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Airlines not for you? Become a fire pilot

Experienced tanker pilot Brent Conner on how to build an aerial firefighting career

Editor's note: This story was revised March 2 to include updated information provided.

Second-generation fire pilot Brent Conner provides insight into his life as a tanker pilot and explains how you can become one.

Brent Conner drops retardant along a ridge from a Lockheed SP-2H Neptune in the Angeles National Forest in California. Photo courtesy of Brent Conner.

Growing up in a crop-dusting and aerial firefighting family didn’t leave Conner room to imagine what he would be when he grew up.

“I don’t have any memories where…I wasn’t a part of the tanker business,” said Conner. “When I was 15 [in the summer of 1973], I went to work as [dad’s] co-pilot,” in a B–17. “I was flying B-17s as a co-pilot then getting dual in a [Cessna] 170.”

After graduating high school Conner followed in his family’s footsteps and went to work as a crop dusting, medevac, and cloud-seeding pilot in Medford, Oregon.

Fast forward to present day, and Conner is flying a McDonnell Douglas MD–87 on a 160-day contract for an Oregon-based operator.

“On the day your contract starts you go pick up your airplane and you head out to any place in the lower 48 or Alaska,” said Conner. “I tell people if you don’t mind being away from your family… and can theoretically handle being in a different motel every night, this is the life for you.”

From sitting in hotel rooms for days on end to action-packed 14-hour duty days of fighting large fires, Conner says, “There is no normal day for a fire pilot. You might sit for days and days and days and do nothing and then all heck breaks loose and you’re flying all day every day.”

Brent Conner stands in front of his Oregon-based tanker, a McDonnell Douglas MD-87. Photo courtesy of Brent Conner.

On firefighting days, dispatch supplies Conner with a piece of paper containing the name of the fire, the fire’s longitude and latitude, contact information for the parties involved, and location of potential hazards such as power lines. “There’s no flight plans, no pre-planning; we have roughly 15 minutes to be airborne,” said Conner.

Although the U.S. Forest Service requirement for flying as co-pilot on a tanker only requires 800 hours of pilot-in-command time and a commercial, multiengine, and instrument rating, Conner stresses the importance of building quality flight time while working on those minimum requirements.

“When I say quality, I mean not… cruising on autopilot to some place… not flight instructing. It’s a good way to build time but it won’t build your flight experience if you’re just teaching,” said Conner. “Don’t necessarily jump to the airlines to build time because it’s an entirely different kind of flying. If you want to do it, get out there to the tanker base, get to know some people and…people will steer you in the right direction.”

Conner admits he is partial to pilots with a crop-dusting background, but crop-dusting experience is not required. “Nowadays we’re flying IFR and flying jets so it’s good [to have] single-engine IFR [time]… if you can get good, low-level [time] and an IFR background, that’s a really good combination.”

Another quality skill on Conner’s list is tailwheel experience. “That’s not a requirement for tanker flying, but it just helps your piloting skills,” said Conner. “I see a big difference in [people] who are tailwheel pilots and the [people] who are not.”

Although the base salary for fire pilots is comparable to the salary of airline pilots, fire pilots can make much more with daily pay. In addition to $40,000 to $45,000 annual salaries for entry-level fire pilots, hundreds of dollars in daily pay are also awarded for each day spent in the cockpit. With the opportunity to make upwards of $200,000 a year as a seasoned fire pilot, a career in aerial firefighting is an out-of-the-box way to make a living.

Brent Conner drops retardant near an amusement park from a McDonnell Douglas MD-87. Photo courtesy of Brent Conner.
Brent Conner drops retardant near an amusement park from a McDonnell Douglas MD-87. Photo courtesy of Brent Conner.
Cayla McLeod

Cayla McLeod Hunt

Social Media Marketer
Social Media Marketer Cayla McLeod Hunt is a private pilot with a love for tailwheel and backcountry aircraft. When she isn't writing stories, she enjoys flying with friends and introducing others to general aviation.
Topics: Career

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