USA — Missoula’s Neptune Aviation is the last major provider of wildland firefighting aircraft in the nation, after the U.S. Forest Service canceled its contract with California-based Aero Union for safety concerns.
“Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices,” Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management program director Tom Harbour said in an email statement Friday. “This contract termination notwithstanding, we possess the aircraft support needed for this year’s fire season.”
Aero Union owned eight Orion P-3 tanker planes, six of which were in service this year. It has about 80 employees at its Sacramento base. Calls to the company’s headquarters were not answered on Friday.
Aero Union’s four-engine propeller planes are similar to the nine Neptune P2-Vs based in Missoula. A third company, Minden Air Corp. in Nevada, provides two more P-2Vs.
“I’ve just been assured by the agency this doesn’t impact Neptune or the P2s,” Neptune president Kristen Scholemer Nicolarsen said Friday. “We’ve passed all the tests required.
“My heart goes out to those employees,” she added. “We briefed our people this morning, and we’re all friends in this business. We’re out there with the same mission.”
Aero Union’s five-year contract with the Forest Service required regular airworthiness inspections, including a fatigue and damage tolerance evaluation and structural inspection. In April, the company told the Forest Service that the Federal Aviation Administration found it out of compliance with the inspection program.
Forest Service spokeswoman Karyn Wood said that Aero Union was also failing Forest Service airworthiness standards.
“We went through several contract actions with Aero Union, which culminated in the termination this week,” Wood said. “They’re welcome to bid on any of our upcoming air tanker contracts, but their aircraft would have to meet the standards to be viable for the contract.”
The loss of Aero Union’s planes will be compensated by the addition of six tankers the Forest Service had based in Alaska, along with about 30 heavy helicopters under Forest Service contracts. The Alaskan fire season has practically ended, Wood said.
The Forest Service can also call on two DC-10 air tankers and eight military firefighting planes. All nine Neptune planes are currently on assignment outside of Montana.
After a very busy spring fire season, air tanker activity is slowing down as the rainy season begins in the Southwest. Neptune vice president Dan Snyder said planes will begin to shift to the Northwest as the weather dries out.
The Aero Union decision does not affect testing of Neptune’s BAe-146 jet tanker, which has been seen often flying around the Missoula Valley this summer. The federal Interagency Air Tanker Board is still gathering data on that plane’s firefighting performance. Snyder said he did not know how long the process would continue or when a decision on the new plane would be released.