Pilot Shortage Keeps Firefighting Airplanes Grounded

Increased need for aerial fire support along with a growing need for pilots create problems for Cal Fire.

cal fire
Several Cal Fire's fire fighting tankers have been grounded due to the pilot shortage.Wikimedia Commons/Alan Wilson

We at Flying have written extensively about the apparent pilot shortage, which has caused the airlines to offer major incentives to join their work forces and increase their pay and benefits to make the initial phase of the career more attractive. The lack of qualified pilots has also affected bizav flight departments and helicopter operators. The rapid movement of flight instructors and the lack of FAA examiners haven't helped the issue.

While the shortage has had some positive repercussions, mostly in the sales of training airplanes, the latest victim of the pilot shortage has the potential to affect Americans beyond the scope of the aviation industry. The Sacramento Bee reported this week that Cal Fire, the firefighting agency that covers the California area, which has been plagued by major wild fires in the past few years, had to ground some of its firefighting fleet due to a lack of pilots.

As many as six firefighting aircraft have been grounded at a time due to a shortage of pilots, the Sacramento Bee said. Nearly 20 percent of the fleet of the Grumman S-2T low-flying tanker aircraft was grounded during the month of August. Within the past year, Cal Fire has lost 10 air tanker pilots to retirements, medical absences, other job opportunities and one death. Cal Fire’s chief of flight operations, Dennis Brown, said there are eight pilots currently in training and he estimates the need to hire about 40 pilots in the next few years. Another problem, Brown said, is that less than half of the trainees historically decide to actually work as air tanker pilots.

The need for aerial fire support is no longer a seasonal issue. California had multiple wild fires in January, a time of the year that was traditionally used for maintenance and rest at the fire departments. To meet the growing need for fighting wild fires, the state is adding several Blackhawk helicopters and retrofitted C-130 tankers, a move that will further increase the need for pilots.