Ashli Blain is the 19-year-old Montana pilot who was helping to fight the Santa Clara Unit Lightning Complex fires alongside her father during her summer vacation. The SCU Lightning Complex is the second-largest wildfire in California’s history.
Blain told NBC Montana in an interview that she grew up around aircraft throughout her life. Blain says that her mother brought her for a helicopter in order to attend a party when the teen pilot was two weeks old. Blain says in the interview that she has been piloting since she was 13.
The president and CEO of Helicopter Association International, Matt Zuccaro, told Rotor.org about the importance of helicopter pilots during wildfires saying:
Helicopters are very much like a multitool for incident commanders to use in a variety of missions when fighting these massive fires. Helicopters crews can directly attack the fire using water or retardant; they can quickly deploy firefighters or supplies to remote areas; they can serve as an observation post or direct air traffic; or they provide search-and-rescue or air ambulance services as needed. If needed, some helicopters can even switch between roles over the course of a day.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Blain Was Still Fighting a Fire 7 Hours Before She Was Due at College Orientation
Blain describes herself in her interview with NBC Montana as “lucky” in saying that her father and uncle run a helicopter company in Billings, Montana, named Billings Flying Service. Toward the end of August, Blain says that she and her father were called in to assist with the SCU Lightning Complex fire. Blain says, “It was massive. One of the biggest fires I have ever seen.” Blain says that she began fighting fires during the summer of 2019.
Blain says that she worked with her father on the SCU fire until 2 a.m. on August 30. At 9 a.m., Blain was due at orientation at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.
2. Blain Says She Has Been Subjected to ‘Snide Comments’ From ‘Older Men’ Since Becoming a Pilot
There are few women involved in helicopter flying, Blain says. Blain says that during morning briefings there are “only maybe two other girls there.” Blain has suffered through “snide comments over the years” but that those incidents are rare and usually come from “older men.” Blain is a copilot in the Chinook Helicopter and a command pilot in a Blackhawk helicopter.
Blain is studying accountancy at Rocky Mountain College. She describes her chosen course as “kind of boring compared to flying, but it’s useful.” Blain also says, “Unfortunately, I can’t get out on fires, which is a bit of a bummer for me, especially with how the season’s picked up.” In a 2019 profile, Blain said that she was planning to have a career in aviation. In that same profile, Blain said that her dream aircraft was a Ford Trimotor. Blain added that she “loves taildraggers because they’re just fun to fly!”
One person commented on the 2019 profile in September 2020 writing, “Thank you for being an incredible role model, especially for young women. It is incredibly inspiring to see a young person like yourself pursue your dreams with passion and courage. Sending you a big virtual hug for your efforts in the Creek fire as well as prayers for your safety.”
3. Blain’s Father & Uncle Set Up Billings Flying Service in December 1983
According to Billings Flying Service’s website, the company has worked with the United States Forest Service since 1997. The website says that their aircraft can deliver up to 2,600 gallons of water or retardant.
Another section of the Billings Flying Service website says that the business was founded by Al and Gary Blain in December 1983. The profile says that their business was built “on their thorough knowledge and passion for aviation.”
The company was recruited to operate helicopters in the smash-hit movies Need for Speed in 2014 and Suicide Squad in 2016.
4. On the Strength of Her Newfound Fame, Blain Has Set Up Her First Instagram Account
On the Billings Flying Service Facebook page, Blain is referred to as an “amazing pilot and an even better person.”
In the wake of her newfound fame, Blain set up an Instagram account for the first time. Blain said on her page, “I’ve never been into Instagram but since I’ve had a recent influx of interest, I suppose I should join the party.”
5. Blain Says Her Mother Is Terrified When She Flies
Blain told Vertical Magazine in 2019 that her parents are “completely” supportive of her decision to pilot aircraft. Despite their support, Blain said that the teen piloting her own helicopter “terrifies my mom.” Blain said that her mother still hasn’t tried to stop her from flying.
Blain added, “She has been very supportive, and despite flying not being something she’s interested in, she does her best to keep up with what I’m up to.” During the interview, Blain said that she was planning to get her Certified Flight Instructor Certificate as well as her Airframe and Powerplant Certificate. At the time of the interview, Blain was in Europe at a gliding competition, adding that a career as a gliding pilot could be an option. Blain concluded by joking, “I generally just tell people I’m going to be a librarian!”