Aerial firefighting is a dangerous job and few make the cut in this fast- paced adrenaline-fueled world. Water-scooping Single Engine Airtanker (SEAT) pilot Mikaela Young, a born and raised Alaskan, fits right in, with her desire to do anything that, “gets the heart rate up.”
At the age of 26, she is considered the youngest to ever pilot a Fire Boss and the first female in the world. She is praised for her impressive flying and instincts beyond her years, according to officials at Dauntless Air, the company that owns the contracted firefighting airplanes.
Young grew up homeschooled along with four siblings on an off grid, 320-acre homestead near Talkeetna, Alaska. Her family lived in tents for three years while building their house. When she turned 15, she started logging seven days a week to pay for her first truck. Young credits her work ethic to her parents.
Young was inspired to get into the aviation world after participating in Build A Plane, a nonprofit that gives Talkeetna youth the chance to rebuild an airplane. After rebuilding a Cherokee 6, Young decided to pursue a career turning wrenches as an airplane mechanic.
Young had “wicked” motion sickness growing up and never thought she would be a pilot. But her need to “try everything” and learn more about the planes she worked on changed her mind.
She convinced a coworker to instruct her and within a year she had earned all her pilot ratings, including private, commercial, and multi-engine. She got her start in commercial aviation as a flight engineer and then moved up to piloting World War II DC-6 and C-46 planes, the giant cargo planes that transport fuel and food to remote Alaskan villages.
“I like the flying world more than the wrenching world because there is always something new. Different weather, scenery, and emergencies,” Young said. “Wrenching was a lot of the same tasks every day.”
She saw the Fire Bosses, the water-scooping airplanes that look much like crop dusters with floats, for the first time while flying cargo across Alaska. These floats give them the Fire Boss name and separate them from the SEATs flown in the Lower 48 with a wheeled configuration.
Then, a year ago, she met Mindy Lane, a SEAT base manager with the BLM Alaska Fire, and Sonny Amboni, Dauntless pilot, who explained the requirements to become an aerial firefighter. At the beginning of the fire season, the BLM AFS contracts four Fire Bosses to respond to wildfires throughout the state and orders additional when fire activity increases.
“I thought (Fire Bosses) were pretty cool and convinced (Dauntless Chief Pilot and Director of Operations) Jesse Weaver to hire me,” Young said. “Flying a Fire Boss is awesome! I love being the only one in the cockpit.”
A Fire Boss is an AT-802F aircraft equipped to scoop and drop 800-gallons of water on wildfires. Two postcard-sized scoops on the bottom of each float pylon fill the tank as the plane skims over water as little as 4-feet deep in a matter of 15-seconds. Their ability to scoop from a body of water near a wildfire make them a valuable firefighting resource, especially in Alaska, where fires are remote and there is an abundance of water.
“Flying a Fire Boss is challenging. Scooping is the most difficult thing I have ever done in an airplane,” Young said. “You are flying across water at 60 knots when you put the probes out to scoop water. Initially it dips the nose and you have to correct for that. As the hopper fills with water the plane starts to porpoise from sloshing water and you are eating the wake of the plane in front of you. You’re heavy and slow and the plane doesn’t want to fly.”
This year, Young flew her first fire in her home state of Alaska. It was small smokey spot fires, but her second fire was “big flames.”
“It was cool,” Young said. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”
When asked what she thinks about being the first female Fire Boss pilot, “It’s pretty cool to be given the chance. I don’t see it as a big difference. I have always worked in a male dominated field. I do like being the youngest working with all these grandpas. It looks like bring your grandpa to work day.”
Look for Young in smokey skies, flying her favorite Fire Boss – named “Caroline” with a painting of a woman firefighter holding a Pulaski much like Rosie the Riveter – as she fights fire across the country.