Neptune Aviation eyes proposal to add surplus Air Force planes to fire fleet

Neptune Aviation eyes proposal to add surplus Air Force planes to fire fleet

28 July 2012

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USA– Congress may consider a bipartisan bill to add surplus Air Force cargo planes to the Forest Service firefighting fleet.

Missoula-based Neptune Aviation officials supported the move this week, provided they get to operate the planes.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., authored the bill to transfer 14 C-27J Spartan planes to the Forest Service for use as large air tankers dropping retardant. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., are cosponsors.

The Department of Defense ordered 78 of the twin-engine planes for use in Afghanistan, although only 52 were built, according to the aerial firefighting website Wildfire Today.

The Spartans resemble a two-engine version of the C-130 cargo planes now modified for fire retardant drops. The military started acquiring them in 2008, which would make them the youngest airframe in the firefighting fleet.

By comparison, Neptune’s seven P2V tankers are all more than 50 years old. An eighth P2V crashed on June 3, killing its crew of two.

Last summer, Neptune added a BAe-146 four-engine jet to its fleet, which is a 20-year-old passenger/cargo design. Neptune expects delivery of a second BAe-146 next week, and a third before the end of the 2012 fire season. Three other companies are adding another five next-generation air tankers this year and in 2013.

Wildfire Today noted that the C-27Js have a smaller retardant capacity than the BAe-146, hauling 2,000 to 2,500 gallons. Forest Service next-generation tanker specifications call for a minimum load of 3,000 gallons.

“Our position is if the Forest Service acquires any aircraft, we want to operate and maintain those aircraft,” Neptune vice president Ron Hooper said on Friday. “We won’t object or try to block the transfer, but we want the opportunity to provide that service.”

The Forest Service has the largest non-military air fleet in the U.S. government. Over the years, it has experimented with several management forms, including letting contractors own and operate the planes, owning the planes but contracting with pilots to fly and maintain them, and handling all operations in-house.

It also has arranged to use military C-130 planes fitted with removable retardant tanks. One of those planes, belonging to the North Carolina Air National Guard, crashed on July 1 in South Dakota, killing four and injuring two.

“We have an opportunity to take the C-27J, an aircraft the Pentagon no longer wants, and give it to the Forest Service to enhance aircraft safety and lower existing maintenance costs,” McCain said in a news release. “The C-27J should be kept in the service of the American people to help our brave fire crews, rather than sit in an airplane boneyard.”

Hooper said Neptune had briefed the Montana congressional delegation about the bill, repeating its preference to provide private ownership and contracting of retardant bombers. Sen. Jon Tester’s spokesman, Dan Malessa, said the office was researching McCain’s proposal.

“Jon is interested in the bill, but needs more information about its costs and benefits to the Forest Service,” Malessa said in an email Friday. “Before making a decision, he needs to hear from the Service about how much it will cost the Service to operate the C-27Js, as well as how they’d fit into the Forest Service’s missions.”

The nation enjoyed a brief slowdown in firefighting tempo this week, according to National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. The Forest Service reduced its preparedness level from 4 to 2 on a scale of 5, and has sent home two of the four military C-130s it brought on during the busy early July fires.

“But I don’t think it’s going to last,” Jones said of the respite. “We’ve got way too much fire season ahead of us.”

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