Canadian fire pilot loves his work

After 21 years as a fire pilot, Williams Lake’s Guy Ridler still enjoys his job flying an airtanker. Besides the obvious benefit supporting firefighters on the ground, he says he enjoys the constant variety that aerial firefighting entails.

“No fire is the same,” he recently told Ruth Lloyd with the Williams Lake Tribune. With changing geography, winds, fuel types, and fire activity, he says it is always a challenge to put retardant where the client wants it — and do it safely.

2020 photo by BC Wildfire Service
2020 photo by B.C. Wildfire Service

How did he end up where he is, an aerial firefighter who spends his time off in the Cariboo region of British Columbia?

When Guy Ridler was just a young boy, he flew with his parents to Ontario from Newfoundland to visit family. It was his first flight — and he loved it. When he spotted a uniformed pilot in the airport, he approached the “grizzled” pilot and asked him,  “How do I get your job?”

The pilot replied with a question of his own. “Well kid, do your parents have a lot of money?”

When Guy said no, the pilot told him, “Then join the Air Force.”

Years later when he was applying to universities, with grades good enough to go anywhere he chose, a teenage Guy applied and was accepted to the Canadian Armed Forces and a spot at Royal Roads Military College near Victoria, B.C.

But he also had his heart set on competing in the Canada Summer Games that year as a cyclist on Team Newfoundland, and the military would not grant him leave to attend. Against the advice of his advisor, Guy turned down his spot at Royal Roads to compete in the Summer Games and instead attend Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) for one year, planning to reapply for the military the following year.

He was accepted at MUN, and all these years later, he says his military college experience was very different from what he’d experienced at MUN, and despite the challenges, he considered it  a job he had to do to get the education and training he wanted.

After completing military pilot’s training — and obtaining a degree in physics — Ridler graduated and landed a job at the Comox Air Force Base, where he flew a Buffalo for the Search and Rescue team. He flew to airshows all over the continent to drop parachutists and also flew them on SAR missions on Canada’s coast.

After his 11 years of required military service, he left for commercial flying. Ridler was hired on as a copilot on a Conair DC-6, and his captain told him, “You are no longer a pilot, you are now a museum curator,” given that the now-retired DC-6 tankers were first built in the 1940s.

Conair DC-6
The Convair replaced the DC-6 and Grumman S-2 Tracker airtankers and now the modern Dash 8-400 airtanker replaces the Convair, bringing with it speed, advanced avionics, fuel efficiency, and tactical flexibility.

He says the job is 100 percent operational — it’s all about safety and a focus on hazards, to be as effective and as safe as possible — for the airtanker, the crew, and those on the ground. And it’s all VFR. “People think it’s some big high-tech operation,” he says. “But in the end, it’s a lot of experience, on-the-job experience.”

Over the years, Ridler has worked alongside forestry agencies in Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington state, and even Australia. He’s flown not only airtankers but also birddogs — referred to as lead planes in the U.S.

In 2004 he moved to Williams Lake for his first year as a copilot flying a Convair. He later become a captain, which sent him to Alaska for a number of seasons, but returned to Williams Lake seven years later as the captain of the birddog aircraft.

Conair RJ85
Conair RJ85

He thinks the smaller and more maneuverable birddog, which carries the air attack officer, is the best way to learn the job. He completed training as a pilot on the 4-engine RJ85 jet airtanker, and began spending his summers based in Kamloops, then moved back to Williams Lake in 2020.

Williams Lake is a city in the Central Interior of British Columbia, in the central part of a region known as the Cariboo. The feature on Guy Ridler was written by Ruth Lloyd with the Williams Lake Tribune and is highly recommended.  There’s also a PDF file posted [HERE] that details the Convair’s celebrated history of aerial firefighting with Conair in Canadian Aviator Magazine.

Help from Canada arrives at Medford Air Tanker Base

And, the United States has mobilized hand crews and overhead to Ontario, Canada

Above: Saskatchewan air tanker 471 lands at Medford, Oregon July 19, 2018.

Tim Crippin shot these photos of firefighting aircraft arriving at the Medford, Oregon airport July 19. The two air tankers and the Bird Dog aircraft are owned by the government of Saskatchewan. The planes were mobilized through the Pacific Northwest Compact to Oregon; it was not an action that was taken by the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC).

Tanker 471 was manufactured in 1958, and Tanker 474 was manufactured in 1955; both are Convair 580s. They have both been retrofitted with turbine engines and have now probably adopted a new model name. Some of the converted Convairs hold up to 2,100 gallons of retardant.

