Aerial Firefighter: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Sep 25, 2019

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become an aerial firefighter. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about training, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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A high school diploma or GED is required to be an aerial firefighter. Postsecondary studies in fire engineering and science may increase job prospects. Firefighters have to pass written and physical tests to be hired, may also be required to be an emergency medical technician or paramedic, and must be certified in wildland firefighting.

Essential Information

Aerial firefighters use aviation equipment such as planes and helicopters to contain wildfires. Their duties can include transporting fire crews and materials, distributing water and retardant or dropping into areas that can only be accessed by plane. While these professionals may only require a high school diploma or GED, they require extensive training.

Required Education High school diploma or GED; postsecondary degrees in fire engineering and science are available
Other Requirements Must be trained and certified in wildland firefighting, and must earn a Interagency Incident Qualification Card
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028) 5% (for firefighters)*
Median Annual Salary (2018) $49,620 (for firefighters)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Description

Aerial firefighters can work for helitack crews or as smokejumpers. Both enter remote areas and deliver supplies using planes or helicopters. When on the ground, helitack crews and smokejumpers contain fires by digging fire line that removes fuel from the path of the blaze.

Aerial firefighters work long hours that extend beyond the normal workday, in situations that can quickly become dangerous. They must be must be alert and adaptable, and ready to deploy on very short notice, since their expertise can be needed at any time, though the period of highest demand is June through October.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities for all firefighters are projected to increase as fast as the average from 2018 to 2028, or as fast as the national average for all occupations. In May of 2018, the BLS reported that these emergency professionals earned a mean salary of $53,240 per year.


Aerial firefighters suppress fires by digging fire line using hand tools and chainsaws. Helitack crews deploy to remote areas affected or threatened by wildfires via helicopters that are often equipped with buckets that can drop water or retardant on wildfires. Smokejumpers parachute into wildfire areas, bringing with them supplies that allow them to expand the fire line independently for up to two days.

When not deployed to a fire, aerial firefighters are responsible for maintaining their equipment, conducting physical fitness training and preparing fire reports. They may also assist in preventative measures like prescribed burns to reduce the severity of future wildfires.


Prospective aerial firefighters need to be trained and certified in wildland firefighting, and many work their way up from seasonal volunteer wildland firefighters. They must also obtain an Interagency Incident Qualification Card, often referred to as a Red Card, by completing coursework in fire behavior and basic firefighting. State and national fire academies offer relevant training through the Incident Qualifications and Certifications System. Applicants in most departments must also pass a written exam.


Aerial firefighters are generally required to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. While postsecondary education is not required, it can be advantageous in this competitive field. Colleges offer associate and bachelor's degree programs in fire engineering and science.


Many firefighters gain emergency medical technician or paramedic training through community college. Some fire departments require this, while others only prefer employees to do so. Aerial fire fighters can gain additional certifications, such as chainsaw certifications, to progress in their field. Those who wish to pilot must attain the appropriate helicopter and small aircraft flying licensure in their state.

Aerial firefighters fight fires from the air which requires extensive training. They may be in planes or helicopters and responsibilities include transporting firefighters, distributing water or retardant, or accessing areas that can only be reached by air.

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