USA — Editor’s note: With 2011 behind us, the Missoulian is updating a few stories from the past 12 months.
TOM BAUER/Missoulian Neptune Aviation’s BAe-146 jet air tanker makes a test drop at the Missoula airport in 2010. Neptune is the first company to have a new tanker approved by the U.S. Forest Service.
After a busy debutant dance through the Texas fire season, Neptune Aviation’s newest firefighting jet is back in Missoula and waiting for a call to the main event.
“The airplane has performed very well – everything we expected to it be and a little better,” Neptune president Dan Snyder said. “(It went) into maintenance on Jan. 1. Texas quieted down just about the time it got there. California did request the plane for the Santa Anas (high winds), but their fire season lost steam, too.”
Neptune plans to replace its fleet of Korean War-era P2V prop planes with the BAe-146 four-engine jet. After years of testing and modifications, the new plane won an interim contract with the U.S. Forest Service to drop retardant on forest fires. That three-month agreement gave Neptune the chance to test its jet under real-world conditions.
Forest Service Region 1 spokesman Brandon Schultz said on Thursday that the BAe plane has landed a new one-year contract for operations through Dec. 15, 2012. The agency is also going through a more expansive process to attract more new operators. Since a couple of catastrophic crashes in 2002, the nation’s large air tanker fleet has shrunk from 44 planes to just 12 today.
“We’re expecting a robust response from other competitors,” Snyder said. “Lots of people have been looking at new platforms. I think we’re ahead of the industry, based on moving forward with the plane as we did.”
Neptune’s nine P2Vs comprise the largest firefighting fleet in the nation, followed by Arizona-based Minden Aviation’s two large air tankers. A third company, Aero Union of Sacramento, Calif., lost its Forest Service contract last July for safety violations.
As the success of the BAe plane and its gravity-fed retardant tank is confirmed, Neptune plans on buying a new fleet of the modern planes.
“The contract won’t trigger if we buy more (BAes), but it may affect the timeline of how quickly we add them,” Snyder said. “We’re still moving forward with our plans to replace the P2s.”