The 36-year-old pilot is the only woman working with 16 men in one of the most sought-after jobs in her aviation sector: fighting wildfires from the air.

A thick forest burned out of control on the mountainside, triggering urgent evacuations of residential areas in Pinedale, Wyo. The wildfire was not only the first mission for aerial firefighter Tracy Zedeck, but also the first time amphibious aircraft Superscooper No. 263 went into service. From the sky, Zedeck was moved by the beauty of the area, which only added to her understanding of how important it was to save it from destruction. 

“It was really special, to be flying this incredible aircraft in this incredible setting. I had to pinch myself to remind myself I was really there,” recalled Zedeck of her first mission.

Zedeck works for a Washington-state based company contracted to the Forest Service to fight fires which is the only company with four American-registered Canadair  CL415 “Superscoopers” operating in the US. Superscoopers are designed specifically for firefighting and can scoop up to 1,620 gallons of water from a lake in just 12 seconds. 

Using water from the long, scenic lakes that slice through the Pinedale area, Zedeck and her colleagues successfully brought the forest fire under control within days—much to the relief of those living in the thickly-wooded region. One of the Pinedale residents spelled out “thank you” with rocks in their yard so that it could be read from the air. “I’ve only seen something like that twice while fighting fires, and it was during my first day, with this new aircraft, in this amazing setting, and it really made me feel like this is what I was meant to be doing,” Zedeck said.

Zedeck was captivated by the sky at a young age. As a 10-year-old, she frequently gazed upwards, pondering the infinite vastness of the aerial realm. Little did she know then that one day she’d be working as an aerial firefighter—one of the most formidable jobs in aviation. “The best thing about my job is the mission—combining doing something helpful with my love of aviation,” said Zedeck.  

It’s a fiercely sought-after “dream job” for many pilots, particularly seaplane pilots and bush pilots who enjoy operating in rough terrain. Zedeck can be sent anywhere in the country to fight fires, some of which burn for months while others are contained in days. “It’s different every day and every fire, because we need to go and survey the lake and orbit it a few times. We’ll be looking for power lines, swimmers, boaters, fishermen—anything in water that could be in our path—and make sure it’s safe before we fly in to scoop the water. We then drop water from about 150 feet off the ground, sometimes through smoke, but for the most part we work along the fire’s edge,” said Zedeck. 

Supersscooper No. 263

Zedeck is the only woman at her company and works with 16 male pilots, but that doesn’t phase her. While working as a seaplane captain transferring tourists to resorts in the Maldives, she was one of seven female pilots among 100-200 pilots. These statistics are by no means unusual in aviation. According to the US Department of Labor, only 4.3 percent of the US population making a living as a pilot or flight engineer is female. 

As a minority working in such a heavily male-dominated industry, Zedeck’s philosophy is to take gender out of her mind and simply focus on herself. She concedes that some people assume pilots are men. “In my previous jobs…a few of the passengers asked me, ‘Are you part of the crew?’ and one time I was mistaken for being a flight attendant,” she said. “But that says more about people’s perceptions than it does about me. So I just reply ‘Nope, I’m flying the plane.’”

Zedeck said this gendered misperception has been happening for so long that she no longer thinks about it.

“Instead of getting upset about it, I’m totally OK with it. In fact, I’m excited to change their perceptions—excited to be the first female in this role for them to meet, and try to help make it more acceptable and normal for them.”

Encountering prejudice from people in the aviation field, however, can be irksome (although, she noted, everybody in her current job has been perfectly accepting). “Sometimes, I do get a comment from other men working in the aviation industry who say something to me like, ‘You only got this job because you’re a girl,’” Zedkeck said. “They’re automatically making an assumption…. They’re looking at my gender, not at my experience, and I’ve worked really hard for everything I’ve earned.”

Perhaps a little jealousy shouldn’t be too surprising—aerial firefighting is an extremely competitive niche to break into. There are thousands of pilots but only four Superscoopers in the entire United States, and most firefighting pilots are reluctant to quit one of the most desirable jobs in the sector.

Zedeck broke in by working her way up through the aviation industry, first as an office assistant, then a glider tow pilot, glacier pilot, charter pilot, certified helicopter pilot, and then a seaplane captain. “I kept asking questions and was persistent about it. I wanted to know what I needed to do in order to get into the fire industry, and made a list of it. One by one, I kept checking off the boxes until I got there. When my chief pilot called about the vacancy, I was willing to travel to absolutely anywhere to meet him to discuss this role.” 

