Aerial Firefighters Battle Late Summer Wildfires Scorching West Coast, And Adjacent States

September 18, 2017….Aerial firefighters are responding to an especially severe fire season ravaging the West Coast and nearby states.
Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, noted that one of its BAe 146 jet tankers, under an exclusive use contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE), has been extremely active on multiple named and unnamed fires throughout much of the state’s central and southern regions, over the past 30 days. Since August 10, the aircraft has flown over 67 missions on some of the most destructive fires, including the huge La Tuna fire in Los Angeles County.
“In a more normal fire season, we would dispatch that BAe 146 with a two-person flight crew, and two maintenance personnel,” Snyder explained. “But with the aircraft contractually obligated for seven days of availability, we have had to assign two additional flight crew members, and another mechanic.”
Snyder added that over the past 30 days, an additional BAe 146 and one of the company’s legacy P2V tankers have also been based in California, flying from Chico and Redding, under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts. Those two aircraft, he said, have done more than 180 retardant drops since early August.
Other Neptune Aviation Services assets—four P2Vs and six BAe 146s—have been active on fires throughout the far west, operating under USFS contracts out of Reno, Salt Lake City, the Oregon cities of Medford and Redmond, as well as from multiple locations in Idaho and Montana.
“This is probably our busiest fire season for the past two to three years, not only in terms of the number of fires, but flight hours and equipment deployment,” said Josh Beckham General Manager, Helimax Aviation, in Sacramento, California. “This year, our firefighting operations began in April in the West, and increased in California, starting in May.”
The Helimax Aviation fleet currently operating on California wildland fires includes a CH-47D working on the Pier Fire near Porterville, CA, and a Bell 205A-1++ flying on the Railroad fire in the southern San Joaquin valley. In Northern California, two Bell 205A-1++ are working the Helena, Forks, and Salmon Complex fires. Elsewhere, the operator has a CH-47D near Missoula MT deployed on the LoLo Peak Fires, a Bell 212HP in Bozeman, MT, a Bell 205A-1++ in Prineville OR, and a Bell 205A-1++ in Salmon, ID. More than 90 people are supporting the helicopters in the field.
Beckham explained that most of the Helimax Aviation’s medium helicopter missions focus on the initial attack phase, which includes water drops and transportation of ground based firefighters.
The 2017 fire season, Beckham noted, had been similar to other years—until August. “August and September have been exceptionally busy for us,” he said. “As a result, I have three aircraft—a CH-47D, a Bell 212HP, and a Bell 205A-1++–now operating under optional use extensions of their USFS exclusive use contracts.”
Intermountain Helicopter President Rick Livingston also reported “an especially busy fire season for the Sonora, California company, this year, particularly in Northern California.” That, he said, included the Ponderosa fire in Butte County on which the company’s Bell 212 did some 60 water drops from a long-line-attached 324 gallon Bambi bucket. The fire burned over 4,000 acres, and destroyed 54 buildings, including 32 homes. “It was our biggest fire to date this year,” he remarked.
The helicopter had previously been flying on fires in Montana under a USFS exclusive use contract, which ran from June 1 through August 26, but is currently operating out of Corning, California under a CALFIRE call when needed contract, Livingston explained. “Most of our California missions have involved transporting sling loads of equipment and crews to the fire lines, mostly on small fires which started with lightning strikes, east of Redding,” he reported.
Livingston added that in May of this year, Intermountain Helicopter expanded its fleet with the addition of a Bell 412, which the company upgraded with new avionics to meet USFS standards. “The Bell 412 gives us another resource to bring to firefighting in California and elsewhere,” he said. “However, a shortage of qualified mechanics has kept the helicopter on the ground, so far this season,” he said.
For more than a month, Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters has been heavily involved with fighting fires throughout Oregon and Montana, with a considerable fleet deployment in those states.
“We have been fighting in excess of 30 named and unnamed fires,” said Keith Saylor, the company’s Director Commercial Operations. “To do that, we have fielded six helicopters, including three CH47Ds under USFS exclusive use contracts. The other three aircraft—two Columbia 234s and a Columbia Vertol 107—are operating under USFS call when needed contracts.”
The helicopters, Saylor noted, are being supported by “80 people in the field,” which includes pilots and ground crewmembers.
“This has been a very heavy fire season. In fact, ever since March, we’ve been working on fires, very steadily, throughout the United States–with the fires in Oregon and Montana only the latest over the past months,” he remarked.
The missions, Saylor explained, have included a combination of fire retardant and suppressant drops in the form of water, foams or gels. “Our helicopters are working seven days per week, and have proven to be very effective for these types of applications,” he said.
While the mandatory availability period for those Columbia Helicopters aircraft working under exclusive use contracts terminates at the end of September, Saylor predicted that, given the severity of the fire season, the USFS may invoke an optional use period clause in the contracts to extend the exclusive use period.
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service and other government agencies tasked with wildland management.

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.