Command and Control – the modern day role of the Spotter Plane

Command and Control pilots are specifically trained to ensure that aerial firefighting operations are undertaken safely and efficiently. When wildfires threaten farms and devour hectares
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Written By Kishugu

On 06/07/2018

Command and Control – the modern day role of the Spotter Plane

6 Jul, 2018Kishugu

Command and Control pilots are specifically trained to ensure that aerial firefighting operations are undertaken safely and efficiently.

When wildfires threaten farms and devour hectares worth of plantations, aerial firefighters are called in.

Aerial firefighting has a great impact on wildland firefighting operations. Aerial bombing does not effectively put out fires but firefighting pilots are able to cool down the fireline, enabling ground teams to move in closer and extinguish the flames. Successful firefighting operations take teamwork, and aerial firefighters are integral members of that team.

Circling above the burning inferno, we find another, less visual but vitally important, aerial firefighting resource – the command and control aircraft, also referred to as the “spotter”.

20 years ago, the command and control aircraft (usually high-wing Cessnas) were coined spotter planes, as they were essentially commissioned to fly out and “spot” the fires. Modern technology has introduced electronic fire detection cameras which largely fill this fire detection role, while the spotter’s main priority now is the safety of the other aircraft and ground resources through a command and control function.

The spotter pilot forms part of initial attack. He or she is usually dispatched ahead of the other resources. These pilots are specifically trained in advanced fire behaviour and are able to assess the fire and offer relevant realtime information to the Incident Commanders (IC) on the ground, who need the information to make informed decisions regarding tactics and resources on the ground.

Apart from air-to-ground communication, the spotter pilot also manages air-to-air communication. They fly at a higher altitude than the other operational aircraft to maintain situational awareness and – in cooperation with the IC – direct the Hueys, with their Bambi buckets, and AT 802 fixed-wing water bombers to where water is most needed.

FireFly camera systems are installed onboard the command and control aircraft, which records and streams the events to the IC and landowners in their office. This gives the ground operations immediate and accurate insight into the fire’s behavior and the effectiveness of the aerial and ground suppression actions.

The spotter pilot usually only stands down once all the other aircraft have been demobilised and ground teams no longer require its assistance. As a result, the spotter may circle a fire for up to four hours before it has to land and refuel.

Kishugu® Aviation is a leading supplier of aerial firefighting aircraft and pilots in South Africa. It contracts aerial firefighting aircraft and pilots to companies involved in wildland firefighting such as the South African Government’s award Winning Working on Fire Programme.

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How to become a Command and Control Pilot

For a pilot to qualify for a position as a Kishugu® Aviation CC pilot, he or she needs a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) with a minimum of 250 hours as Pilot in Command (PIC) with 50 hours on type. On top of this, specialised air and ground training in wildland firefighting needs to be conducted, which includes: fire behaviour, theory and practical on the various resource used during operations, specialised flying techniques, communication skills and techniques maintaining situational awareness.

This specialised training is overseen by the Kishugu® Aviation’s Person Responsible Flight Operations (PRFO).

Once the pilot has concluded all the modules with the PRFO, the new command and control pilot is placed under the command of the Line Captain, who ensures that the new pilot is exposed – first in an observing capacity and later as the Pilot in Command (PIC) – to enough fires before he or she is signed off as proficient.

“Being a command and control pilot is my passion,” says Erick Nel, Kishugu® Aviation Command and Control pilot, currently contracted to Working on Fire Aviation. “It is a very challenging job though. You have to be able to multitask well.

The cockpit can get very busy with all the observing and radio work – and then you still have to keep the plane in the air. But, I have been in aerial firefighting for 12 year’s and I think it is one of the most rewarding aviation jobs you can find. It is an honour to be part of a team who fights to save lives and livelihoods.”

The importance of the spotter pilot during aerial firefighting is often overlooked, but its function is essential for the safety and efficiency of wildland firefighting operational.