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Neptune BAe-146

A maintenance worker walks between Neptune Aviation’s BAe-146 jet tankers lined up outside the company's hangar at Missoula International Airport.

Neptune Aviation’s big firefighting jets are all back in Missoula for the winter, while their owners watch the mailbox for news of their flying future.

“The Forest Service is coming out with seven of what we’re calling the Next-Gen 2.0 contracts,” Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said. “We expected to see the notice on the first of November. We’re anxious to see the RFP (request for proposals) so we can see how many aircraft we’ve got working next year.”

Neptune still has three years remaining on its “legacy” contract with the Forest Service that covers six of its aging P2V propeller-driven retardant bombers and one of its new BAe-146 jet bombers. But its one-season contracts for three more BAe-146s have expired.

Meanwhile, the company has brought on two more of the jets, for a total of six. The BAe’s are Neptune’s answer to the Forest Service’s next-generation air tanker policy, which calls for a private fleet of 18 to 28 modern aircraft able to carry at least 3,000 gallons of fire retardant and travel at least 350 mph to fight forest fires.

Five other companies have successfully landed next-gen contracts. Several of those challenged Neptune’s bids for a slice of the business and got its contract awards overturned.

The competitors include two DC-10 jets belonging to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, two RJ85 jets (similar to the BAe) from Aero Flite Inc., two MD87s from Aero Air LLC and one C-130Q from Coulson Aviation.

The Forest Service also can call on eight U.S. Air National Guard C-130s equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems. Minden Air Corp. has developed a BAe-146 for firefighting, but hasn’t met the requirements to bring it into service.

“We fully expect all our five competitors to be making offers on these next contracts,” Hooper said.

And that doesn’t count 72 single-engine air tankers, three water-scooper planes and 668 heavy, medium and light helicopters under various types of government firefighting contract.

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Forest Service Director of Fire and Aviation Management Tom Harbour said the new contracts are still undergoing fine-tuning.

“We hope within the next month or so to have that contract out,” Harbour said last week. “We’re trying to learn from each iteration of this contract, trying to make the changes that make a better contract for vendors and for us.”

While the big requirements for payload and speed haven’t changed, Harbour said a lot of work has gone into treating all vendors on a level playing field. That’s hard when the new players have brought on a wide variety of planes, from converted military C-130s with removable retardant tanks to DC-10 jumbo jets using modified helicopter tanks.

“One thing that I found fascinating had to do with specific take-off characteristics at an airport of specific name, specific altitude, temperature, set of conditions – very technical stuff,” Harbour said. “We put something in, and vendors look at their specs and say, ‘What did you mean?’ So we’ve found ourselves making certain about all these details on runway lengths, temperatures, density and altitude characteristics.”

At the same time, the Forest Service is researching the effectiveness of air tankers.

The second phase of its “Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness” study started in August. It compiles records of each retardant drop, type of aircraft, mission intent and outcome, as well as the kinds of fire behavior, weather, forest type and other factors describing the incident. The study may run through 2020.

“We’ve got to be able to more effectively measure the impact those air tankers and their drops had on the objectives the on-the-ground firefighters are trying to achieve," Harbour said. “We can have fairly nuanced objectives for wildfire. Sometimes we want to put them out as quickly as we can, like the Black Cat fire (north of Missoula’s Wye in 2007).

"To the other side of the wildfire spectrum, we’d handle a fire inside the Bob (Marshall Wilderness Area) a completely different way. We want to have air tankers that are effective in both those situations. So we study that, and then work back upstream to translate those into effective contracts.”

Congress also provided the Forest Service with seven C-130 cargo planes decommissioned from the U.S. Coast Guard. Harbour said those planes can use the MAFFS tanks, but the agency wants to refit them with larger gravity-fed tanks like the private companies have developed.

He added that those planes would eventually be handed over to private companies to fly and maintain while the government keeps ownership over the next two or three years.

“I’m a firm believer that the things we learn from healthy ecosystems, the diversity we see there, can be a good idea for us,” Harbour said. “We expect to have good competition. When we get into that situation, that results in a good buy for the Forest Service.”

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