The Canadians use “Bird Dog” aircraft in a role similar to lead planes in the United States. A Bird Dog usually works with two air tankers as a three-aircraft module. This one, 161, is an Aero Commander 690D.

Air tankers from Saskatchewan were also borrowed to temporarily augment the U.S. fleet in 2014 and 2015.

In September, 2015 Saskatchewan Tanker 475 and a Bird Dog visited Pierre, South Dakota on an introductory tour after the province became a member of the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact.

Conair operates at least one turbine engine Convair 440, Tanker 42, that they call a CV-580. They have other Convairs too; a couple of them worked out of Medford in 2016, as documented by Tim.

Saskatchewan air tanker 474
Saskatchewan air tanker 474 lands at Medford July 19, 2018.
Saskatchewan Bird Dog 161 aircraft
Saskatchewan Bird Dog 161 lands at Medford July 19, 2018.

In addition to these three aircraft, other firefighting resources have been flowing across the international boundary in recent weeks from the U.S. to Canada:

  • NICC dispatched 12 wildland federal firefighters to Ontario, Canada.
  • The Northeast Compact sent resources to Ontario including three Type 2IA crews from New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts. However, the New Hampshire and Maine crews were demobed earlier this week and the Massachusetts crew will be demobed on Sunday.
  • Maine will be sending a second Type 2 IA crew to Ontario on Saturday.
  • The Great Lakes Compact has sent to Ontario 10 single resources (2 aviation managers and eight firefighters).
  • Wisconsin State will be mobilizing eight firefighters also to Ontario, Canada.

No aircraft have been sent to Canada from the U.S.

CV-580s and CL-415s at Medford

Above: Air tanker 52, a CV-580, departs Medford, Oregon for the Bybee Creek Fire in Crater Lake National Park. Photo by Tim Crippin.

Tim Crippin took these photos of CL-415s and CV-580s at the Medford, Oregon Airport August 1 and 2. Some of them were working on the Bybee Creek Fire in Crater Lake National Park which has burned 720 acres since it started on July 28.

Air Tankers 261 and 262
Air Tankers 261 and 262 At Medford, Oregon this week. Photo by Tim Crippin. He said they were on the Million Air ramp waiting to go to the Bybee Creek Fire in Crater Lake National Park.
Air tanker 55
Air tanker 55, a CV-580, arrives at Medford, Oregon to reload. Photo by Tim Crippin.
Air tanker 261
Air tanker 261, a CL-415, at Medford, Oregon departs for the Bybee Creek Fire. Photo by Tim Crippin.

Canadian firefighting aircraft visit South Dakota

A visit by Canadian aircraft to the Pierre, South Dakota airport on Wednesday helped illustrate some of the features of the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact. A new member of the organization, Saskatchewan, sent two of their firefighting aircraft to Pierre to be introduced to a crowd that included Governor Dennis Daugaard, members of South Dakota’s Wildland Fire Suppression Division, and representatives of the media.

Click on one of the photos below (provided by the South Dakota WFSD) to start a slide show of large images.

The Canadian province sent an air tanker, a CV-580A, and one of their Turbo Commander Bird Dogs, or lead planes as they are called in the United States. Saskatchewan has two CV-580As, which can hold up to 2,100 gallons of retardant, and two CL-215Ts, which can scoop 1,400 gallons of water by skimming over the surface of a lake.

One of the purposes of the Compact is to facilitate the sharing of ground and air fire resources among the member states, which include Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and now Saskatchewan. The Compact agreement allows the aircraft to be used in the six states and province more easily than if the compact did not exist.

A fun fact. The CV-580A in the photos, Tanker 475, was part of the U.S. government’s fleet four decades ago, when it was known as a C-131H and for a day was designated as Air Force One.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Air and Space Magazine:

…The hardy Convair has had a storied career of transport missions. Its 25,046 airframe hours include service with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Department of State, and Marshals Service; the Peruvian National Police; and a Michigan cargo company. Among transports, it enjoys an exalted distinction: For at least a day, it was the presidential aircraft. On October 26, 1972, President Richard Nixon used it for a weekend campaign trip to Huntington, West Virginia, and Ashland, Kentucky. “I thought this airstrip was a little short,” Nixon told the crowd at the Huntington airport. “That is why we had to bring the Convair in.”

Its most frequent VIP customer, however, was Vice President Gerald Ford, who flew on it dozens of times from the fall of 1973 until he succeeded Nixon on August 9, 1974…

More information about the visit and the Compact are at the Capital Journal.