From crashes to ashes: a pilot’s journey to fighting fires

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Upside down in the cockpit of her plane, in the middle of a rice field covered in mud and fuel, Tegan Allot’s main concern was getting out before the engine caught fire.

Five years later, the 28-year-old agriculture pilot has made her way to tackling flames head on by becoming a fire-bombing pilot.

Starting with a simple motive, Tegan began flying lessons looking for a challenge and found a love of being in the sky.

Learning to Fly

Tegan Allot started her pilot’s career as an agriculture pilot, working for her flying school to pay off her lessons. Photo: Guy Stephenson

Tegan started flying lessons about 10 years ago at her local flying school in South Gippsland.

“At that point I didn’t know what the flying career paths were and, at the time, movement in the industry was very slow,” Tegan said.

“There wasn’t a lot of growth in the airlines, a lot of them were struggling, and there weren’t many opportunities for you to move your career along quickly.”

Tegan wanted to originally work for Qantas but, left with limited options, she got experience where she could.

She had her first flying lesson at 17, and before her 18th birthday, she was flying solo.

By the time she was 21-years-old, Tegan had obtained her commercial license and her agriculture grading to be an ag pilot and work as a crop duster.

“I did reasonably well in school and I thought I’d become a pilot because it’d be a bit of a challenge for myself,” she said.

By chance, she was called to do some work as a loader driver for three months, to help mix chemicals and load the chemicals into the plane before the plane would take off to spray crops.

Tegan’s experience opened her eyes to the industry and the potential she could have within it.

“The more I learnt about it the more I thought it sounded fantastic, so it was by coincidence that I fell in love with it,”
Tegan landing the 510 Thrush, an agricultural plane used for crop dusting. Photo: Guy Stephenson
“I thought that it was actual flying. It’s not sitting in the cockpit leaving it on autopilot and following the manual if anything goes wrong. It’s actually manipulating the controls yourself and making the decisions on your own, it’s all up to you.”

Tegan worked as an agriculture pilot for her flying school as a way to pay off her lessons, gaining industry knowledge while doing so.

“It did not make me rich by any means, it was a big struggle to financially afford it, but I would never look back,” she said.

This led Tegan to crop dusting work in Denilliquin, where she learnt hard lessons that ultimately changed her career.

Accidents Happen

Tegan had her first plane accident in October 2013 when she hit a powerline as she was landing.

She called herself the “luckiest powerline hitter” as the propeller had first contact with the wire, causing the line to snap and minimising the damage to the plane and herself.

Tegan’s second accident wasn’t so smooth.

Crop dusting is dangerous work as planes fly barely metres above the ground. Photo: Guy Stephenson

New Year’s Eve of 2013 had Tegan working on a last-minute job, dealing with warmer weather and soon finding herself in trouble.

“Planes don’t perform well when it gets warm, there was a bit of light wind, and the plane I was flying wasn’t a nice plane to fly. It was just one of those planes that sometimes wouldn’t fly well, but I had been warned about it,” she said.

Taking off to the property Tegan felt the plane was a bit off, but continued to the airstrip and made the decision to fly with a half load of fertilizer to get a feel of how the plane would perform.

As she took off she felt the plane was going well, but on her first move towards the paddock, things took a turn for the worst.

“I felt the plane start sinking, so I levelled the wings and added a bit more power to try and get it going and this time it didn’t pick up and kept dropping,” she said.

Opening the dump door to reduce the load in an effort to make the plane lighter, Tegan kept thinking she’d get the plane going.

“Still it’s not flying, I couldn’t believe it and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong,” she said.

“All of a sudden I ended up in the rice crop and there was water splashing up past the window, and all I remember was being jerked against my seatbelt and looking through the windscreen and seeing heaps of mud and the blades of rice and I remember being upside down and there’s fertilizer coming out on me and I’m covered in mud.

“And I’m thinking ‘get the hell out because I don’t want this thing to explode on me.”

Scrambling, pushing and shoving her way out of her now stationary upside-down plane, Tegan checked to make sure she was in one piece.

A few days later, she made the decision to leave the industry.

“It was hard, everything I had worked towards and everything I had spent my money on, all that time training and working so hard to get there and it was just like I’d failed,” Tegan said.

“I was very pissed off and frustrated and angry with myself.”

Lessons Learnt and Moving Forward

After the accident, Tegan made the move to Darwin and spent some time doing ground-based work for a few years.

She was eventually contacted by AgFlight in Hay, New South Wales, a co-company of AgAir in Stawell Victoria, to do loader driving work and she saw it as an opportunity to re-enter the industry.

AgAir is an aerial agricultural, aerial wildfire suppression and charter company that has operated for over 50 years. Photo: Tegan Rohan

Tegan eventually progressed from the truck driver seat to the ag pilot’s seat and started working her way into the firebombing industry.

“I got put into a plane and fell in love with the industry all over again and kept flying and progressing, and here I am, flying the biggest ag plane they make in the world,” she said.

“I fly their M Tractor 802, which is actually the biggest single engine aircraft in the world.

“I also fly the Bird Dog plane, so when there’s a fire happening, myself and an air attack supervisor fly above the fire and other aircraft, and co-ordinate the dropping of the retardant and the planes below. (We) talk to the ground crew, the planes, the state control desk back in Melbourne and relay information to them,” Tegan said.

The Bird Dog plane is used as a leading plane, to observe, communicate and co-ordinate firebombing planes during bushfires. Photo: Tegan Rohan

She said the eventual plan was to have her fly in a firebomber, and she now realised she gained a lot more life experience from her two accidents in 2013 than what she originally thought.

“I was just very hard on myself over it and to this day I still am very on hard on myself about it,” she said.
Tegan pictured with the Air Tractor 802, the biggest agricultural plane in the world. Over the next year, Tegan will learn how to transfer her crop dusting skills into firebombing. Photo: Guy Stephenson

“A lot of good things came from it. In a way I would on never had gone to Darwin and I never would have gotten this job and my life wouldn’t have happened in that way and I’d probably be still sitting in Deni,” Tegan said.

“I wish I didn’t have to break so much shit to get here.”

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