Off-Season Preparation for Fire Season Success

Given the nature of the industry, aerial firefighting is faced with a unique set of risks, complex issues related to the health and safety of the dedicated team who perform the difficult task of protecting life, property, and resources from wildfire. While all organizations employ risk mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to threats and errors, some go above and beyond. 

Over the past 50 years, Conair’s safety program has evolved from one that reacted to unsafe events to address risks in-flight operations proactively. Not only does the company focus on inflight operations safety, but in other areas such as aircraft maintenance, training, health and wellness, and culture. Working on setting the highest safety standard for the global aerial firefighting industry. 

Aircraft Maintenance

Fire season success starts with safe aircraft. Before deployment, all aircraft undergo enhanced inspections and maintenance to look for and address the wear and tear that inevitably results from aerial firefighting maneuvers, such as low elevation operations in turbulence and steep terrain. Conair’s rigorous inspection and repair program involves accessing and assessing the structural integrity of all components, including the use of sensitive Non-Destructive Inspection (NDI) methods such as x-rays. A thorough evaluation of each aircraft, with associated repairs, can take several weeks depending on the size and complexity of the aircraft type.

Supply chain agility and efficiency can be seen as the backbone of a successful aviation program. If you don’t have the right parts at the right time, you can’t dispatch to the fire. Proactively forecasting when aircraft parts will reach their end of lifespan while anticipating unexpected failures is a complicated dance that weaves together predictive analysis with years of experience. Conair’s Purchasing and Stores groups work together with Maintenance to have on hand thousands of parts for the wide variety of aircraft types in the fleet, fostering strong relationships with vendors and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) around the world to secure necessary components when needed. 

AME Training

Every Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME) with Conair has been through a Transport Canada-approved school and has fulfilled on-the-job training to meet criteria that ensure that the apprentice touches all aircraft areas, compiling a wide array of knowledge across the subject spectrum. In all, it takes a minimum of 48 months to obtain an AME license. 

In addition, Conair AMEs are required to complete an aircraft-specific training course, some of which are designed and delivered in-house. They are also trained on the specific Retardant Delivery Systems attached to the aircraft type, including specialized electronic control systems training. AMEs working on the company’s Bird Dog aircraft are given thorough training in the tactical avionics packages vital to agency partners. Everyone is educated in regulatory rules for independent checks of flight controls, plus all AMEs complete a type-specific technical course on the flight control system. AMEs are also given the opportunity to use flight simulators to learn to operate the aircraft while on the ground.

Pilot Training

Aerial firefighting pilot training at Conair includes technical ground training, simulator training, and flight training. Over 90 pilots are trained during March and April each year. The Flight Operations team conducts the complex schedule and logistics for the coordination of the activity. Conair conducts its training following Transport Canada regulations. However, Conair pilot training far exceeds the minimum standard set by the regulatory body to ensure the highest level of performance by their pilots to meet safety and customer expectations. 

With the onset of the COVID pandemic, ground training moved from a classroom format to a virtual setting. Conair Instructors following the Transport Canada approved Flight Operations Training Manual in a remote learning environment. In addition to this content, the company produces and implements additional training courses specific to the unique field of aerial firefighting. 

“Course content includes both basic and advanced air attack; initial attack; formation flying; and wildfire behavior,” said Mike Harris, Chief Pilot with Conair. “Transitioning to online ground training was a challenge in 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic, with the switch from in-person to remote learning occurring within 36 hours.” This year has been more turn-key and refined, with pandemic restrictions still in place.

Firefighting Simulation

Conair built their Training and Tactics Centre at their hangars located in Abbotsford, Canada, to provide their pilots with the ability to perform mission-based procedures within the safe environment of flight simulators. Everyone learns by doing, and repetitive practice using real-life scenarios in a controlled setting creates better-prepared pilots for fighting fires in the real world. The Training and Tactics Centre includes an AVRO RJ85 Level D Full Flight Simulator, retrofitted for aerial firefighting, and an AT802 Level 5 Flight Training Device. Pilots of C208 Birddog and the new Q400AT travel to 3rd party simulator centers for their basic aircraft training before coming back to Abbotsford for their aerial work training.

