’s almost 30 years in the service, he’s only seen one fatality - a helicopter pilot in 2000 - but invariably , pilots encounter a range of threats.  ‘’While we don’t have the mega-fires of other states, ours can be very fast moving,” he says. “The atmosphere is also unstable which makes for some bumpy rides, and antenna towers are always a potential hazard. Add to that, pilots are also often working in remote areas, which represents additional risk.’’

An ever-present danger for helicopter pilots is filling Bambi Buckets from ponds, streams and lakes. This is where technology like Spidertracks is useful for tracking aircraft movements and keeping the pilots safe. ‘’Two years ago we had a helicopter pilot from a local sheriff’s department that got into trouble at a lake collecting water,” Brian recalls. “Because our pilots had used that lake before, we could quickly pinpoint it using the Spidertracks location records and find him, injured but ok.’’

AR-190339746FFS implemented the system in 2012, having previously used a local flight tracking technology. Prior to having Spidertracks, the FFS’ 15 field offices would track the location of their assigned fixed wing aircraft and then coordinate its activities with other offices using radio comms.

‘’For them it also helps if a pilot might have landed on a remote road requiring mechanical support, they can be quickly pinpointed and know when help is coming. The promise to our people is to not leave them overnight, no matter what happens, so always knowing their location gives us that comfort,’’ says Brian.With the web-based Spidertracks app, all of the offices know the live location of the entire fleet and coordinate effectively with each other, says Brian. ‘’For example, if a helicopter is required, they can understand the ETA and make decisions about other resources that might be required.’’ For the helicopter supervisor in the state capital of Tallahassee, who manages the entire helicopter fleet, he can coordinate activities state-wide.

Pilot and fire-fighter are two jobs often cited by children when asked what careers they aspire to. For the aerial fire fighters of the FFS, they get to fulfil both dreams, while protecting people and property from the risks of wildland fire.

 

The life of a pilot is more exciting than most, but consequently carries greater risk. What’s best practice when it comes to responding to aviation accidents? Learn more in our eBook

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