The wildfire season is underway in California, and the drought has created even more dangerous conditions for wildfires in the state. I am a board member of the Associated Aerial Firefighters. Our organization helps to advance aerial firefighting procedures, improve safety protocols, facilitate communication with government agencies, and also to support pilots, crewmembers and ground personnel. And while our citizens may not always realize or think about it, through the years I have seen just how important general aviation and California’s network of local airports are for the work that we do.
Aerial firefighters utilize a variety of aircraft, including air tankers, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to deploy a rapid response initial attack system in the case of a fire. This system makes use of both air and ground forces to detect and put out fires across the state. With one air tanker we can cover a designated area of around 11,000 square miles, which is slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts. General aviation aircraft help us reach our target destinations in 20 minutes or less. They play an essential role in putting out fires quickly and protecting our communities from harm.
Through the deployment of water and fire-suppression chemicals, pilots can reduce fire hot spots and allow ground crews to work safely on extinguishing them. Our aircraft can reach places that ground firefighters cannot access and also assist in setting up protection zones to safeguard our communities from harm.
Aerial firefighting depends heavily on general aviation infrastructure, including local airports and repair stations, and these aircraft and airports also give pilots the opportunity to learn and develop critical skills. The population of qualified pilots is dwindling each year. Our work requires highly skilled pilots and general aviation has been a fundamentally important training ground for them to hone their abilities.
In addition, these aircraft are crucial for our state and national economy. Businesses throughout the state, large and small, depend on general aviation for their daily operations. These aircraft allow companies to distribute their workers in and out of the state, transport supplies and quickly meet with clients. In fact, general aviation in California contributes over $30.2 billion to our state’s economy.
It is unfortunate that many people do not realize just how important general aviation is for our state and country. For example, there are some on Capitol Hill that have proposed delegating control over our air traffic control system away Congress to private interests, which would also result in the institution of harmful taxes and user fees on the general aviation community as well. These initiatives would only serve to harm the industry and the many organizations and businesses that rely on these aircraft for their work.
Luckily, many of our elected officials recognize the importance of general aviation. In April, the California Senate and Assembly declared April “Aviation Awareness Month.” In addition, earlier this year the California Aviation Caucus was formed to help protect and promote the contributions of the industry in our state.
I hope we can build on these positive steps going forward and continue to emphasize the contributions of general aviation to our state and the nation.
Jim Barnes is a board member of the Associated Aerial Firefighters and a member of the Alliance for Aviation Across America.