Today Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) contracts require the contractor to create and implement a Safety Management System (SMS). This system covers all aspects of company activities including operations, training, safety, planning and response. Our company manual at M & M Air Service is more than six hundred pages and is very cumbersome, so we converted it to digital discs which each pilot and driver has while on contract. The contents of the disk are available for viewing on a laptop computer while in the field. This, combined with a compact scanner and printer, makes for a mobile and efficient overall system that clicks with the government’s move to a paperless system. Required content in the SMS includes a company training program for newly hired fire pilots. As our company’s Fire Instructor Pilot, I was tasked with developing and administering this program. It consists of twenty-five hours of classroom interaction and twenty-five hours of flight time in one of our Air Tractor AT-802 air tankers. The applicant must meet the minimum experience requirements listed in the contract. It usually takes between ten days and two weeks for a pilot to complete the course, depending on weather and the learning curve of the student. Mornings are spent in the classroom and afternoons in the cockpit. Each item in the curriculum must be covered through the course of the program. In early March I received a phone call from fellow Texan, Todd Landry. After introducing himself, he explained he had spoken with with our company owner about a job as a SEAT pilot and had been instructed to contact me about attending our training program. He said he had been flying an AT-802 in the State Department’s drug spraying eradication program in South America and had grown weary of being shot at by the drug cartels. After comparing schedules, we agreed on a date to meet in Ft. Stockton, Texas (FST) to begin the training. Ft. Stockton is where we hangar our SEAT aircraft and is also close to mountainous terrain which would be needed for some of the simulated fire operations. The office in the hangar also serves as a classroom. A few weeks later Todd arrived at FST on a Friday afternoon. After he checked into a hotel, we had dinner and discussed the upcoming day’s work schedule. I supplied him with a copy of the current Call When Needed (CWN) contract and instructed him to look through it when he returned to the hotel room. Our step with training the next morning would be contract content. The contract is the bible we operate under and a complete understanding of its contents is vital to a new SEAT pilot. Saturday morning Todd and I met in the office to go over the contract item by item. After a morning of delving into the finite wording of the contract, we moved onto aircraft familiarization. Tanker 424 was used for the training and Todd spent the next few hours getting used to the placement of switches and radio operations. Per contract, all company aircraft must have consistent locations of all pertinent controls. A pilot moving from one aircraft to another should have no problem with orientation. The rest of the afternoon was spent with Todd flying the aircraft and getting used to its feel and operation. The student was given more material to study upon his return to his hotel room. As day two dawned, we were in the classroom discussing a long list of subjects that included fuel types, fire behavior, incident command system, airspace over a fire, radio procedures and much more. The morning sessions went by fast as Todd was very interested in learning all he could and asked a lot of questions. Incorporated into the sessions were videos, many of them taken over actual fires that included audio between the various aircraft. These are important learning tools because they give the student a feel for what it is like to be operating in the fire traffic area. After lunch we moved into the cockpit to learn about the operation of the hydraulic gate system. We discussed coverage levels versus line length and emergency procedures in case of a malfunction. Todd spent the afternoon dropping loads of water to develop his accuracy skills and getting used to the aircraft pitching up when the load is released. Most ag-pilots have never practiced dumping a full load from their aircraft. If not prepared for the effect, loss of control is possible. Todd started with a small load and gate opening and progressed up to a full load and maximum coverage level. When the gate is opened to its widest deflection, its aerodynamics add to the pitching of the aircraft. I placed a barrel by the runway for a target and we went to work. With a radio in hand, I stood near the barrel and gave Todd tips on altitude and start points. By the end of the day he had it down pat. As the days progressed, the missions became more complex and realistic. After nailing accuracy and altitude, we advanced to splitting loads. Oftentimes SEAT pilots are asked to put one load of retardant on more than one target. I have split one load into as many as six drops. This can be accomplished with the computer on the gate controller, but I wanted Todd to be able to master the split procedure manually. It is a skill that only comes with practice. After our morning classroom sessions I always give a briefing on the afternoon’s activity. Having covered all the basics, it was time to start flying on simulated fires. For these missions, I served as dispatch and aerial supervision using my experimental RV-4 as an aerial platform. I could select the location for the simulation by going to Google Earth and select a latitude and longitude in suitable terrain. I filled out an aircraft dispatch form, handed it to Todd and timed him on how long it took him to set up his aircraft with frequencies and lat-long positions. Our first few missions were carried out in relatively flat terrain. I played the part of Air Tactical Group Supervisor or Air Attack. Without actual smoke and flames on the ground, it can be very difficult to convey a target description to the student, so I used physical features such as roads and fence lines for targets. Mission after mission was flown with each one becoming more difficult for Todd. Distractions such as frequency mix-ups and diversions became the norm, along with the terrain becoming more extreme. As we moved into the mountains, my role switched from Air Attack to Lead Plane. With a Lead Plane the tanker pilot doesn’t have to receive a target description, you just follow Lead and he shows you where to put the retardant. I had made arrangements with the Texas Forest Service to send engine crews out to our simulations and participate in our training. However, at the last minute they had other priorities arise. Even so, I did my best to make each mission as realistic as possible. After we had completed each item in the curriculum, I issued Todd a completion certificate. He and I both felt assured that he was now ready for a real fire mission. He had already attended the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) training program in Boise, Idaho and completed the required online tests. All that remains with his carding process is an oral exam and check-ride with an inspector from the Office of Aircraft Services (OAS). Upon completing these items, he will be issued a Level II card, which will allow him to serve as an apprentice for one year. After twenty-five successful documented missions he will receive a Level I card, which will allow him to fly initial attack missions. When I first entered the National SEAT program many years ago there was no required training to be carded. If you had the proper credentials and could pass the oral and check-ride you were in. I was carded in Buckeye, Arizona one day and flying on a fire in New Mexico the next day. I could fly the airplane, but knew nothing about the fire aviation world other than what I had learned on my own. It was truly on the job training. Soon after that, the BLM initiated the National SEAT Academy in Safford, Arizona. It was better than nothing, but was not a really good learning environment. After several years of trying to make it work, the BLM abandoned it and shifted all initial training to individual vendors. This change has been a huge success and seems to be getting better each year.]]>