Neptune Aviation to Begin Retiring Aging Aerial Tankers Next Year

Former Naval Patrol Aircraft Heading Toward Final Firefighting Flights

Washington, DC…November 29, 2012…Neptune Aviation Services will retire the first two of its seven operational P2V Neptunes by the start of the 2013 wildfire season, as the aerial firefighter phases in its growing fleet of former commercial jets, modified as air tankers.

The Missoula-based company, which has been operating the specially configured BAe 146 jets since 2011, currently has three, with two more slated to enter the fleet during the first half of 2013.  The four-engine jets, all relatively low-cycle, were procured from airlines and leasing companies to replace Neptune Aviation’s former US Navy Neptune patrol aircraft.  The twin-piston engine powered P2Vs, dating from the early Cold War Era, had been retrofitted with tanks for fire retardant chemical dropping following their retirement from military service.

“The BAe 146, which we selected as our next-generation air tanker, has at least 20 years of service ahead of it as an aerial firefighter,” said Neptune Aviation President Dan Snyder.  “As we take delivery of additional aircraft, we will continue to retire our remaining P2Vs at the rate of about two per year, depending upon the needs of the US Forest Service.”

Snyder added that Neptune Aviation Services is currently in discussions with TronosJet Maintenance for the acquisition of a sixth BAe 146.  The Prince Edward Island headquartered company has partnered with Neptune on the BAe 146 modification, which includes the installation of an internal tank with a capacity of 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.  Long term, the operator plans to fly as many as 11 modified BAe 146s.  In a related development, Neptune Aviation Services, according to Snyder, has taken the lead on the BAe 146 Air Tanker Modification Project from Tronosjet.

“Most of the modification and engineering work has shifted to Neptune Aviation Services, which includes all of the revisions made to the initial modification work,” he explained.  “The revisions were based on our operational experience with the aircraft and will improve the performance of the tank system.”  Going forward, Snyder added, TronosJet Maintenance will be responsible for procuring the aircraft, as well as technical support.

Currently, eight of the company’s P2V pilots have been trained on the BAe 146 airtanker, while another four are going through the ground school at Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula.  The ground school is being directed by a former Air Wisconsin instructor pilot.

“The simulator portion of training is conducted at Oxford Training Academy in the UK,” Snyder explained.  “The pilots get a BAe 146 type rating, following a successful check ride in the airplane with a Neptune examiner pilot.”

Neptune Aviation Services is a member of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.

Fiscal Impass Could Reduce Readiness Of Aerial Firefighters

Budget Cutbacks Could Mean Fewer Aerial Assets For Wildfire Suppression

Washington, DC, November 27, 2012…The aerial firefighting industry is citing the risk of significant cutbacks in its ability to respond to wildland fires, if automatic Federal spending cuts become effective at year end.

“Should Congress and the Administration fail to reach a deficit reduction agreement, our fear is that funding for forest protection will be severely reduced, making it that much more difficult for some of our members to maintain the assets and manpower needed for wildland firefighting,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington.  “The possibility of going over the fiscal cliff is a major concern of our members.”

Todd Petersen, Vice President Marketing, for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, warned that if Congress and the administration are unable to resolve their differences over cutting the deficit, it could lead to cutbacks in the number–and duration of– exclusive use agreements with the US Forest Service (USFS), as well as call when needed contracts.  Exclusive use contracts, Peterson explained, are a bread and butter item, usually running anywhere from 90 to 180 days per year–per aircraft.  Normally, they are in effect over four years, based on three, one-year renewable options after the first year.

“If the contracts are cut, it could mean that we would have to take some of the helicopters that we have used for firefighting and redeploy them to other kinds of jobs,” Petersen noted.  “Those helicopters and crews would no longer be available for firefighting, if they were needed.”

Stuart Taft, Chief Pilot for Lewiston, Idaho-based Hillcrest Aircraft Company, echoed this concern.  “For us, the big question is whether the USFS would be forced to cut some of its exclusive use contracts, and rely more on call when needed aircraft in the event of a major wildfire,” he said.  “We will have the opportunity to discuss this with the USFS at a meeting with the agency in Boise, Idaho, at the end of this month, and hopefully, we’ll get a clearer picture of what they might do.”  A major issue, said Taft, is whether there will be immediate, across the board cuts by the Forest Service, or whether they would defer cuts to certain programs to a later date.  “It’s very difficult to predict what might happen,” he remarked

Taft pointed out that since the USFS is a major Hillcrest Aircraft Company customer, any contract funding reductions directly impacting the operator will mandate scaling back on staffing levels, as well as purchases from vendors. “If we fly less, we will not buy as much fuel; and we won’t have to purchase as many repair parts.  It could have a very big impact on a lot of operators and vendors.”

At Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, Chief Pilot Pete Gookin, stated that budget cutbacks could cause the government to consider greater use of military assets for wildland fire protection.

“It’s only my opinion, but in an effort to appear that it’s saving money, the government could try to replace at least some of the private contractors with the military,” Gookin said.  “While that might look good to the taxpayers, military crews are (generally) not trained to fight fires, and their aircraft were not designed to be used for firefighting as their primary mission.  Aerial firefighting was designed by civilian operators working with the US Forest Service, over the past 40 years.  It’s a civilian operation and it should stay that way.”

Columbia Helicopters, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, and Intermountain Helicopter are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.