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Why Aren't You a Fixed Wing Pilot?


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Quite a few of us are fixed wing pilots, and yes, it does pay better.

 

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A lot of my fixed wing flying is low altitude. I've done a lot of high altitude flying, and it doesn't have the same appeal or satisfaction.

 

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Part of flying is maintaining a relationship with the sky, but not so far above the earth that it ceases to be flying. Much past a thousand feet above the ground, and the earth becomes a forgotten place until it's time to come back and land.

 

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There's a great deal of satisfaction to flying an instrument approach to minimums, but I don't think it compares at all to the satisfaction of good, solid VFR flying, and I think it's that organic drive to maintain touch with the aircraft and the earth while flying not too far above it that drives people to fly helicopters.

 

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That said, unless one intends to become a copilot on an RJ for poverty wages, there's no entry-level turbine work for the fixed wing pilot outside the military. For the rotor pilot, however, the first job after instructing is invariably a turbine position...typically with considerably better starting wages than the fixed wing pilot. In fact, the rotor pilot has the fixed wing pilot beat for the first ten years or so of his career. After that, the rotor pilot stagnates, and the earning potential and possibilities just keep opening up and climbing for the fixed wing pilot. Unfortunately, along with the higher earning potential comes the draw back of often less and less interesting flying. Not always, mind you, but often enough.

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I returned with my third load to a small fire this summer, situated on a ridge above a rural town, with a large pine plantation between the town and the ridge. For an hour and a half it had been creeping among the pine by a cedar fence, not doing much. Now it was a massive mushroom cloud, already hinting at making its own weather. From several miles out I could see the flames, being driven down hill fast with a stiff wind.

 

An evacuation order went out, with as many firefighters in the county as possible responding, as well as every available law enforcement officer. Two tankers and an air attack were on scene, and that was it. A call was put in to the USFS; two helicopters were available, but it would take some time.

 

The air attack told me to put the load near the bottom, near the highway on the right flank. If unable, bump over to the other side and start doing structure protection, anything you can find. They couldn't see me any more, for the smoke. I couldn't do the flank, so I hit the other side. Lots of down air in there. I saw tall fire whirls...tornados made of flame. Fire was spotting long, a half mile or more, and trees were exploding. I found a house not yet taken, and made a long run downhill, and downwind. I couldn't keep my speed down. I ended up between some trees, and as I rolled hard into the drop, a tall tree on my right exploded; I didn't see my right wing for the flame, and smoke. I punched off half the load and entered black smoke. Steep rising terrain was in there somewhere, and I rolled left, in the blind, and pulled. The aircraft bucked and I broke out in a steep turn. I kept pulling and came back around for a second drop. It went about the same as the first.

 

On the second drop I broke right and exited down canyon, under a low shelf of heavy smoke with spot fires kicking up all around. I called the air attack, "that's the load, structure on the east."

 

The air attack simply said "Roger. Load and return."

 

I didn't find it boring at all.

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High school, flight school and Vietnam, I was afraid the war would be over before I could possibly even qualify to try for the kid's dream of a jet fighter. Boy, was I wrong.

 

I came home with much more modest ambitions, like having a family and waking up every morning. Ten years later, I had the family, missed aviation and started flying again. Fixed wings seemed a yawner, kinda like being in the "Wagon Queen Family Truckster" of National Lampoon's "Vacation" and I would have had to have starved for a couple years before the net coin turned positive. But, I could instantly feed the dog and have fun in fling-wings. Thirty-four years later, I have 3 kids, 3 dogs, I'm on my 3rd helo job, and I look forward to going to work.

Edited by Wally
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In my case, oddly enough, being an airplane pilot was was the best path to land a helicopter slot.

I got my FW private because it was all I could afford. I did that before I was even in the air unit. I was a cop, and wanted to fly in LE so I thought that would be the best way to get started. Then I scraped enough together with the sale of my house to get my Private Helicopter. Once I did that, the GI Bill kicked in and covered 60% of the rest. I ended up with a Comm/Inst FW and Private Helicopter. My first "paid" flying job if you will, was as the departments fixed wing pilot flying a brand new tricked out Cessna TC206H full time. Although I was wasnt being paid to be a pilot, I was being paid to be a Deputy. Mountain, SAR in the high mountains, surveillance, personnel transports. During that time, I added on my Commercial and CFI helicopter on my own as my GI Bill was long gone and used up. After about 1700hrs of FW, I was selected to fill a helo slot due to a retirement. By the time I took that slot, I had about 450hrs turbine in the departments 500's that I had built when there was the opportunity to jump in with the unit CFI and get some training in. But I still fly both pretty regular. Personally, I always wanted to fly helicopters, but in my case, I had to do airplanes to get there. Now, I get to come to work and do both.

