Last Active P2V Neptune Fleet Retiring As Aerial Firefighting Career Ends

Neptune Aviation Services will retire its remaining Lockheed P2V Neptune tankers this September, closing the book on the world’s last active fleet of former maritime patrol aircraft, dating to the Cold War era and serving more recently as an aerial firefighting asset.
Marking this milestone in aviation history, the Missoula, Montana-based operator will host an open house on September 30, at its hangars along the east end of Missoula International Airport. An estimated 3,000-5,000 people are expected to attend the event, which will feature presentations, historical displays, hangar tours, gear raffles/prizes, and activities for children.
The P2V has served as many as six providers of aerial firefighting services since the 1970s, when the US Navy began to phase out the aging aircraft that had reached obsolescence. For many years, Neptune Aviation Services, which has operated the P2V since 1993, has been the largest remaining civil or military operator of the aircraft, with as many as 10 under US Forest Service (USFS) contracts in a single year. All, except two originally operated by Canada, were in US Naval service, and acquired by Neptune Aviation Services from subsequent operators, who had also used them for firefighting. Today, just four of the company’s seven operational P2Vs remain on USFS contracts, slated to expire in September.
According to Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation Services’ Chief Operating Officer, the company’s active P2V fleet includes the last operational P2V in US Navy history. Built in 1962, the aircraft was retired from military service on July 4, 1980, with over 2,000 flight hours. The company’s oldest P2V was built in 1957. “The average age of our P2V fleet at retirement will be 63 years old, and they will have flown an average of 4,675 cycles throughout their 24 years of service with our company,” he said.
Snyder explained that the P2V was originally certified by the USFS with a 3,000-gallon capacity internal tank, accommodating 27,000 pounds of fire retardant, although water is used in environmentally sensitive areas.
“The P2V’s main firefighting mission was for initial attack; hitting the fires before they had a chance to grow, giving ground personnel invaluable support,” Snyder explained. “The aircraft has been a formidable aerial firefighting tool, but the Forest Service is ready to move on to Next Generation air tankers.”
Already an elderly aircraft, long out of production at the time they started working for Neptune Aviation Services, the P2V fleet presented special technical and maintenance challenges.
“Keeping those aircraft flying required trained mechanics with the skill sets to maintain the engines and airframe,” Snyder pointed out. “Lockheed no longer supports the P2V, so we could not count on the manufacturer as a parts source.”
In fact, in the absence of manufacturer support, Neptune Aviation Services acquired all the original Lockheed drawings, covering the airframe and the jet powerplants, used for jet assist takeoffs and climb-outs.
To assure the aircraft’s maximum remaining service life and operational safety, Neptune Aviation Services commissioned an extensive engineering study in 2004. The result was the maintenance program’s incorporation of a damage tolerance inspection system based on the P2Vs’ usage as air tankers. “The inspection system has allowed us to maintain the aircraft to the highest levels of structural integrity,” Snyder stated, adding that while most of the mechanical systems have remained the same, much of the cockpit avionics had been upgraded with newer technology, over time.
With the last P2Vs withdrawn from service, Neptune Aviation Services will be operating a fleet of nine BAe 146 jets, previously used in commercial airline service, and reconfigured by the company as air tankers. As Snyder noted, both the BAe 146 and the P2V were repurposed for the air tanker role at a time when there were no “no-build options”—as is the case today.
“If you were to design a new aircraft–from scratch–specifically built for aerial firefighting, it would actually end up looking a lot like the P2V,” Snyder pointed out. “The fuselage’s oval design and the bomb bay design made the P2V well suited for the firefighting mission. The P2V is a well built, tough, and resilient aircraft that has served both the US military and aerial firefighting with an outstanding service record.”
“The fact that Neptune Aviation Services kept an older aircraft, which was never designed for the high stress environment of aerial firefighting, in service for nearly a quarter century speaks volumes about the creativity and technical capabilities of a private operator which invested its own funds to do it,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington, DC. “This represents an excellent example of private enterprise at work to maintain an essential national resource, as wildland fires become increasingly destructive, and fire seasons are getting that much longer.”
Neptune Aviation Services is a member of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the interests of the privately owned aerial firefighting industry before government agencies tasked with natural resource management and protection.