USA — A Missoula aviation company is anxiously waiting to find out how many more of its air tankers will be dumping slurry on wildfires.
The U.S. Forest Service today closed its bidding process for air tanker companies.
The stakes are high. These contracts can be worth millions of dollars over the course of several years.
Dan Snyder is Chief Operating Officer of Missoulas Neptune Aviation. Snyder says more and more intense wildfires means more companies are entering the air tanker business.
“Competition is always something that makes businesses sharpen their pencils and get more competitive, but in the end it ultimately has a good advantage for the taxpayer,” says Snyder.
The Forest Service’s Director of Fire and Aviation Management, Tom Harbour, says the agency is moving closer to its national target of 18 to 28 so-called “next-generation” air tankers.
Snyder explains a “next generation” air tanker isn’t simply the difference between propeller and jet propulsion. The carrying capacity of older tankers usually maxed out at 2,000 to 3,000 gallons.
“The agency’s now saying that 3,000 gallons is kind of the floor of what they’re wanting, and then up to 5,000 gallons. The reason being is that quantity and the size of aircraft used to carry that quantity still can meet the initial attack role that the government’s looking for. At least that’s what they’ve told us,” said Snyder.
The Forest Services Tom Harbour says Neptune is one of several tanker companies with the capabilities the agency is looking for.
“Neptune’s been a part of that. We expect they’ll continue to be a part of that future. I’m certain the good folks at Neptune have put an offer in for us to consider that will utilize those aircraft.”
Neptune certainly does want to be a part of that future. The company has a legacy contract with the Forest Service to use six of its seven Korean War-era prop-driven slurry bombers.
The seventh older plane is used as both a spare and a trainer.
Neptune’s growing fleet also includes a total of five more-modern, modified jetliners that are retrofitted with tanks and ready for fire-fighting service. Only one of them, however, is currently cleared for duty with the federal government.
This air tanker contract process isnt just an abstract business proposition. Neptunes Dan Snyder says several of his companys aircraft and pilots are already hard at work helping to snuff out wildfires.
“We actually have three airplanes currently on contract: one’s in California, another one in New Mexico and then, of course, one in Billings.”
The Forest Service will now evaluate the contract bids submitted by other interested air tanker companies. There’s no word on when the agency will finalize those awards, but with the 2015 fire season just around the corner, not to mention California’s ongoing record drought, some hope more bigger and modern tankers will be cleared for take-off sooner than later.