 

avbug, what were you flying in your scenario? Fire is something I cant wait to get into.

Edited by Flying Pig
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After a helicopter ride, I made the decision to enter aviation. At the time, I wanted to be a helicopter pilot but I needed to be sure that fixed wing wasn't going to be an attractive alternative to someday divert me from my goal. So, I took a ride to the local international airport and sat in a spectator parking area adjacent to the departure end of the runway. There, I watch numerous airliners push the thrust. Then, as a 747 lined up, I realized there were a ton of passenger windows on those behemoths. I thought to myself, do I really want to be responsible for 400+ people seating behind me at flight level 450? Heck no! Shoot, I don't want to be responsible for 400+ people doing anything, anytime anywhere. I started my helo training the very next week.

Edited by Spike
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avbug, what were you flying in your scenario? Fire is something I cant wait to get into.

 

That was a fixed-wing AT-802A (Air Tractor) single engine air tanker. It's the largest production single engine airplane, presently, at 16,000 lbs, with a turboprop motor. On the fixed-wing side of the house, they make up the bulk of the air tanker fleet in the USA, and are the most common fixed wing tanker aircraft world wide.

 

If I could choose anything to fly over a fire, it would be a sky crane. Never been in one, other than to sit inside, but I'd love to fly one. Quite possibly the single most impressive working machine over a fire on any given day, they still give me goosebumps.

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To fly is heavenly... to hover is divine.

 

Seriously though to me helicopters are just more fun and exciting. My 9 years in the Corps were spent flying in the back of a CH-53E, and made me develop a strong passion for rotary wing aviation, and it's history.

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That was a fixed-wing AT-802A (Air Tractor) single engine air tanker. It's the largest production single engine airplane, presently, at 16,000 lbs, with a turboprop motor. On the fixed-wing side of the house, they make up the bulk of the air tanker fleet in the USA, and are the most common fixed wing tanker aircraft world wide.

 

If I could choose anything to fly over a fire, it would be a sky crane. Never been in one, other than to sit inside, but I'd love to fly one. Quite possibly the single most impressive working machine over a fire on any given day, they still give me goosebumps.

 

Oh MAN! Seriously???!!! Airplanes, helicopters, the Air Tractor is the only aircraft that my soul needs to fly!!!

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That was a fixed-wing AT-802A (Air Tractor) single engine air tanker. It's the largest production single engine airplane, presently, at 16,000 lbs, with a turboprop motor. On the fixed-wing side of the house, they make up the bulk of the air tanker fleet in the USA, and are the most common fixed wing tanker aircraft world wide.

 

If I could choose anything to fly over a fire, it would be a sky crane. Never been in one, other than to sit inside, but I'd love to fly one. Quite possibly the single most impressive working machine over a fire on any given day, they still give me goosebumps.

 

Fighting wildland fires was the dream that got me into aviation. I remember the Skycranes flying right over my house still dribbling pink retardent on my driveway and roof (we lived right under the flight path to the Hemet Ryan Air Attack Base). I remember when one of the S-2 Trackers had a wing spar snap just after dropping a load (I wasn't there, of course, but I heard about it). That was a wake up call. When I decided I still wanted to do it, I knew nothing would deter me. Flying fixed wing is fun, but flying helicopters is more fun. Saying that you only want to fly helicopters is like saying you only want to drive a Ferrari. I haven't flown much fixed wing lately, but I've been meaning to get back into it, just as soon as I'm not so damnd busy! I would still very much like to do some firefighting some day, once I have enough experience not to kill myself.

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I used to fly out of Hemet. I flew air attack, and heavy tankers there.

 

CDF didn't lose any S-2's with a failed spar; the losses have all been stall-spin, with the exception of one several years go involving a mid-air collision.

 

A C-130 lost a wing in 2001 (Walker, CA), and a PB4Y-2 lost one three weeks later (Estes Park, CO). I had close personal ties to both aircraft, as I used to fly each of them (did my type rating ride in one, FE ride in the other, in fact), and knew the crews very well.

 

You're probably thinking of the C-130, which was designated Tanker 130, flown by Steve Waas, Craig Lebarre, and Mike Davis. The right wing failed shortly after the drop, followed quickly by the left, which both separated from the aircraft before it rolled inverted and exploded.