During her 12-year career, Zedeck has only ever flown with female pilots twice. This significantly fewer number of female pilots has led to the formation of groups where women in aviation can discuss issues, offer support, give each-other a leg-up and even obtain training scholarships. Women in Aviation International (WAI), for example, offer scholarships, have local chapters, and host annual conventions. In the spirit of inclusion, pilots, flight crew, dispatchers, mechanics and other aviation professionals of all genders are allowed to attend.

“Going to groups like this help me to vent about situations [that occur in the field] and reflect on whether it’s really about my gender, or due to my age, or my personality,” Zedeck said, noting that she feels particularly conscious when working internationally. “By opening up to supportive women in the field, it’s helped me to realize that there’s sometimes differences in the way men handle things to the way women do.”

It wasn’t the easiest path for Zedeck, who, unlike many pilots, didn’t come from an “aviation family” with experience and connection. She first discovered her passion for travel and planes when her college professor father brought 10-year-old Zedeck and her mother on a sabbatical. “That was when I had my first experience of flying and thought it’d be a great career to be able to keep travelling,” she said.

Despite being a shy child, she was also extremely curious. The inquisitiveness about a career in travel and a fascination with the skies kept developing, but it wasn’t until Zedeck was studying psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder that she worked up the courage to start asking questions about a career in aviation. Since there was little knowledge in the family about aviation, Tracy’s elder brother offered her the best advice he could; “If you want a career in aviation, get a job at an airport and start networking and asking questions.” 

Since the local fixed-base operator (an organization that provides aeronautical services at an airport) near her college wasn’t hiring, one of the staff pointed her in the direction of a trailer in the airfield. “A trailer?” she questioned. But it turned out to be a base for gliders and Tracy’s timing was fortuitous—the “office girl” had just handed in her notice, and Zedeck was hired on the spot. She worked in the office part-time for a couple of years while attending college and studying for her first pilot certificate and ratings. 

Once she achieved her commercial certificate and tailwheel endorsement in 2007, Zedeck became a glider tow pilot, the “best promotion of my life, and one heck of a flying job.” Tracy clocked 800 hours of air time by flying gliders over the Rocky Mountains, and also managed to bag some freelance jobs. During a gig ferrying a plane from Alaska to Colorado in 2009, she had a free day to search for jobs in the aviation town of Talkeetna. Zedeck went from door to door with her resume in her hand and landed a job as a glacier pilot, transporting climbers and tourists to the glacial bases of Denali, Alaska in a Cessna-185 with wheel-skis. 

Zedeck was let go after a few months due to the economic crisis, but used her $500 relocation bonus to get a seaplane rating that would allow her to take off from confined areas over bears fishing in lakes, remote log cabins and stunning mountains. “Little did I know this random rating would lead to my dream job,” she said.  

For the next two years, Zedeck worked as a jet company parts girl, took helicopter lessons in the afternoons (funded by scholarships), went to night school at a community college to get more certificates, and worked as a standby charter pilot during weekends. After two years, she’d achieved certificates in airframe and/or powerplant and as a commercial helicopter pilot; she also got a MES (commercial pilot) rating for a job offer to fly a Twin Otter in the Maldives. 

There, Zedeck went from first officer to captain, which led to a job flying tourists in Twin Otters in Croatia, where she gained significant experience and flight time. She’s now been an aerial firefighter in the US for over three years, fighting some of the worst wildfires in recent memory. “I can’t imagine doing anything else now, and I know I’m so fortunate to be able to follow my passion,” she said. “I always wanted to be able to help people in some way through my job, so I had been looking at fighting forest fires, medical evacuation—jobs where I could fly but also to combine that with my mission to help people.” 

“Just today at work I met a little girl who came up and said ‘I want to fly that,’ so I gave her a tour of the Superscooper. She was probably about 7 and had never been in an airplane before, so an amphibious Superscooper was her first experience of a plane, which I think is pretty cool!” Zedeck said. “Whenever I meet kids who are interested in flying, especially girls, I really want to let them know that if there’s anything they want to do, to not be afraid to pursue it…. I told the little girl today that hopefully she’ll be my co-pilot one day.” 


Sarah Harvey is a journalist with over 12 years of experience of writing in the news, travel and aviation sectors and her work has appeared in top tier publications including BBC Travel, Fodor’s, the LA Times and CNN. With a passion for searching the globe for compelling stories, she has lived in eight countries on four continents. She is founder of www.manta-media.com