By James Morrison, CPT

Planes1Most wild landfirefighting organizations are seeking to evolve into highly reliable organizations. They routinely operate in challenging, dangerous environments and yet manage to maintain exemplary safety records. CAL FIRE’s busy fleet of over 50 aircraft is considered the premier firefighting aviation program in the world.

In a recent article, “Chasing Fire,” Patty Wagstaff offered some insights into the aviation operations of CAL FIRE. Patty is a national aerobatic champion, but her day job is flying OV-10 command and control aircraft from one of organization’s 13 air attack bases. CAL FIRE’s aviation units focus on initial attack in support of firefighters on the ground and their planes are expected to be airborne within five minutes of an alarm. Often the two-person OV-10 “air attack” plane is the first on the scene, where the crew members establish control of the local airspace and then “stack, separate, and clear in” incoming helicopters and fixed-wing tankers. Capable of orbiting for several hours, the OV-10’s “back seater” air tactical group supervisor often coordinates eight or 10 aircraft operating within a five-mile radius. Six or seven helicopters work lowest, making precise bucket drops on hot spots. They call “off the dip” and “off the drop” as they follow each other from a water source to the designated hot spots. Two or three fixed-wing tankers deliver fire retardant slurry in an attempt to set fire boundaries. The OV-10 often flies under, over, and into dense smoke in support of firefighters on the ground, but the pilot is still responsible to look for smoke in the distance (an indication of potential spread of the fire). Monitoring six radios, the back seater maintains contact with everyone involved, including the incident commander who is in charge on the ground. When the OV-10 lands, the wingtips, propellers, and windows are often covered with grey ash.


It is evident that CAL FIRE’s on-scene effectiveness rivals that of military combat aviation. Its operational efficiency and dedication to safety clearly rival other recognized highly reliable organizations. CAL FIRE consistently performs with excellence while responding to extremely hazardous situations.

Consider these questions:

  1. As a leader, have you established safety as an uncompromisable core value?
  2. Are you coordinating the right mix of people, processes, and technology to achieve high reliability?
  3. Are you providing “altitude separation” that enables your change agents to work effectively within their spheres of influence without threatening each other’s efforts?
  4. While providing “top cover” for your colleagues, are you actively looking for emerging threats?

MorrisonJAbout the Author
James Morrison, CPT, is an internationally respected practitioner of human performance technology and accomplishment-based instructional design. He is a results-oriented professional with proven training, performance consulting, operations, acquisition, and program management expertise across increasingly complex projects.