 

Prior to that, the last structural failure that I recall near there was in 1979, a C-119 from Hemet. That was a wing failure during a drop at the wing station between the flap and aileron. The son of the captain killed in that crash went on to fly as a captain in the P-3 for many years.

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I used to fly out of Hemet. I flew air attack, and heavy tankers there.

 

CDF didn't lose any S-2's with a failed spar; the losses have all been stall-spin, with the exception of one several years go involving a mid-air collision.

 

A C-130 lost a wing in 2001 (Walker, CA), and a PB4Y-2 lost one three weeks later (Estes Park, CO). I had close personal ties to both aircraft, as I used to fly each of them (did my type rating ride in one, FE ride in the other, in fact), and knew the crews very well.

 

You're probably thinking of the C-130, which was designated Tanker 130, flown by Steve Waas, Craig Lebarre, and Mike Davis. The right wing failed shortly after the drop, followed quickly by the left, which both separated from the aircraft before it rolled inverted and exploded.

 

Prior to that, the last structural failure that I recall near there was in 1979, a C-119 from Hemet. That was a wing failure during a drop at the wing station between the flap and aileron. The son of the captain killed in that crash went on to fly as a captain in the P-3 for many years.

 

http://www.aircraftwrecks.com/pages/ts2a.htm

 

The story I was told about what exactly happened may not have been accurate, but this is the crash I remember hearing about. Looks like what really happened is the winds flipped him and his wing struck the terrain. The version I heard was told by a neighbor who worked at Hemet Ryan. Either he had his details mixed up, or I mixed them up. In 1998 I would have been all of 15.

Edited by nightsta1ker
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That was Gary Nagel in 1998. While it was an S-2, it wasn't a spar failure. We did a big debrief that year at the biennial association meeting in Reno.

 

Gary collided with terrain.

 

Winds were very strong, and turbulence severe to extreme. A USFS leadplane was rolled over above the fire at one point, and the airshow was shut down after Gary went in.

 

At Reno, I very clearly remember pilot after pilot standing in a large group meeting to say "I knew it was bad. I thought it was dangerous. I was just waiting for someone to call it." Everyone waited for the next guy to say it was too dangerous, and nobody said it until Gary got killed.

 

Ironically, it was his wife, Wanda, that tried to talk me out of doing firefighting, years ago, based on the danger and the fatality rate.

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That was Gary Nagel in 1998. While it was an S-2, it wasn't a spar failure. We did a big debrief that year at the biennial association meeting in Reno.

 

Gary collided with terrain.

 

Winds were very strong, and turbulence severe to extreme. A USFS leadplane was rolled over above the fire at one point, and the airshow was shut down after Gary went in.

 

At Reno, I very clearly remember pilot after pilot standing in a large group meeting to say "I knew it was bad. I thought it was dangerous. I was just waiting for someone to call it." Everyone waited for the next guy to say it was too dangerous, and nobody said it until Gary got killed.

 

Ironically, it was his wife, Wanda, that tried to talk me out of doing firefighting, years ago, based on the danger and the fatality rate.

 

I was editing my post as you wrote this. Sorry I got it mixed up, and I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. It's dangerous work for sure. But someone has to do it.

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I fly both airplanes since 1975 and helicopters since 1982. It was a lot quicker to get to turbine helicopters than it was for airplanes. Not that it matters a whole lot, I made some decent money flying single engine pistons and turbines over the years, and I made decent money flying helicopters. Right now I am looking for work, but what else is new nothing. Not enough flight time in the right airframes. Right now an out of the way place flying a Cessna 206 or 208 would be ok. Now that its getting cold some fixed wing stuff is opening up in Alaska. Bethel is a real garden spot. You really learn how to make cross wind landing out there. Money wise not to bad either.

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Right now I am looking for work, but what else is new nothing. Not enough flight time in the right airframes. .

 

This is like the 'chicken or the egg' argument. How does one get enough flight time in the right airframes to get jobs? There must be some way to do it. I would be willing to bet that finding the answer to that question will also solve your job problem.

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Generally speaking, there aren't any short cuts.

 

I've known people who tried to shortcut the process...the classic example in fixed wing is the three hundred hour wonder who jumps into a CRJ flying for Mesa...and then has to quit later to go get PIC time. He's a 2,000 hour pilot with no pilot in command experience...and can't get a job in a Cessna, despite having flown in the airlines for several years. I've seen people have to take leaves of absence or quit to go back to instructing, if they ever want a hope of being able to upgrade.

 

Get the experience needed, then work into a job. Those who do find ways to short cut the process one day find themselves in a place where they run out of ability, skills, ideas, and experience at the same time, and it's a dangerous moment.

