USA — Employees of Neptune Aviation Services gave an awesome program at their 20th anniversary celebration Oct. 12. It was a big hit for hundreds of attendees. The walk-through of the BAe-146 airtanker was in high demand. The water drops were a treat for all, even those of us who have watched Neptune pilots and aircraft drop on fires we were fighting. Employees were readily available in their red shirts to answer questions about the entire airtanker operation. The food was tasty and plentiful and the atmosphere in general was emblematic of what this proud Montana-owned and -operated company has accomplished in the past 20 years.
The overwhelming turnout of visitors was a testimonial to Neptunes mission and its employees, the support it has in the Missoula community, and of course, the economic impact that Neptune brings to the Missoula and western Montana economy. The financial resources that Neptune has put into its facilities, aircraft and employees make Neptune a major player in our local economy most notably the 150 highly skilled employees the company has on its payroll. However, as outstanding as the day was for Neptune, some significant uncertainties lie ahead for the company.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service awarded Neptune a legacy contract for its P2Vs which were built during the Korean War and under this contract will continue to serve as air tankers for the next four years. This contract will terminate with the expectation that the P2V aircraft will be retired. However, Forest Service managers awarded next generation aircraft contracts to several companies while excluding Neptune from that contract award. Those companies were given two months to provide air tankers for use by the government. To date, several companies have not performed as the contract requires. Meanwhile, without a next generation contract, Neptune is currently providing two BAe-146 air tankers under a one-year contract.
As a retired wildland firefighter of 38 years, I have been following Neptunes work on replacing its aging P2V fleet with next generation aircraft. The company has looked at various aircraft before settling on the BAe-146 four-engine jet aircraft. On Oct. 12, Neptune managers explained that they have invested millions of dollars in retrofitting these aircraft, developed a tanking system compatible to the aircraft and completed numerous drop tests as a part of the evaluation to determine if the aircraft meets Forest Service requirements. The bottom line is that Neptune, on its own initiative and innovation, became the first airtanker company to provide next generation aircraft. In fact, by next June, Neptune plans on having five of its next generation aircraft available for wildland fire use, yet the Forest Service is failing to award a contract to Neptune for dropping retardant in support of wildfire suppression. Therefore, the current no contract situation has to change.
There cannot be any justification whatsoever for letting five serviceable airtankers carrying 3,050 gallons of retardant each to be sitting on the ramp in Missoula, while homes and private property burn. One cant imagine the outcry if a Lolo Creek or Frenchtown fire situation occurred, as it did this past summer, and those five airtankers were not dropping retardant in support of our firefighters and property owners. In addition, the U.S. fire program already faces a critical shortage of air tankers.
To help remedy this situation, western Montana residents are encouraged to call or mail letters to our congressional delegation; Tom Tidwell, the head of the Forest Service; and local, state and county leaders in effort to push the Forest Service to award Neptune a contract. Forest Service contract managers need to be encouraged to meet with Neptune officials and hammer out a solution which meets the mission of the wildland fire agencies and fairly compensates Neptune for the investment in their product.
Our firefighters and property owners need to have a contract for Neptune Aviations next generation air tankers in place. The prospect of these aircraft sitting idled on Missoulas airport ramp is not acceptable.