Life as an Air Attack Officer: Jeff Austin

Those who fly for the BC Wildfire Service have some of the most visible jobs in the organization. Whether training or actioning a fire, they can be seen and heard for kilometres.

For Jeff Austin, it may be just another day on the job, but the excitement has yet to wear off after 28 seasons in the birddog.

Forty-three years ago, Austin started as a wildfire crew member with two boots planted firmly on the fireline. After 15 years in his BC Wildfire Service career, he was drawn to the excitement of flying after his experiences in helicopters at work.

One flight specifically, through a tight canyon, sparked his interest.

“My coworker was puking in the back seat, and I had a very large grin on my face in the front seat. I was realizing that this flying stuff is a lot of fun. That was my first flight in a helicopter, and I was hooked after that. Years later, I wanted to make the transition because I realized if I learned the air attack role it would make me a better firefighter on the ground. Of course, adrenaline is very addictive and flying in fast airplanes around the province and seeing different countries, different provinces and states, and other places (some not so exotic) and being exposed to a lot of fire. It’s very addictive. I do both now.”

For Austin doing both has meant taking part in an Incident Management Team in addition to his work as an Air Attack Officer.

As an Air Attack Officer, he works with a pilot, flying side by side in a birddog, a small but powerful airplane, to assess proposed airtanker runs and assess airtanker drops for accuracy.

While no two days are the same, an air attack officer’s regular tasks include monitoring weather, staying up to date on fire activity, inspecting their aircraft, daily briefings and, of course, being deployed to fires.

The plane Austin primarily flies in is a Turbo Commander 1000.

“In my estimation, it is the best birddog aircraft we’ve ever had…lots of power, it’s quite comfortable, it’s very fast, has good duration, holds lots of fuel, has very good visibility, it flies very fast (350 mph) or it flies very slow, it is an all-around beautiful aircraft.

“The air attack officer is ultimately responsible for the fire attack plan, doing most of the communications to ground crews, headquarters, fire departments, the provincial airtanker centre, back to the fire centre and crew leader or incident commander on the ground.”

Austin said that direct involvement with fire brings him satisfaction on the job. “That direct control you have on the outcome of the fire by using retardant with air tankers, you affect control of the fire so much faster than you can from the ground. You see the fruits of your labour very fast. It’s a very fast-moving, dynamic, adrenaline-filled environment, and that is addictive.”

In addition to the fulfilment from working on a fire, Austin said stunning views from the cockpit are indescribable.

“This province is so amazing. If you end up on a bluebird day flight from Dease Lake down to Abbotsford down the spine of the Coast Range, it is an absolutely mind-boggling flight it is so beautiful. I know birddog and airtanker pilots that have 10,000 plus hours and they can’t get the grin off their face. That flight is something to behold.”

“But it’s not all sightseeing up there,” Austin warns, “because when we are down and dirty (flaps down, speed down) to maintain control in those same mountains at 150 ft over the trees, it demands a lot from the pilot and AAO both.”

At the end of the day, the views, comradery and fulfillment that the job brings have kept Austin in the plane, “having an opportunity to share my experience with both the IMT (Incident Management Team) and the Helicopter Coordinator program makes it truly worthwhile. Everyone in wildfire makes huge sacrifices regarding non-work time, so it certainly helps to be completely stoked about your job.”

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