Saturday, August 04, 2012

Neptune Aviation gets 2nd firefighting jet, but contract protest delays use

 Corey Hayes with Signs Now in Missoula applies striping to the newest addition to Neptune Aviation’s retardant bomber fleet last week. Tanker 41 is the second used BAe-146 jet to join the fleet.

MISSOULA — Red lightning will hit the blue skies over Montana next week as Neptune Aviation puts its latest firefighting air tanker into service. 

 Maintenance crews painted the zigzags and a big “41” on the tail of Neptune’s second jet-powered BAe-146 on Thursday. Pilots will start their shake-down flights out of Missoula International Airport Monday or Tuesday, according to Neptune maintenance director Gerry Nielsen.

“It’s an operational tanker,” Nielsen said. “Tronos (Aviation) sent it in with its tank already loaded in. We’ll do one or two test flights to check things out and make sure it’s all correct. Then we wait for the Forest Service.”

That wait could be a while. Forest Service spokeswoman Pam Baltimore said on Friday the agency’s next-generation air tanker contract had been protested, resulting in a delay in authorizing new planes. That delay could take a month or two to resolve, she said. The next-generation contract affected Neptune and three other aircraft companies, which planned to bring on seven new firefighting planes at a multi-year cost of $508,842,740.

Neptune’s latest four-engine jet was built in 1989 and served in an Irish passenger air line before being converted to firefighting duty by Neptune’s partner corporation, Tronos Aviation of Prince Edward Island, Canada. It now can dump 3,000 gallons of fire retardant on forest fires.

Neptune put its first BAe jet, Tanker 40, into service in 2011 on an interim contract. The Missoula-based company won a two-plane contract from the Forest Service’s next-generation air tanker program in June. Tanker 41 should start fighting fires in early August, with the third jet arriving in early 2013.

That third plane will take the number “10” from a Lockheed P2V Neptune retired from service earlier this year after discovering a crack in one of its wings. Neptune flies seven more Korean War-era P2Vs in its tanker fleet. They have a payload of 2,700 gallons and a top speed around 200 mph.

The Forest Service wanted planes that could cruise a minimum of 345 mph and carry at least 3,000 gallons. The BAe can cruise at more than 400 mph and has contemporary flight systems.

Nielsen said a crew of four finished the logos and insignia work on Thursday.

“It’s no more technical than painting your house, except it has to stick on at high speeds,” he said. “It’s no secret rocket science.”

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