Meet The Navy Seal Leader Now Battling Blazes From The Skies
Anyone who’s seen the movie Always will never forget the terrifying scenes where aerial firefighter Pete Sandich, played by Richard Dreyfuss, risked himself and his vintage World War II airplane in a constant and death-defying quest to fight forest wildfires.
Tim Sheehy, founder and CEO of Bridger Aerospace, is a real-life Sandich, a war veteran now taking to the skies to battle the scourge of wildfires destroying thousands of acres of land, and threatening the homes and lives of people in the vicinity.
As a youngster, his destiny was influenced by his neighbor, a Korean War Navy pilot who taught him how to fly. “I fell in love with aviation and the idea of a military career at a very early age,” says Sheehy. “I got my pilot’s license before my driving license.”
In 2004, he enrolled at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Iraq was raging. Afghanistan was still a trouble spot, and the first Naval Academy graduates since Vietnam had been killed in combat. Fired up by a passion to serve, Sheehy joined the Navy Seals. Five days after completing his training, he was in Iraq on his first mission.
“There were some huge tech innovations as a result of the war on terror, including aerial surveillance technology, which enhanced our tactical ability on the ground,” he says. “I used this technology in many scenarios and saw its effectiveness. I decided that if I ever left the military, I would try to start a company around this technology.”
A decade later, after being wounded in action and given a medical discharge, he decided to make good on his plan and launched Bridger Aerospace from his barn at his home in Montana. He bought a surplus airplane from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. He developed a rudimentary infrared camera mounted in the plane to sell the capability to the border patrol. However, it quickly transpired that security was not a priority at that time.
Things were looking bleak for the fledgling business when the Forest Service Office threw them a lifeline. They’d heard about their plane and infrared camera and offered them a contract for aerial firefighting.
“It was and still is a risky business; financially, because the contracts are usage-based, with very little guaranteed revenue, and physically, because you're flying planes at treetop level over burning mountains,” explains Sheehy. “The summer of 2015 was a big fire year. We flew a lot and bought a second plane, then a third plane and a fourth plane. We just bootstrapped and kept rolling the money back into the company.”
The team also realized that the mounted camera they’d continued to improve now had the potential to sell, which they did through a new business, Ascent Vision Technologies, which they sold in 2020 to a U.S. defense contractor for $350 million.
By 2016, Bridger started to scale but needed finance to expand the fleet. Sheehy had set his sights on the CL-415, an enhanced aerial firefighter, also known as the Super Scooper, which can scoop and drop 1,400 gallons of water on wildfires in minutes.
At $32 million each, the aircraft remains the most cost-effective aerial-firefighting asset. The decision to put in an order of the planes precipitated the maturation of Bridger’s capital structure and secured investment from Blackstone.
“Aerial firefighting contracting in the U.S. is all usage-based,” explains Sheehy. “You need to have the planes and meet all the operational requirements before you can get a contract. But how could we turn these assets into revenue when we didn't have any contracts with the government? We made a case to Blackstone based on a set of theoretical projections and theoretical contracts as to how this would all work. It worked. We got the contracts.”
All the while, the wildfires were getting steadily worse. Increased urbanization into fire-prone areas uninhabited 20 years ago added extra impetus to the aerial battle. However, with far fewer aircraft manufacturers today than 30 years ago, an enduring supply and demand imbalance has been created within an industry governed by the Small Business Administration.
In the U.S., only small businesses can partake in aerial firefighting. Although Bridger’s investment from Blackstone was structured as a preferred equity deal, which meant they didn't have ownership, the company couldn’t grow any further using private capital, as they would lose their small business status.
Instead, Bridger went the public route, where they faced fewer restrictions provided they kept their employee cap down and were not controlled by a large institution. In January this year, the company was listed on the NASDAQ and has continued to expand its increasingly in-demand firefighting services rapidly.
Paul Petersen, executive director of the United Aerial Firefighters Association (UAFA), says: “One of the most important tasks that aerial firefighting provides is support to the firefighters on the ground. In high tempo and high fire risk, aircraft can make the difference between the success of keeping a fire small and a fire burning out of control and putting communities and landscapes at risk.
“By having companies such as Bridger willing to be a part of the solution, they are making the firefighters on the ground successful and limiting risk to the public. Without companies willing to invest in the solution, there would be a much larger impact of risk to the public.”
Following the successful IPO, Sheehy has set out a four-pronged growth strategy, primarily based on aircraft acquisition. Secondly, Bridger will continue to define its enhanced technology offering and was recently awarded a $50 million contract by the Department of the Exterior structured around its advanced surveillance, mapping and software technology.
A third part of the strategy involves mergers and acquisitions, using its stock as currency. The U.S. fire industry is characterized by many family-owned businesses, some on their second, third, and fourth generation. Bridger recently announced the acquisition of Bighorn, a family-owned company founded in 1947.
The fourth and final aspect of his goal structure is geographic. With no limits to where its fleet can operate, the opportunities for Bridger are tremendous. “We don't relish the tragedy, but the reality is, it's happening, and someone's got to fix it,” says Sheehy.
Key to the company's success is its team, predominantly comprising veterans. Sheehy says: “Hiring veterans is often couched in the mindset of pity; hire vets because you feel bad for them, or because you owe it to them. I reject that narrative. I hire veterans because I'm lucky to have them. After all, they're mission-oriented, hardworking, and know how to get things done. I hire them because they're good for my business.”
While the admin side of his CEO role takes up an enormous amount of his time, CEO Sheehy continues to lead from the front, taking risks and flying the water bombers. And his deep sense of service could be about to take him in another direction as he makes a bid for the U.S. Senate in Montana.
He says: “I love my company. I love this mission. But I think the country needs a new generation of leaders. So, we are in the race. I'm a first-time candidate, and we'll see what happens.”