Neptune Aviation Accelerates Air Tanker Readiness For Predicted Early 2012 Wildland Fire Season

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Neptune Aviation, the largest US private operator of fixed wing aerial tankers, is gearing up for the 2012 fire season through an accelerated maintenance and training program, given predictions of earlier than normal wildland fire out-breaks--particularly in portions of the US Southwest.

"The US Forest Service approached us last fall, and asked that we have our aircraft available early," said Dan Snyder, President of the Missoula-based company. "To meet our customer's requirement, we commenced our fleet maintenance about a month early in preparation for the fire season. To do that, we leased additional hangar space at Missoula International Airport, and increased our contract maintenance staff to 30--up from the 10-15 we have employed in prior years. The contract staff supplements the 70 mechanics we employ full-time."

Snyder noted that in a typical year, the contract maintenance staff, which includes airframe mechanics, electricians and sheet metal technicians, is on site from November through March, with the total cadre in place by January. "But, this year, we ramped up to a full staff of 30 in October, and we expect that they will be here through April, so we're taking on more people for a longer time period," he said.

The contract maintenance staff will focus exclusively on the company's nine active P2V Neptune tankers. As Snyder explained, Neptune Aviation is also deploying a single BAE 146 regional jet, modified for aerial tanker duty. The aircraft has operated since October 2011, under Interagency Airtanker Board interim approval. Given the capacity constraints generated by the accelerated preparation schedule, maintenance on the BAE 146 has being outsourced to Tronos, the company which partnered with Neptune on the tanker modification.

Pilot recurrent training has also been moved up by a month, starting January 1st. Neptune currently has 25 pilots, of which five are qualified on the BAE 146.

The earlier resumption of maintenance activity, and pilot training, reported Snyder, will enable Neptune Aviation to make the first aircraft mission-ready by February 26, with the last ones available no later than May 25.

"In 2011, availability of the first aircraft, by contract with the Forest Service, was March 18, with the last one ready for dispatch by June 25," he pointed out, adding that the longer availability time-frame will mean more time in the field for pilots, mechanics, and support vehicle drivers. Because of this, the company plans to hire additional staff in order to assure those on the line their regular periods of time off.

"Neptune Aviation was well-prepared to meet the Forest Service's request for early aircraft availability because of changes made in our operations over the past three years," Snyder said. "We were positioned to respond to our customers' requests in a timely fashion, and we are on track to do that."

"The capability of Neptune Aviation to make its aircraft available earlier than in past years, without compromising safety, is another example of the kind of flexibility we have come to expect of private enterprise in the aerial firefighting sector," said Tom Eversole, AHSAFA Executive Director. "It is another illustration of the ability of the commercial operators in this business to respond quickly to changing customer requirements."

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


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