From Seal to CEO: Executive Profile – Tim Sheehy, Bridger Aerospace

To some, Tim Sheehy may be the new kid on the block in the aerial firefighting scene, but as an accomplished CEO, Sheehy has completed a lot of achievements quickly.

Coming from a Naval career, Sheehy was a Navy SEAL team leader who served multiple deployments in Afghanistan, which he credits for developing a great deal of the leadership skills he uses to continue to build and grow his company Bridger Aerospace.

Not being one to shy away from a challenge, Sheehy found himself after being medically discharged from the Navy after a battlefield injury in a position to start Bridger Aerospace.

“One of the main roles of a ground force commander, in addition to just being in charge of that task force, is to coordinate the air assets that you have. That can come in the form of surveillance, like a drone overhead. It comes in the form of pre-mission targets. If you know you’re going to assault a compound, you’ll want to get some drone footage of that ahead of time to know what you’re going to hit. And then, of course, during the mission, you’d have airborne surveillance helping you out throughout, and you’ll be able to see that imagery in real-time through a downlink on a tablet.”

“So I saw the force multiplying value of having an aircraft closely integrated with the ground team. And that would also eventually start coming in the form of close air support services, guns, and bombs being dropped as you’re in an active engagement. So, over the course of several deployments, I understood and valued the importance of a closely integrated air-ground Task Force, and then also saw what can happen when you were not closely integrated.”

“One of the times I was wounded was by friendly fire when an Apache fired a hellfire missile at a friendly location instead of an enemy location, so it landed right in the middle of a squad who were on an op trying to call in an airstrike on an enemy position. They shot at us instead, which, unfortunately, is a fairly common occurrence. ”

“Oftentimes, that is the bigger killer, so I saw both the benefits and the threats. After I got wounded, got out of the military, and started Bridger, we created a division to take that aerial surveillance capability of airborne infrared electronic imaging and apply it to missions beyond combat operations. And wildfire was a distant reality that I knew of but didn’t know anything about. I certainly didn’t plan it to be our new industry,” said Sheehy.

In 2015, Bridger Aerospace, although initially targeting its work towards border patrol and law enforcement operations, the company took up its first fire contract with a piston commander aircraft on a contract conducting air attack work for the U.S. Forest Service, firmly cementing their business model at the time providing sensor technology and aerial firefighting contract services.

In 2016, while realizing that the company’s sensor and infrared technology was still not readily understood by the Forest Service, it was, however, being noticed by the United States Department of Defense. The DoD was paying attention to the company’s sensor and IR capabilities and the company’s video stabilization and tracking software. Such was the nature of this business that required structuring a new company to break away from Bridger, named Ascent Vision Technologies(AVT.)

AVT was formed to address EO/IR market needs that, as a SEAL team leader, Sheehy was only too familiar with and wanted to improve on the battlefield for the warfighter. The company would make EO/IR gimbals and associated software as it rapidly grew alongside Bridger.

“For a time there, I was co-founder and CEO of both AVT and Bridger. And obviously, that was challenging for years because I was managing two rapidly growing companies and what was becoming two very distinct industries because they quickly took off. We became about a 100-employee company very quickly on the AVT side as Bridger was roughly becoming the same size.”

AVT would manufacture hardware and software for the United States Marine Corps, Air Force, and several other foreign militaries over the next few years, seeing the company become the largest gimbal provider for the DoD. AVT would provide systems able to spot small commercial drones being used by ISIS on the battlefield along with several jamming devices and kinetic weapons, allowing the shootdown of enemy drones.

In 2020, Sheehy would go on to sell AVT to CACI for a $350 Million cash sale, enabling him to focus solely on the growth of Bridger, which had also continued to grow alongside AVT. “I was at heart an entrepreneur and a field leader, and that business was becoming kind of a defense contractor, and that’s more program management, budget meetings, which wasn’t my expertise. So the right thing to do was to take that capability and pass it on to a company with more expertise in program of record oversight and defense contract management.”

At the same time, Bridger had grown its air attack fleet from having three piston commander aircraft to six turbine commanders. Shortly after that, moving on to investing in a Kodiak fleet, investing heavily in providing the business’s most modern air attack fleet.

At that stage, Sheehy identified a gap in aerial firefighting operations: the need for scooper aircraft in the United States that were being utilized worldwide but sparingly in the United States. The next step for Sheehy was convincing DeHavilland of Canada to reopen the production lines to start producing the CL-415EAF for Bridger, which had been in mothballs for almost a decade. The company agreed, beginning to produce the most modem scoopers in the world for Bridger, initially delivering two scoopers, which grew to four in 2021, and now six at the beginning of 2023.

The scooper assets now join the company’s large air attack fleet, three Pilatus PC-12’s and a large UAV fleet that provides services in almost every aspect of aerial firefighting.

Sheehy still lives where the company was founded, in Bozeman, Montana, with his wife, a former Marine, and their four children, aged 9,7,5 and 3, on their farming property in Bozeman.

“We are farmers and ranchers ourselves, we share a love of the environment, and we are proud of that, which is why we love aerial firefighting as it protects the environment. Our kids ride horses and mend fences with us on the property. We keep them involved in the business and treat our business like family. We are almost 200 employees now; we try to include everyone in events and our holiday parties. And kind of tried to keep that family atmosphere at Bridger, and I’m really proud of that. We have only had a 7% employee turnover over the past four years. When most businesses have averaged a 30% turnover in the past couple of years. We’re pretty happy with that environment.”

Bridger Aerospace also completed an IPO after a recent consolidation merger with Jack Creek Investments that saw the business listed on the stock exchange. Sheehy sees it as a huge chance to give back to his employees via stock options and another way to continue to grow the company.

“We wanted to be able to continue to grow. Small business regulations that govern our industry are burdensome. It’s hard to get growth capital and remain a small business. So going public was the best way for us. It’s been great so far, and we think it will be a great way to reward our employees with their stock, of course, so that they can be a part of that journey.”

Bridger continues its rapid rise to be one of the most innovative companies in the industry. Sheehy shows no signs of slowing down as he continues to build Bridger into an industry juggernaut that will continue to be one to watch as it builds on previous successes and creates new opportunities.

Ryan Mason
Ryan Mason
Ryan is an accomplished writer and aerial photographer that has worked in the aviation industry for over a decade before co-founding AerialFire Magazine. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Ryan is a former police officer that focuses his writing and photography efforts on para-public operations and agricultural aviation.

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