By the time you read this, the 2016 summer fire season will be just a few short weeks from being over. Overall, the season has been very slow with both acres burned and the amount of fires well below the 10-year averages. It is hard to show that it is slow in fire aviation where hours flown are up from previous years. An aggressive approach to initial attack may be part of the reason. Neptune Aviation, the largest heavy air tanker contractor, say their flight hours are up from last year which was record setting in the number of acres burned. The SEAT world has seen an uptick in usage through longer missions and more sharing between contracting agencies. The SEAT program has truly matured and is a valuable tool that is here to stay.
At the beginning of the third year of a five-year contract, the Department of Interior announced that it would be canceling the Exclusive Use SEAT Contracts after the season ends this fall. A new solicitation for bids will be issued in November. In a way, this is good because the current contracts contain requirements and wording that evidently was inserted by folks that haven’t a clue to how operations are conducted in the field. For instance, one requirement is that a written record be kept for thirty days of how much fuel is onboard for each flight. In my opinion, this serves no purpose and only creates another task for an already busy pilot. Personnel from Aircraft Management also told me about new wording about company mechanics that will be unworkable and place a significant financial burden on the contractor and do nothing to improve safety. The people that run the SEAT program have squeezed the contract prices to the minimum yet pile on costly regulations that have no value to the overall program. I think that the programs safety record speaks for itself, and the contractors should be rewarded and not priced out of business.
Shortly there will be no more piston engine powered aircraft in the U.S. aerial firefighting fleet. I am thankful for the years that I got to fly with these classic machines and their brave flight crews. I will miss the sound and smoke of those old round engines firing off. It is truly the end of an era.
I have written before about the shortage of pilots in our industry, and it just keeps getting more acute. I get calls weekly from experienced pilots that want to get in but after being told all the requirements they must meet they decide to pursue another career. The ones that do take the plunge find out that they have to spend one year of their career just getting ready for fire duty and then some that do complete everything decide that this is just not the lifestyle for them.
It has been a safe fire season so far with no fire-related accidents or major incidents. Hopefully, this trend will continue. Hope you are having a profitable season and I hope to see you in the mountains one day.