A business partnership starting with nothing but a blind investment and no contract to support it is the best way to describe Co-Fire Aviation and what would go on to become one of few privately owned businesses in the SEAT aerial firefighting world that would look to technology to build their business in a way that would change the way aerial firefighting in SEAT aircraft could be performed.
Chris Doyle, a native of New Zealand who spent a large part of his life in Australia was looking for a challenge after flying 10 plus years of crop spraying and firefighting in both fixed-wing and helicopters in Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Through connection and mutual friend Pete Jones, Chris took a role that would see him spend a season doing crop spraying for an operator in Colorado in 2009. Unbeknown to him at the time, this was a step that would put him on a drastically different career track for the immediate future.
Chris initially signed on to work with another operator, but due to a change in circumstances, when he arrived, he had no aircraft to fly. The operator, not wanting Chris to have traveled across the world for nothing, called Kyle Scott and asked him if his spray business, Scott Aviation, had a seat for him.
At the time, Scott had just purchased a new Thrush aircraft from Holland that had just arrived in a shipping container that he had initially planned to take the whole season to rebuild to flying conditions. As Chris began his training to convert his Australian licenses over to FAA certifications, Kyle and his team worked frantically to get the Thrush ready so Chris would have an aircraft to fly.
According to Kyle, Chris from day one on the ground started talking about aerial firefighting and that the two should team up and start working firefighting aircraft. Kyle was initially resistant to the idea as he didn’t see it as a viable option at the time.
Over the next seven years, Chris would spend the U.S. winter months back in Australia working firefighting and crop spraying aircraft and return in the summer months to keep spraying for Scott aviation, In 2012 Chris took a position in the middle east flying the militarized version of the Air Tractor as a maintenance test pilot for 3 years but still flying for Scott Aviation in his vacation time. It was here that Chris discovered the pilot pool he and Kyle needed to form CO Fire Aviation. never relenting on continuing to bring up how he saw SEAT aircraft working well in firefighting operations in the USA and that the two needed to work on starting a business that would focus on that.
In 2014, with no contracts yet secured, Chris’s years of talking about the aerial firefighting industry finally wore away on Kyle and the two teamed up to purchase their first AT802. After much consideration, purchasing it new from Frost Flying Service.
“We first investigated used aircraft but decided on a new one so we knew what we would be getting versus inheriting an aircraft that they may not be able to rely on” Kyle stated.
Purchasing the AT802 was a significant investment to make for the pair, considering at the time, their fledgling new company Co Fire Aviation was yet to land a single contract, and would not succeed in that for over a year.
In the same space of time, the pair had also invested in a second AT-802 in a leap of extreme faith, hoping to soon break into the aerial firefighting market with the two SEAT aircraft. Both laugh when asked about having two aircraft and no contracts to support them, stating that friends in the industry thought they had both lost their minds at the time.
One of the common problems with establishing a company solely relying on aerial firefighting work is to source pilots with enough skill and experience to be able to handle the diverse and challenging flying that aerial firefighting requires. In addition, pilots need to possess the multi-tasking ability to not only fly safely and drop water or retardant in the right place, but also be able to simultaneously operate between the three different radio systems used in an aerial firefighting aircraft.
As with any leap of faith in business, it comes with challenges. Co Fire’s challenges were no exception to the rule. While Kyle focused on his aerial application business that is still operational today, Chris decided that to keep the two aircraft the company already had, that were yet to work any fires, he would have to look externally for extra work to keep the aircraft paid for.
After returning to the USA and telling Kyle that he had sourced the pilots they would need once they secured work, Chris then headed to Oregon to work a fire contract in another operator’s 802. It was while in Oregon, things would take a drastic turn for the better for the pairs fledgling new business.
As Kyle tells it, he received the call late one afternoon in 2015 from the Oregon Department of Forestry asking if there was any way that they could have one of their aircraft in Oregon by the next day to help on a fire contract in an as-needed capacity. Within the next few hours, Chris was on a red-eye flight back to Colorado and was quickly bundled into the 802 and headed back to Oregon to use Co Fire aircraft on their first firefighting mission.
Soon after returning from working the aircraft in Oregon, CoFire got its second chance to show their capabilities on home turf. First with a single aircraft, then a week later with both Chris and Kyle working side by side for several weeks to knock down a fire for the Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control.
Since that first whirlwind few months of initial operation, the CoFire team has continued to grow in both contract awards and aircraft. Co Fire now has a total of nine802’s in their fleet, consisting of five company-owned aircraft and four leased aircraft
Kyle noted that to see any of their contract aircraft, they are identical to the company-owned aircraft, right down to the mission package and paint scheme, all carrying the Co Fire branding of the “Super S.E.A.T” which includes a number of increased performance and safety features not found on regular SEAT’s such as increased horsepower and load capabilities, synthetic vision and terrain awareness instrument panels and wire strike cutters on the airframe just to name a few.
Co Fire’s contracts are a mix of sole use and call when needed contracts split between federal contracts with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM,) and state contracts with the Oregon Department of Forestry and Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control currently, but when asked about the future, Kyle smiles and says “anything is possible.”
Although many of Co Fire’s pilots come from a military background, combat flying can only prepare a pilot for part of what flying fires requires, along with annual training for existing pilots, Co Fire spends time acclimatizing pilots into the aerial firefighting world using the Air Tractor 504 side by side trainer that allows the instructor pilot the ability to train and observe a new pilot from beside them instead of a front/rear configuration. It is also used as a sprayer for Scott Aviation in the Summer giving new pilots experience as they work up to ultimately flying a SEAT, it also has the role as the primary NVG training platform.
SEAT training in aerial firefighting had lacked according to Chris and Kyle. It was up to them to push the envelope to not only grow their business but to improve the industry as a whole.”In the future, I see us increasing the training on the SEAT side and sharing what we have learned with others in the industry as something that will bring the whole industry up in the long term.” Chris stated.
Continuing to push the industry to do better is something that both Chris and Kyle are passionate about, which is also what lead to them being the first SEAT operator in the country to be given permission to fight fires at night after the team decided that they were going to perfect their own initial training on fighting fires under NVG’s, and then present it to the Oregon Department of Forestry and the FAA to demonstrate their capabilities.
“My greatest satisfaction is the strides we have made in building pilot excellence in the industry. The hiring of excellent pilots is one of the main reasons that our business continues to succeed in the long term,” said Chris.
The pair did just that in 2018, conducting a successful demonstration of their abilities, and although they are yet to fight a fire at night in operational conditions, all involved in the testing were complementary not just of the operation and the pilots, but the safety and forethought that went into planning and executing the task in the interests of furthering the industry and thinking outside the box on how to fight fires more effectively, which in their case, will open up the possibilities of fighting fires around the clock in the hopes of extinguishing blazes faster.
While both Kyle and Chris continue to work tirelessly at continuing to grow their business through continual innovation, one thing is clear. Their efforts continue to push the industry to innovate and improve safety in aerial firefighting.