USA — The discovery of a large crack in the wing of one of Neptune Aviation’s P2-V aerial tanker planes during a winter maintenance check prompted mandatory inspections of all similar planes on U.S. Forest Service firefighting duty.
“We had one aircraft with significant cracking,” Neptune president Dan Snyder said Wednesday. “But is this another Aero Union situation, where we have zero tankers for the fire season? No. The tankers will be back up.”
Snyder referred to one of Neptune’s competitors in the firebombing business which lost its Forest Service contract last year because of persistent plane safety problems. Missoula-based Neptune Aviation owns the largest fleet of large air tankers in the nation, with nine Korean War-era P2-Vs and a new BAe-146 jet tanker now under a 24-month interim contract.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency airworthiness directive on Monday after reviewing the inspection report Neptune provided on the crack. It confirmed Neptune’s report that a 24-inch split had developed in the left wing.
“This condition, if not detected and corrected, could result in significant loss of structural integrity of the wing,” the directive said. It ordered all similar P2-Vs to pass inspection for such cracks before they are allowed to fly again.
“We cut pieces out of the aircraft, but we still don’t know what caused it,” Snyder said. Neptune’s remaining eight active P2-Vs and a ninth plane it’s rebuilding as a training model have all passed the inspection and are airworthy, he said.
The directive should not affect a Forest Service request at the end of January to accelerate air tanker availability for the coming fire season, according to National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. The Forest Service wants planes available for forest fires by Feb. 15 this year, compared to March 18 last year.
“The La Nina conditions in the southern tier of the United States indicate our fire activity may be above normal soon,” Jones said. “We’re trying to get prepared, and we want to make sure we have adequate resources available. So far, none of our contractors have informed us that won’t be the case.”
Nevada-based Minden Air Corp. provides two more P2-Vs for Forest Service firefighting. In a statement, Minden CEO Leonard Parker said none of his planes were affected, and the company expected to have its first P2-V available for Forest Service action on Feb. 15.
Snyder said Neptune hired 30 extra contract maintenance engineers for the shortened winter maintenance season, compared to its more typical 10 or 15. Neptune’s first P2-V is contracted to go into service Feb. 28, with the rest phased in over the following three months.
The BAe jet is undergoing maintenance at Neptune partner Tronos’ facility on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Neptune leases the BAe from Tronos. It is expected to be ready for duty this spring.