USA — Don’t be looking for Neptune Aviation’s Tanker 40 in the Missoula skies for a while – it’s off fighting fire.
The BAe-146 jet-powered Large Air Tanker won U.S. Forest Service approval to begin active-duty retardant drops on Wednesday, after more than a year of testing and demonstration work. If its potential is realized, Missoula-based Neptune expects to make it the next generation of aerial fire-bombers.
“This is a good day for all our employees,” Neptune chief executive officer Kristen Nicolarsen said on Wednesday. “When it takes off for Texas, there will be a lot of people celebrating. But at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of work to do.”
The four-engine jet has an interim contract through Dec. 22 to fight fires wherever the Forest Service needs it. Neptune pilot Peter Bell said he was bound for a major fire near Longview, Texas, on Thursday.
“But this is that time of year when we get those east winds in the South,” Bell said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next two weeks, we’re in Southern California.”
During a test flight on Wednesday, Bell and co-pilot Loren Crea ran the jet over the Ninemile Divide west of Missoula. Both men marveled at the plane’s ease of handling and response compared to Neptune’s workhorse P2-V aircraft.
“The P2 is way more work than this,” Bell said as he zipped along the ridgeline, mimicking the path he’d fly to drop a load of retardant on a fire. “It’s going to revolutionize our job.”
On the ground, the plane is remarkably quiet for a jet, and taxies around the base area with ease. It has a single, easy-to-reach fuel port, so maintenance workers don’t have to clamber about the wings to gas up.
In the air, Bell said things are even better.
“She burns a couple cups of oil in her engines a week,” he said. “We’d burn about four gallons an hour in the P2-V. We can go higher on the way to the fire – 12,000 to 14,000 feet. The P2-V cruised at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. We can go 400 knots. The P2-V made 200 knots.”
Crea flew military jets for 25 years before coming to Neptune. In that time, he said he had perhaps six jet engines fail in flight.
“I’ve had four engines blow out this year in the P2-V,” Bell said. “Those piston engines are just a lot of work to keep running. You’re always looking at them, always babying them.”
The BAe-146 was a British Aerospace-built small commercial jet before its maker ceased production in 2001. Nicolarsen said Neptune started considering it as a P2-V replacement at the same time. Three years ago, the company started seriously studying the plane.
A major issue was how much retardant it could carry. The P2-V can fly with 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of retardant. The BAe-146 hauls between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons.
Neptune bought Tanker 40 in early 2010 and started putting it through an exhaustive testing process to win Forest Service approval. The bulk of that time was spent on the ground, working out details of a retardant tank installation and delivery system.
This summer, the plane underwent about 60 hours of flight testing – much of it around the Missoula Valley. Bell and Crea made 54 test drops at Missoula International Airport, filling a field full of paper cups to test the plane’s ability to accurately deliver retardant in the right amounts.
The Texas trip will be the first time the plane has been tested on a real fire. But Bell and Crea had no doubts about their new ride.
“They have to experience it and see how it moves around the base, how it interacts with the lead plane, how it is to load,” Crea said. “But we know it’s going to be OK. We just want to do it right and take our time.”
Neptune has nine P2-V tankers and is the biggest large air tanker provider in the nation, with 168 employees. One other company has two similar planes, but the Forest Service canceled its contract with California-based Aero-Union’s seven Orion P3 tankers in July.
Assuming the BAe-146 passes review, Neptune wants to buy at least 11 of the jets and retire its P2-V fleet. The speed of that changeover depends on the pace of firefighting needs, according to company president Dan Snyder. That could come sooner than later, if current conditions persist.
“Fire seasons are going to continue to stay long,” Snyder said. “The fires in Texas are expected to burn all the way through winter. This fire season may not end. We weren’t supposed to have a fire season this year. Now, we’re already being asked to produce airplanes earlier than we ever have before.”