Twenty-one years into a career in aerial firefighting, Williams Lake’s Guy Ridler explains what he still enjoys about his job flying a fixed-wing airtanker.
Besides the benefit of hopefully being able to support people on the ground and protect values at risk including homes and forests, he enjoys the constant variation.
“No fire is the same.”
With changing geography, wind, fuel types and fire activity, he says it is always a challenge to place the fire retardant where the client wants it and do it safely.
How did Ridler end up where he is, an aerial firefighter who spends his time off in the Cariboo?
To begin with, when Guy Ridler was just a young boy, he flew with his parents back to Ontario from Newfoundland to visit family.
It was the first flight he was really aware of —and he loved it.
Young Guy was so impressed by the experience that in the airport when he saw a pilot dressed in his uniform and captain’s hat he approached the older “grizzled” pilot and asked him: “How do I get your job?”
The pilot responded with a question of his own: “Well kid, do your parents have a lot of money?”
When Guy said no, the man told him: “Then join the air force.”
It is hard to imagine a young child receiving advice from an older stranger following the path the stranger suggested so many years later.
But Guy Ridler was not most young boys, perhaps.
When he was applying to universities, with the grades 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.
However, there was one complication for Guy, because he also had his heart set on competing in the Canada Summer Games that same year as a cyclist on Team Newfoundland, and the military would not allow him leave to attend, due to their basic training requirements and timetable.
Against the advice of an advisor, Guy chose to turn down his spot at Royal Roads with the plan to instead compete in the games and attend Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) for one year, then reapply the following year for the military.
Despite being warned he may not be looked at a second time, his application was accepted.
All these years later, Ridler describes his military college experience as a very different one from what he experienced at MUN.
The large emphasis on sports and military training, including marching in the parade square during early morning practices, and daily inspections were not something other university students would be doing. Despite the challenges, he recalls seeing it as a job he had to do to get the education and training he wanted.
“I met a lot of really great people,” he emphasizes.
After completing his military pilot’s training and obtaining a degree in physics, Ridler graduated and landed a desirable position at the Comox Air Force Base.
Ridler flew a Buffalo airplane for the Canadian Military’s Search and Rescue team out of Comox, living in the Comox Valley. His work as a pilot included flying to air shows all over the continent to drop SAR parachutists and flying those same SAR technicians on search and rescue missions on Canada’s coastline.
Once his 11-years-required military service was complete, Ridler left the military to do other commercial flying. Though he applied first for a position as a pilot in Hong Kong with an airline there, he became aware of aerial firefighting and applied for a job with the company Conair, short for Contract Air.
Ridler was hired to become a copilot on a DC-6, a propeller airplane modified with tanks to be able to drop a mixture of fire retardant and water. The DC-6 aircraft was first built in the 1940s, originally built as a military transport vehicle.
The captain of the airplane, who would become his mentor and close friend, started him out on the aircraft by telling Ridler: “You are no longer a pilot, you are a museum curator” of the historic aircraft. The planes have since been retired from Conair’s fleet.
Nowadays, when Ridler explains to people what he does, Ridler goes into a mode where you feel like he might be reading a checklist in his head.
“We’re always looking at the weather,” he begins, describing how his work day starts, ensuring he and his team know what they might encounter once a call comes in.
His list continues, checking off the steps en route to the fire, departing the airport and managing the airplane, examining the map to look for low points in the terrain and the wind over the fire itself, and planning ahead for hazards.
When asked what emotions or thoughts come into his head, he is blank.
“It’s 100 per cent operational,” he says, noting it is all about safety and a focus on what hazards are in the area in order to be as effective and as safe —for the airplane, the crew and those on the ground — as possible.
“We try to remain focused and calm no matter what is happening with the fire and whatever the situation is,” he says.
Whether they are dropping in remote forests or adjacent to communities, he said they have to approach each fire the same in order to ensure they are operating as safely as possible. Flying the airplane in those conditions and under those circumstances requires total focus.
While many people imagine an airplane would be able to drop on a fire without being able to see using some sophisticated lasers or autopilot, in actual fact it is all visual.
“People think it’s some big high-tech operation, but in the end, it’s a lot of experience, on-the-job experience.”
He said one of the other common misconceptions that comes up when he tells people he flies a firefighting airplane, is they picture a plane which skims off the water. While Conair does have some aircraft with this capability, he does not fly this type of aircraft. Instead, he flies a plane with a belly tank, which carries a fire retardant mixture to drop on fires. The plane has wheels and lands at airports. A mixture of water and fire retardant is pumped into the tank. The retardant is mostly used for its salt properties which makes the fire less intense when it coats the flammable materials, helping slow the fire’s progress until ground crews arrive to put it out.
In 2004, he spent his first summer in Williams Lake on a Convair, another older aircraft with prop engines which has since been retired. It was his third year working for Conair.
While he had helped direct a search out of the Williams Lake airport once during his time with the military, the work had been during the winter and he did not get to see much.
So Ridler did not know a lot about Williams Lake when he moved here for his first year on the Convair as a copilot.
But he soon discovered Williams Lake was a place that worked well for him, and he felt it was a nice size with really good trails and a great biking community he connected to through Wednesday night group rides and the local bike shops.
Ridler then moved on to become a captain, which sent him to Alaska for a number of seasons, only returning to Williams Lake in 2011 as the captain of the bird dog airplane.
He says flying this smaller, more maneuverable plane which carries the air attack officer, pre-flies the drop path and communicates the plan to the larger air tankers, is the best way to learn the job.
Ridler was spending his summers in Williams Lake from 2011 until 2015 on the bird dog plane. During those years, he spent his winters in Courtenay and then Fort St. James for a few years. More recently, he was trained as the pilot of the RJ85 jet air tanker, and began spending his summers based in Kamloops.
At this point, Fort St. James was a bit too far north for him, and when he began looking to move again, he was seeking somewhere close to an airport and not too far of a drive from the Lower Mainland. Conair is based in Abbotsford and he has to spend part of his spring doing training each year, both as an instructor and to refresh himself before the fire season starts.
So he was looking for those two things as well as reasonable real estate prices and biking trails.
Having enjoyed his previous summers in Williams Lake, it fit the bill and he moved back to the lakecity in 2020.
Since spending his winters in the Cariboo, Ridler said he has been surprised to discover how much great cross-country skiing there is in the area.
He’s also been impressed with the work Bull Mountain has been doing, building a day lodge and improving the facilities there for skiers. Ridler taught some skate ski lessons there last winter and has been volunteering as a groomer.
He has also enjoyed a project he is working on administering a grant from the Williams Lake Community Forest for Streets for All Williams Lake for more bicycle racks in the community. While he was involved in the mountain biking community previously, he has liked getting to know the broader community of people using bikes.
As a seasonal aerial firefighter, Ridler says he enjoys the interesting, exciting flying and the seasonal nature of the job and said it has been a good career path for him.
He invites anyone interested in a career in aviation to reach out with questions.
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