Editorial – Training the Next Generation

How many people can say they fight fires from the sky? Pilots flying the CL-415EAF (Super Scooper) aircraft from Bridger Aerospace skim a water source to scoop up thousands of gallons of water into an onboard tank in under 12 seconds. Then drop it on a fire in some of the most challenging terrains at high elevation, saving critical infrastructure and lives. It takes more than just technical knowledge and skill to be safe and effective.

To be fully proficient, an attitude, particularly a “commitment to continuous learning,” is necessary. Ensuring that the correct mindset is ingrained makes it a habit, becoming muscle memory. We fall back to our training under pressure, so there is a need to train continuously. This mantra extends to all Bridger team members, not just the pilots. Each Bridger Aerospace team member plays a vital role in keeping our aircraft flying to support wildfires’ management and suppression.

As Director of Training for Bridger Aerospace, I have a front-row seat to the successes and challenges of one of the fastest-growing companies in the aerial firefighting industry. My function with Bridger is to implement a vision that ensures we have the highest trained people to manage and operate our resources efficiently and safely.

To accomplish this, we encourage our team never to stop learning because there will always be something new to learn. It could be a new task or piece of equipment to learn or a way to improve what we do. “It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.” This famous Wooden adage has resonated with me since I started my flying career in Northern Canada.

To continue improving as a team, we leave Bozeman, MT’s snowy mountainscape, and head down to the heat of Mesa, Arizona. There we train for over a month in an area that provides ample water surface area and a climate conducive to our training needs. Over 20 pilots who are a mix of current First Officers and Air Attack pilots transitioning into the Super Scooper as a FO will undergo thorough ground and flight training. Current Captains will also complete their annual check rides. Bridger management understands that training is an investment in our people and not just an expense. When some operators keep training to an absolute minimum to keep costs low, we understand that to spend now is to save later. 

We have a disciplined and sensible approach to provide a career track for our Air Attack pilots to transition into flying the CL-415EAF platform. Pilots require an FAA multi-engine seaplane certification to fly the CL-415EAF. Instead of going outside of the company, Bridger recently purchased a DHC-6 Twin Otter as the platform to provide safe and effective AMES training. We chose this airframe because it is the safest and most capable multi-engine seaplane, with over 500 still in service worldwide. This acquisition will be vital in achieving some cost savings while maintaining the high standards we must achieve. The Otter will significantly enhance skills and increase the speed of learning Multi-Crew and Multi-Engine Seaplane skills before transitioning into a 30 million dollar Super Scooper.

We must consider that we’ve known for almost 25 years that we will be facing pilot shortages resulting from retiring baby boomers. The issue is that Aerial Firefighting and, in particular, flying water scooping aircraft is not a standard flight school curriculum. There is much tribal knowledge in the world of firefighting seaplanes. Our junior pilots need to capture those nuggets of wisdom from our “gurus” before they are lost. So, the question is: What can we do to ensure tribal knowledge is not lost? We are very fortunate that we have several highly experienced Captains on the team. Our senior pilots are all mentors and actively develop personalized training programs for our junior pilots to ensure continuity of experience. Mentorship provides a safety net that ensures our Scooper pilots operate to exceed “industry standards” to perform their job.

The future is exciting for Bridger as we continue to seek out the highest possible training quality. A vital part of our successful expansion is ensuring that excellence involves genuine dedication to educational achievement. We mustn’t just hit the minimums of regulatory compliance or what I call “checking the box.” We continue to hone our training programs with emerging technology and instruction, with a fusion of tried and true wisdom from our experienced captains.

I look forward to realizing my vision for Bridger Aerospace to become a leading training provider for our industry.

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