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Becoming an aerial firefighter pilot can offer you one of the most unique and exciting careers on the planet. Here’s all you need to know to make it a reality.

If you think back to when you were a kid and everyone was asking you and your friends what you wanted to be when you grew up, I bet a lot of the answers were either pilots or firefighters. Well, you know what career combines both of these into one? You guessed it, becoming an aerial firefighter pilot. So how do you make this happen?

The first step in becoming an aerial firefighter pilot is to earn your commercial pilot certificate and your instrument rating. You should also get some experience with low-level flying (below 500 feet above ground level) and flying in mountainous terrain since you’ll be flying in those conditions.

Aerial firefighter pilots are responsible for fighting fires from the air. They play a crucial role in extinguishing wildfires and helping to prevent them from spreading. In this article, we will provide a complete guide on how to become an aerial firefighter pilot. We will discuss what the job entails, what training is required, how much money you can expect to make, and more!

While none of us at SkyTough are actually aerial firefighter pilots ourselves, we researched and vetted all this information so that you can truly learn how to become one yourself. This involved looking into federal requirements, gathering input from other enthusiasts and pilots, and compiling it all into this easy-to-follow guide. So get ready to put out some fires with this guide!

Table of contents


What do Aerial Firefighter Pilots do?

Before we talk about how to become an aerial firefighter pilot, let's first discuss what the job entails. Aerial firefighter pilots are responsible for flying firefighting aircraft over wildfires and dropping water or retardant on them.

This is a critical job as it can help to extinguish the fire and prevent it from spreading. Firefighter pilots typically work long hours during wildfire season, and they may be on call for days or even weeks at a time. The job can be physically and mentally demanding, but it is also very rewarding.

What do Planes Drop on Fires?

We just mentioned the retardant that aerial firefighters drop on fires, but what actually is this stuff? We have a full article on this topic that you can read here, so I won't go into the details here, but I will touch on what it is. After all, it might look weird to you the first time you see a plane dropping this (usually) red liquid on fires! So what is it?

Retardant is a substance that helps to slow the spread of fire. It is usually made from water, ammonium nitrate, and clay. Retardant is mixed with water to create a slurry that can be dropped from an aircraft. This slurry coats the ground and vegetation, making it more difficult for the fire to spread.

Retardant is not the only thing that aerial firefighters drop on fires, however. They also drop water. This is usually done when the fire is small and just starting to spread. The water can help to extinguish the fire before it gets out of control. But like I said, we have a full article that goes into this in far more detail, so let's shift gears to what you're really here for: how to become an aerial firefighter pilot.

How do You Become an Aerial Firefighter Pilot?

One of the things that's most interesting about becoming an aerial firefighter pilot is that different companies will have different requirements that you must meet. The necessary qualifications can vary greatly from company to company, but there's one thing for certain no matter what: you don't start out as a firefighter pilot.

While the backgrounds of firefighter pilots are incredibly diverse, you will not be able to just go get your private pilot license and then apply for a job as an aerial firefighter pilot. Okay, I guess you can apply all you want. But I don't think any company would actually offer you the position! That's because aerial firefighter pilots need some serious experience and qualifications to perform this job.

So what kind of training, qualifications, and certificates are we looking at?

Aerial Firefighter Pilot Training & Qualifications

Aerial firefighter pilots typically have experience as commercial pilots, bush pilots, or military pilots. Having experience as a bush pilot flying through remote terrain can be a huge advantage due to the type of flying you'll be doing while you're putting out fires. While all companies will have different requirements, some of the most common qualifications, certificates, and ratings you must have include:

  • Commercial Pilot Certificate or Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
  • Instrument Rating
  • Experience in Low-Level Flight (below 500 feet above ground level)
  • Mountainous Terrain Experience (as identified in 14 CFR 95 Subpart B)
  • Flight-time in Turboprops

...and more. In addition to these things, most companies will require that you have at least 1,500 to 2,500 hours of flight time. Some companies might require more, and some might require less. It really just depends on the company that you're applying to. For example, Dauntless Air requires a minimum of 1,500 hours in an aircraft, but then states that most of their pilots they hire actually have over 4,000 hours.

In terms of training, most companies will provide this for you once you're hired. The type of training will depend on the aircraft that you'll be flying, but it will typically consist of both ground school and flight training. Keep in mind that firefighter pilots have to fly much lower and much closer to the terrain than just about any other type of pilot, so you'll have to undergo extensive training if you don't already have this experience under your belt.

Basically, the first thing you need to do to become an aerial firefighter pilot is to first become a commercial pilot. We have a complete guide on how to become a commercial pilot here, so make sure you check that out. Once you can fly commercially (especially if you have a bit of experience flying in the bush), you'll be well on your way to qualifying as an aerial firefighter pilot!

How Much Money do Aerial Firefighter Pilots Make?

Now that we've gone over what it takes to become an aerial firefighter pilot, you're probably wondering how much money you can make doing this job. After all, it's not the most traditional job in the world, and the pay can obviously vary greatly depending on the company that you work for, your experience, and a number of other factors.

According to the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA), firefighter pilots typically start out making around $40,000 to $45,000 per year in annual salary. While that might sound like quite the drop-off from what you could be making as a commercial pilot, that's just the annual salary, not the total possible compensation!

That's because as an aerial firefighter pilot, you have the unique opportunity to earn much more through daily pay. Just as it sounds, this is additional pay that you can earn for every day that you spend in the cockpit of the firefighting aircraft. This (plus the fact that private companies can offer much higher salaries) enables firefighter pilots to make upwards of $200,000 per year or more.

Other Types of Pilots to Consider Becoming

Of course, becoming an aerial firefighter pilot isn't the only option available to you if you're looking for an exciting career as a pilot. Here are a few other types of pilots that you might want to consider becoming:

  • Airline Pilot: One of the most popular (and well-paying) options for pilots is to become an airline pilot. As an airline pilot, you'll be responsible for flying passengers and cargo on commercial flights all around the world.
  • Cargo Pilot: Another great option for pilots is to become a cargo pilot. Cargo pilots fly large aircraft filled with freight all around the world. This can be a great option for those who want to avoid flying passengers but still want to see some interesting places!
  • Charter Pilot: If you want to fly private planes but don't necessarily want to own your own, then becoming a charter pilot might be the perfect option for you. Charter pilots fly private planes for individual clients or organizations.
  • Fighter Pilot: And finally, if you're looking for an exciting and dangerous job, then you might want to consider becoming a fighter pilot. Fighter pilots fly high-performance aircraft in combat or other dangerous situations. Obviously, this is not a job for everyone, but it can be an exciting option for those who are up for the challenge!

Of course, there are still many more types of pilots out there, but these are a few that you can consider if you want to make a career out of flying. For more information about other types of pilots you can become and what you might be doing on a daily basis, check out our full article about the types of pilots here.

There you have it, here's everything you need to know about becoming an aerial firefighter pilot! We hope this has helped you if you're interested in this exciting career path. Fly safe!