Missoula’s Neptune Aviation applauds call for new firefighting fleet

Missoula’s Neptune Aviation applauds call for new firefighting fleet

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian | Posted: Monday, February 20, 2012 6:00 am
A strategy to update the U.S. Forest Service’s aging air tanker fleet dovetails with local efforts to modernize planes, according to Missoula-based Neptune Aviation officials.

Last week, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell called for a new generation of faster, more cost-effective air tankers to replace the existing fleet of P2V bombers. Neptune provides nine of the nation’s 11 federally qualified P2Vs, while Nevada-based Minden Aviation has the remaining two.
“The Forest Service’s current large air tanker fleet is at least 50 years old and more than half the aircraft face mandatory retirement within the next 10 years,” Tidwell said in a statement. New standards would prefer at least a 3,000-gallon retardant payload, 345-mph minimum cruising speed, and turbine engines.
P2Vs’ rotary engines make about 200 mph and its Korean War-era airframe had a maximum retardant capacity of 2,700 gallons.
“We’ve known the status of our airplanes for a long time,” Neptune Aviation President Dan Snyder said on Friday. “It’s dependent on how many cycles it flies. Some have four years left, some have beyond 20 years left.”

And while Neptune is completing a legacy contract with the Forest Service for its available P2Vs, it has also submitted a next-generation proposal based on its new BAe-146 jet air tanker. The four-engine jet won a preliminary contract last fall and performed active duty in Texas and California.
Neptune currently leases one BAe-146 and plans to acquire more over the next decade. Snyder would not reveal the number of planes Neptune proposed in its new contract offer, except to say that multiple planes would be phased in over several years.
No company has specifically designed and built an airplane for aerial firefighting. While dropping retardant on a burning hillside is similar to some combat situations, forest fires put unique stresses on a plane’s engines and airframe.

The Forest Service has explored using modified crop-dusting, single-seat planes as well as converted jumbo jets such as the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 in its fleet. Last week, a bipartisan mix of U.S. senators petitioned Interior Secretary Tom Vilsack to keep considering the very large air tankers like the DC-10 that can carry between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of retardant.
A number of other applicants are expected to attempt to join the aerial firefighting club through the next-generation contract process. New versions of the military’s C-130J transport plane and the McDonnell-Douglas MD-85 are among the contenders. The contracts should be announced later this spring.

Neptune should be well-placed to compete in that process, according to Forest Service Region 1 Forester Vicki Christiansen. In her previous post as deputy director of fire and aviation management, she helped develop the agency’s National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.
“Neptune has been a significant contributor to our large air assets for many years,” Christiansen said. “They’re already stepping up to the plate, they’re already engaging in evaluations of that next-generation asset.”

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