Life of an Air Tanker Bird Dog Pilot.....Basically, we work from May through to Sept, with a little lee way either side for training in the Spring, and extra days on(sometimes) for fire hazard in the fall. The up side of this kind of schedule is getting all of your work and pay for the year over with in 6 months, and having the rest of the year to pursue other interests. The down side is you're away from home for pretty much the entire duration. We have contracts with the governments of BC, Alberta, and the Yukon. All three have essentially the same Fire Alert system in place.
A Green Alert means you can do what ever you like that day just as long you can be airborne within 24 hours if there's a fire (don't get too many of these alerts). A Blue Alert - we have to be ready to be airborne within one hours notice of the fire callout, Yellow Alert - airborne within a 20 min period, and Red Alert - airborne as fast as you can. We are oncall seven days a week, and a Blue Alert day with no call out counts as a day off. So as you can see, there's no real chance of going home if you are working outside of your home province.
The flying is really FUN!! Around the fire the birddog is never more than a thousand feet up, and quite often only about 25' over the trees checking out the bombing runs for the tankers or leading them in towards the hotspots if they can't see where you (the forestry air attack officer) want them to drop their load. The crew of the Birddog consists of a pilot and a specially trained forest fire fighting person who is called an Air Attack Officer. Our job is to co-ordinate the Air part of the attack alongside the ground firefighting. In other words making sure the guys on the ground are out of the way when the tankers come in and acting as ATC for all the air traffic around the fire, which can be as little as a couple of helicopters and your one tanker, to a dozen or so helicopters and ten or fifteen tankers! Usually it's only a small number of aircraft.
The other main part of our job is to determine the best routes in and out of the fire area for the tankers. This is done by flying the routes we want at about 25 to 50' lower than the tankers will, while thinking of the different safety and turning/flying capability concerns of the various large tankers.
It's a fairly nomadic life. Last year we started out in Whitecourt and finished up in Calgary, and we were temp. based everywhere from High Level and Rainbow Lake in the north to Pincher Creek in the south. Accommodations are generally the best hotels the smaller towns have to offer and upper mid range hotels in the bigger cities.
Eating out at restaurants can get a bit old after a while, especially in the smaller towns (what do you mean you don't want gravy on your fries?) so we usually try to get a food fund going with the group and do our own thing for meals.
The group you are assigned to in the spring is the group you stay with for the summer so they become a second family of sorts. Most of the people are great and the summers can be a blast!
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