SEATs: The Unsung Heroes - (Part 2)

Learn about the unsung heroes of aviation, SEAT operators, who are revolutionizing the industry with their innovations. Explore the story of CO Fire Aviation and their dedication to training, safety, and future advancements. Stay tuned for more exciting developments in the SEAT world.

But just as other sectors in aviation have seen steady improvements in how they do their job, one SEAT operator in Fort Morgan, Colorado, is doing its part to introduce innovations that could one day revolutionize the industry.

    1. CO Fire Aviation

    2. Training is Key

    3. Room for Improvement

    4. Looking to the Future




CO Fire Aviation

Kyle Scott, CEO of CO Fire Aviation, provided a little background material of his life before the SEAT business. “I’ve been in the aerial spraying business for about 29 years. Then I moved to Colorado from Minnesota in 2002.”

Chris Doyle, CO Fire Aviation’s COO, has a more international background. “I’m originally from New Zealand. I went over to fly in Australia 23 years ago, doing firefighting and agriculture work. I’ve been to Indonesia, Papua/New Guinea, worked in Africa, and now the United States.”

Chris’s family is very international as well. “I met my wife in Australia, but she is from Spain, our son was born in Dubai, and our daughter was born in Madrid. And now we’re all living in America,” he finished with a smile.

“I go back to Australia to fight fires during their summertime,” Chris explained. “I saw this beetle kill developing in the trees [in Colorado] and I mentioned to Kyle that ‘this fire business, we should get into it.’ But Kyle didn’t have any experience with fire.”

“Chris came to work for me practically from Day 1,” Kyle recalled. “The fire business interested me, but I couldn’t see it at the time until, in 2014, we finally decided that there was a good opportunity here in Colorado because it was starting to put together its own state-run resources. Initially we looked for older equipment we could buy. But I had bought a brand-new spray plane in 1998 and never regretted that, so I felt that, going into business with the government, we would be better off with new equipment.”


“In 2012 I started flying AT-802 Air Tractors, the armed version, for the United Arab Emirates Air Force,” said Chris. “I did that for three years, but would still come back to work for Kyle during spraying season by taking a holiday from the UAE Air Force. While I was over there I met all these retired U.S. Air Force AT-802 pilots who were weapons and tactics instructors on the Air Tractors over there. I told them about our plan [to fight wildfires], asked them if they’d like to do that and they said ‘Yeah!’ I talked to Kyle when I got back, told him we could have some really great quality staff. We bought our first plane and went to work in 2015.”

And from that elite group of pilots, CO Fire Aviation recruited some seasoned personnel. “The majority of our pilots are instructors or graduates of the Fighter Weapons School program, all combat veterans, so they bring a lot to the table,” said Chris.

Kyle provided his favorite quote, attributed to Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray, to explain their philosophy.

‘Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.’

“Chris said, ‘That’s us!’ because when we bought our first airplane we had no contract, no connections, no promises or anything, and people thought we were crazy,” said Kyle. “When we bought our second plane, still with no contract, people were sure we were lunatics!”

“Some strange things started happening,” Kyle recalled. “We shouldn’t have been able to get a SEAT contract with the federal agencies for three years, but they cancelled all the SEAT contracts and opened up the bidding. By that time we were qualified, so we got federally contracted. We have Exclusive Use contracts with Oregon and Colorado, and we also have Call When Needed contracts with other states.”

“And now we’ve got eight airplanes,” Chris said proudly. But they aren’t all flown by Americans. “I’ve brought a couple of guys up from Australia, too.”


Nevertheless, it’s still an uphill battle for SEATs in general and for CO Fire Aviation in particular. “SEATs are a really new industry compared to the large air-tankers, and are looked down on as the redheaded crop-dusting stepchild of the industry,” said Chris, with a chuckle. “We’re working hard to change the attitude towards SEATs.”

Training is Key

A familiar motto for both the military and the fire service alike is ‘Train like you fight and fight like you train.’ This motto also applies to what CO Fire Aviation does to prepare for aerial firefighting.

“The pilots and the ground crews are our greatest asset,” said Chris. “Some companies look at the shiny new equipment, but it’s the people that make the difference.”

Kyle agreed.

“It’s fairly easy to go buy equipment, anybody can buy equipment, but the key piece is having quality people, quality pilots. But with Chris recruiting guys over there with their tactical experience and close air support, that is what we do over a fire.”

Kyle continued. “We’re really proud of our training. We’ve put a lot of effort into our training. We’ve had the former federal SEAT manager lead our training. We’ve had retired air-attack personnel come in and lead our training. Not only do we do a lot of classroom and sand table exercises, but we also do a lot of flying and flight simulation, where we put a guy up in the air in the air-attack role and have a wildland Incident Commander come in and train with us as the guy on the ground talking to our pilots with appropriate and clear communications.”

Typically training goes on for a week, but sometimes it’s longer. “New guys are brought in a little earlier and exposed to a little bit more than the other guys with more experience,” said Kyle. “We teach different modules and we hope that it’s the best training in the industry.”

