USA — Neptune Aviation Services, a Missoula-based air tanker operator, has selected the world’s first line pilot cadre to be trained to fly a modified BAe 146 passenger jet in an aerial firefighting role.
Neptune Aviation Services has tapped seven pilots for training on the new-generation air tanker currently fly the company’s nine remaining 1950s vintage P2V Neptune air tankers, originally built for the US Navy as maritime patrol aircraft. Neptune Aviation Services expects to phase out the last ones by 2021, with11 BAe 146s, slated for delivery to the operator prior to that time.
Selection for the initial cadre was based upon the capability of the pilots to upgrade to the BAe 146’s advanced cockpit, said Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation Services President. However, as the P2Vs are retired, all of our other pilots will be given the opportunity to transition to the BAe 146. Currently, there are 31 pilots employed by the company specifically for its air tanker operation.
Pilot training, Snyder explained, includes 10 days of ground school in Missoula, staffed by former BAe 146 airline pilots and training instructors who have been retained on contract. From there, the trainees will undergo approximately 25 hours of simulator-based flight instruction at the Oxford Training Academy in Manchester, UK. An additional six hours of instruction, including the check ride, is to be done in the airplane.
The modified BAe 146s have been undergoing passenger to tanker conversions by Prince Edward Island (Canada)-based Tronos Jet, which is equipping each of the four-engine jets with a 3,000 gallon capacity internal tank. The fire retardant within the tank will be dropped through belly-positioned doors.
One modified aircraft has been operated by Neptune Aviation Services since October 2011, under US Forest Service (USFS) interim approval, and flown by two of the company’s supervisory pilots The company expects to take delivery of two more converted tankers by the start of the 2012 fire season.
Given our experience with the tanker to date, we have learned its strengths and weaknesses and made appropriate changes, including some critical improvements to the tanking system, Snyder reported. He pointed out that the BAe 146 was chosen after more than a decade of research to identify the best P2V replacement.
The BAe 146 was selected because it is turbine driven, it can carry the fire retardant quantity the USFS requires, and it has favorable performance characteristics. For example, it can fly slowly enough to interface with other aircraft, including lead planes and helicopters, in the fire traffic area, and it can operate out of all existing US Forest Service bases. It also has favorable acquisition costs and economics, in terms of operations and maintenance.
According to Snyder, all of the aircraft being acquired, through purchase or lease, have been retired from airline service, and are relatively low cycle. The airframes are generally at their mid-life point, he said. We are anticipating at least 20 years of service.
Neptune Aviation is a member of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), a Washington-based trade association representing commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.
Neptune Aviation Services, through its development of a next-generation air tanker, is an example of how the private sector aerial firefighting industry is preparing for the worsening fire seasons driven by climate change and increasing urban encroachment on wild-lands, said Tom Eversole, AHSAFA Executive Director. They are doing this, in fact, using their own financial resources–even without assurance or guarantees of government contracts going forward, but based on an anticipated need of as many as 22-28 large air tankers.