 

I was on the ramp at Jeffco (colorado) during the fire season years ago, when approached by a retired airline pilot. He was a corporate pilot, former military. He told me that flying tankers looked like fun. He said he might want to do it for a hobby. I pointed out that some of us did it for a career...we didn't consider it a hobby. He told me about his twenty six thousand hours, and asked how long it would take to upgrade. I told him to plan on about eight to twelve years. He was shocked. He may have had twenty six thousand hours, but on day one, he would be a one hour fire pilot. He didn't absorb that bit of information very well. Trying to shortcut that process would make him a dead twenty six thousand hour pilot.

 

I flew back country work that lead to fire patrols, and eventually to air attack, single engine and then multi engine. I finally got a chance to move to a heavy tanker company after about ten years of trying to get my foot in the door, and they let me in because I was a mechanic; I got hired onto the shop floor as a mechanic and line inspector, then began flying mechanics and parts around in light twins and singles. I qualified in each of the heavy tankers, and when a slot came up, I moved into the right seat of a tanker. Later, I moved to single engine air tankers; I was able to do that because I had a background in ag aviation, having started spraying crops as a teen many moons ago.

 

In between some of those assignments, which spanned a number of different companies, I also flew corporate, back country, forestry, tours, SAR, photography, cargo, ambulance and medical, towed gliders, flew skydivers, turned a lot of wrenches, and a host of other things...never working less than two jobs at a time. Like all things, it's a matter of perspective; how much do you want to do what you want to do?

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My dad flew both fixed-wing and helicopters in WWII and Korea. There was never any question that I too would be a pilot. I've loved flying ever since I can remember. Must be genetic.

 

Wanted to be an airline pilot but helicopters fascinated me. Two helicopter rides when I was 13 sealed the deal (a Hughes 300 and a ride in a New York Airways Boeing-Vertol 107). Did my training coincidentally, both fixed and rotor at the same time. Got my Private F/W then my Commercial R/W then my Comm/Land-Sea F/W in that order. Was working as a scheduler for a helicopter company at the time. They eventually hired me as an SIC on an S-58T and my helicopter career was off and running.

 

A few burps: A partner and I owned a Cessna 206 on floats and did sightseeing tours in the Caribbean for a while. Owned two other planes for personal use. Have flown "copilot" on various planes my bosses have owned, but never checked out.

 

Thirty years later I'm done - at least done with helicopters and the risks they bring. (I'm still debating with myself whether I'll go back up and do the cherry-drying thing next summer.) Every time I fly (or even fly in) an airplane I ask myself the same question: Why *AREN'T* I flying fixed-wing? I, for one, do not think they're "boring." I just love to fly - I doubt I could be bored flying anything.

 

Not long ago, the owner of the local FBO asked if I'd take a 172 and go pick up a pilot that had ferried a plane to another field. I told him how long it had been since I'd flown an airplane. And he went, "So? It's a 172 not a 747." He asked how much total flight time I've got; I told him. Then he asked how much F/W time I have? "A thousand hours." Then he said words to the effect of, "Just go fly the damn airplane."

 

And I did. And it was a gas! And so maybe at this late date my F/W career will finally, um, take-off.

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Count me in as another fixed-wing pilot that enjoys flying FW. I feel fortunate that I get to fly both for a living as it adds variety to my work.

 

When I have a long distance to travel for a mission, it's nice to have an autopilot and be able to stretch once in a while. A 170 kt+ TAS is nice too. It's nice to be able to place my lunchbox on the co-pilot seat and snack while on a long flight. It's nice to be able to easily fold my charts while enroute. Being able to fly IMC is also a boon when I need to get someplace and the WX is bad - better to fly the plane than not fly at all! I enjoy the challenge of greasing a landing right on the numbers - something I find more difficult to execute than most helicopter maneuvers.

 

I much prefer the response and control of a helicopter. I have a lot more experience in helicopters and I simply feel more comfortable in them - I have to think about what I'm doing in an airplane, but when I'm in a helicopter, it just becomes a part of me - instinctive. I know this is because I have a lot more experience with them, but it still affects my outlook. When the mission is non-specific, I choose the helicopter every time. The airplane is pretty much a hangar queen/backup quarterback most of the year.

 

People I meet in my travels sometimes ask if it's hard to fly helicopters. I get funny looks when I tell them helicopters are easier to fly than airplanes. Bottom line though, I feel blessed to be able to make a living doing what I do - no matter what machine I'm operating.

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