Medical training is an integral part of the program, as Kyle explains. “This year the Bureau of Land Management required that we have the survival kit and the type of first-aid kit that was required to be carried in the aircraft, so we had a flight nurse from the local EMS helicopter come in and train us on the kits that we carry and the uses for it with different traumas we could anticipate seeing in an aircraft wreck.”


And it doesn’t stop there. “One of the Air Force guys who has been through the two-week survival course gives us training on the survival kit that the airplane carries,” Kyle added.

Room for Improvement

Not being satisfied with the standard SEAT configuration, however, Kyle and Chris started thinking a little bigger. “The whole concept of the Super SEAT came out of not just having newer equipment, but researching higher performance equipment, lighter equipment and safer equipment,” Kyle explained. “We’ve seen other companies go with bigger engines, but I don’t think they’ve caught up with us yet, with the entire package.”

“The Super SEAT has an engine upgrade which provides 1,600 hp, like the Fire Boss,” Chris pointed out. “But since we’re up here in the Rocky Mountains fighting wildfires at 12,000’ and above, it’s a safety thing and the pilots really enjoy it. It means we can fly over mountains instead of around them, so our reload and return times are up to 20% faster than a regular SEAT.”

Not only is the Super SEAT faster, it has features that put it above and beyond what’s required safety-wise, and with the increased climb and speed performance equating to 20% more efficiency and productivity, it is head and shoulders above the standard SEAT configuration.

“We feel like we’re leading the way and we want to bring the standard of the whole industry up. We’re really proud of our pilots, our training and our professionalism.”

Safety is another important factor. “Safety and training are invested in heavily,” Chris explained. “Our Safety Officer is one of our military pilots who was an instructor at the U.S. Fighter Weapons School, as well as their Safety Officer.”

Now CO Fire Aviation is working with the Oregon Department of Forestry on night operations. “That’s something we’ve been developing, since we worked with the night-vision goggles in the military in the Middle East with these airplanes,” said Chris. “It was a natural thing for us to take this concept and run with it because there was no other company with as much NVG time on an AT-802 as us. We started on this project a few years ago and started doing development and testing last year. We worked all through the winter, secured a deal with Oregon to do operational training that was very successful. We’re very conscious about safety. We’ve made good headway with it this year. It’s going to be very viable and very effective. Next year we go operational with Oregon to get the concept proofed out.”

“We’re grateful to Oregon Department of Forestry because they believed in us and gave us this opportunity,” Kyle added.

Contrary to popular belief in some quarters, operating SEATs at night with NVG is, in many ways, safer than flying them during the daytime.

“One of our arguments for the NVG program is that the reason you go out at night is because you want to put the fire out,” said Kyle. “Ag pilots up in Washington are going out and spraying crops at night with NVG. So if he’s able to fly 10’ off the ground in those rolling hills, we’re pretty confident that we can make fire drops. Some of the obstacles like guy wires, powerlines and towers are more visible through NVG at night than they are during the day, especially if you can hit them with your forward working lights.”

Chris pointed out another innovation to their NVG. “We’re using those new white phosphorus tube NVG and our military pilots are saying that it’s just unbelievable how the technology has improved in the last 20 years.”


“In a lot of respects we feel that firefighting can be done safer at night than it is during the day,” Kyle pointed out.

“As far as identifying personnel on the ground it’s safer than you can be during the day,” Chris agreed.

Their proficiency with NVG is also getting them noticed. “There are a number of agencies in California that are interested that have night programs with helicopters who want fixed-wing operations,” said Chris.

“We’ve been working with the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting [in Rifle, Colorado], who has been very interested in what we’re doing. There are a number of other agencies also interested in how it’s going.”



Looking to the Future

As with many air-tanker companies, foreign markets are always a possibility. “We’ve been approached by countries in South America and in Asia asking us to fight fires in the off-season, but it’s something I’ve resisted,” Chris explained. “Our season runs from the first of April to the 28th of October, and I want to be the best in my own backyard before going elsewhere. We spend time in the winter training our guys, but if we’re off fighting fires in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Indonesia, who have approached us about doing that, we won’t have that time to prepare for next season.”

“SMS [Safety Management System] is new to the SEAT world,” Kyle said. “It’s something that was in our last contracts and it’s not just something where you say ‘we have an SMS plan,’ it’s a living, breathing thing which is constantly changing and upgrading. Oscar, our Safety Officer, was involved with this from the beginning in the Air Force. The data that we’ve gathered shows that we have work to do, but we’ve made it an important part of our operation.”

So besides training in the off-season, what keeps Kyle and Chris busy? “We have an aircraft modification project that we’re in the middle of right now that could help to revolutionize the SEAT world. But we can’t discuss that right now,” said Kyle with a wink.

Stay tuned. This probably isn’t the last we’ve heard of CO Fire Aviation!

To read the first installment of SEATs: The Unsung Heroes, click here.

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