Fire-fighting pilot lives her dream
Published: 31 Jul 2015
Having flown helicopters in all manner of capacities, from tour guide to covering the news, Desiree Horton’s full-time job for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection fulfils her love of getting up in the air.
Where did the fascination with rotary-wing come from
I really never had an interest in flying aircraft. My dad was a fixed-wing pilot, but somehow my interest was only in helicopters. I actually opened the yellow pages and looked for helicopter training and flight schools. This was 25 years ago, so the yellow pages was the way to find anything.
Who first hired you?
I started out flying tours over Los Angeles. I flew customers over all of the celebrity homes and famous places in Los Angeles. From there that led to traffic watch, then eventually news. I was able to fly news in the off-season outside of fire fighting. I also flew construction, charter, police contracts, movie production flights, seismic, heliski, frost patrol, and more.
There was always news work available and it allowed me to be close to home, whereas flying contract work I was out of state often living a very nomadic lifestyle. My goal was always to take jobs that would give me experience for my end goal, which was with a fire department.
What’s contract firefighting like?
Contract firefighting is seasonal, meaning that once the summer fire season ends, you are out of a job. The helicopter companies that I flew for maintained contracts with the United States Forest Service. I also flew on many different contracts outside of California in other states. I spent many years on a rappel contract where I flew rappellers into the fires.
Full-time is better?
Working for CalFire is my dream job that I have always wanted. My best description of it – it’s like winning the career lottery. These jobs are few and far between. I feel very fortunate that I have this job and all of my hard work and sacrifices paid off to get where I am today. Although we are not in our peak fire season during the winter months in southern California, we staff our helicopters in the south year round.
There is the potential for fires and once our new base gets up and running with our hoist programme, we will be doing hoist rescues year-round as well.
What’s dangerous about your job?
There are powerlines that you cannot see until you are very close or the sun hits them just right. I try not to dwell on the dangers of my job. I mitigate the risks as best I can and fly as safe as I can within the realm to get the job done, keep my crew safe, and bring them and myself home every night. I love this job, even with the inherent dangers.
There is a poem called The Helicopter is My Office. It’s something I relate to.
What do you enjoy about it the most?
Everything! I love my job. It is an honour and a privilege to work for CalFire and to wear a uniform every day at work that represents not only the department I work for but the pride I hold inside wearing my blues. I enjoy training and even just currency flights. We are required to stay current and that allows me the opportunity to get up in the skies and do what I love to do, which is fly. Just the other day, after days of rain here in southern California, I decided to do some mountain training and fly up to one of our higher peaks, Mt Baldy, where a few feet of fresh snow had covered the mountains in some areas. There were big white cotton ball-like clouds surrounding the snow-covered mountains. In all of my 25 years of flying, I have to say that was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful flights I have ever had.