“Conair invests in the best training tools pilots can get – simulators.” continues Mike, “Most impressive is the Mission Training System (MTS), which, when completed, will be the first of its kind in the world. It incorporates up to six aircraft platforms – bird dogs and tankers – that can operate in concert over a simulated fire.” The aerial firefighting environment of the Training and Tactics Centre will boast fire propagation software; include target accuracy reports; feature realistic radio communications environments capable of simulating demanding multi-channel scenarios, and offer the measurable results of a contained fire where the team’s execution was successful.

Tight Teams

Conair builds relationships during the maintenance and training period by teaming up crews who will be positioned together on remote bases in the upcoming fire season. Learning to communicate, trust, respond, and assist each other in a safe setting establishes a solid basis for team support when missioning out during stressful fire events. 

In addition, Pilots, AMEs, and the Flight Operations team undergo a Crew Resource Management (CRM) safety course. In years gone by, training focused on operations. Now training teaches risk management techniques while simultaneously requiring teams to identify hazards and communicate them to others, creating a safe response. Actions are debriefed to improve safety, efficiency, and procedures in a positive, constructive manner. 

“CRM is a safety course that is intended to have the team think and work safely by planning ahead; evaluating consequences; communicating; identifying unsafe conditions; critically assessing how to proceed safely, and learning just to say ‘no’ when appropriate.” explains Leigh Barratt, Safety Management Consultant with Conair. Topics include Threat and Error Management, Communications, Situational Awareness, Pressure and Stress, Fatigue, Workload Management, Decision Making, Leadership & Team Building, Automation & Technology Management, Case Study, Current Safety Trends, Lessons Learned, and more. 

Focus on Wellness

Fostering an environment that promotes physical and mental health, Conair dedicates time and effort to researching new methods to reduce stress and fatigue for crews during fire seasons. The company has partnered with academic institutions such as the University of British Columbia and Camosun Innovates to study pilot workload and the role it plays in pilot fatigue and overall performance. “Pilots ‘hand fly’ through demanding, hot conditions, operating fully loaded air tankers low above treetops,” says Jeff Oliver, Director of Safety. “The research study generated a body of information to help us evaluate our pilot scheduling program and incorporate tools to provide a superior level of safety.” The next research project may be to study the effects of stress and fatigue on the AME group, evaluating overall well-being and ability to adapt to the seasonal challenges of the position, such as working away from family and friends  for extended periods during fire seasons.. Studying these human factors and responding with appropriate solutions or tools can create a safer work environment.

Culture of Support

Living up to the organization’s values to support each other, refine safety practices, improve service, and be accountable, Conair is committed to promoting a culture of open communication, with strong organizational support for all team members to stay safe. 

“We continuously adapt our in-house training program to incorporate lessons learned while in operation,” shares Neil McKinnon, Director of Maintenance. “We make sure we train based on risk assessment and technical complexity. If we see problems through our Quality Assurance program, we assess whether a new training component should be introduced.”

‘See something, say something’ and ‘never walk past an unsafe work environment’ are common themes at Conair in the context of a safe work environment. Teams take advantage of opportunities to listen, learn and improve. These apply to the firebase as much as they do in the hangar. If any Pilot or AME says it’s not safe to fly, the aircraft doesn’t fly. A team decision that ensures the ‘can do’ spirit in crews is tempered with analytical assessment, self-discipline, and controlled, mindful decisions. Aerial firefighting scenarios can be unforgiving. Taking action to mitigate risk is a constant for the Conair team.

A firefighting plane drops flame retardant to extinguish a forest fire in Castagniers near Nice, France July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RC144A3C5410