Tanker 910 pilot Jack Maxey had no trouble spotting Missoula International Airport from his DC-10 slurry bomber on Wednesday: It was the one with three Neptune Aviation BAe-146s lined up on the tarmac to greet him.
The 10 Tanker Air Carrier jet was one of the largest planes ever to land in Missoula, and one of the biggest to be reconfigured for dropping retardant on forest fires.
“When we first come on the scene, they scatter everybody out of the way,” Maxey told a crowd of U.S. Forest Service air-attack personnel who came out to see the plane. “Then we do a drop, and they see – well, it’s just an airplane.”
Just a really big airplane. A decommissioned Neptune P2-V tanker parked nearby would barely reach from the DC-10’s nose to the front edge of its wing.
Maxey and his two crewmates made stops in Brainerd, Minn., Rapid City, S.D., and Billings en route to Missoula after finishing winter maintenance in Michigan. Maxey said Forest Service officials invited him to make the stops to see how the DC-10 could operate at various tanker reloading bases.
Tanker 910 proved too big to get into the main retardant loading area by the Forest Service’s air operations building in Missoula. But it fit fine on the de-icing apron next to Minuteman Aviation, within range of a portable retardant pump.
“It looked like it landed pretty short, too,” said Minuteman director of operations Forest Gue. “It used less than half the runway.”
Adelanto, Calif.-based 10 Tanker hopes to win an aerial firefighting contract from the Forest Service similar to Neptune’s. It currently flies on a “call-when-needed” contract, which Maxey said isn’t sufficient to keep the business viable much longer. It’s been trying for nine years to become a regular part of the air tanker fleet.
And that’s a concern to Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper. The Missoula-based air tanker company has purchased four new BAe-146 jets to start replacing its stable of six Korean War-era P2-V bombers. One of those jets is already on contract with the Forest Service, and Hooper hopes to have two more signed with “next generation” contracts this spring.
The next-gen contracts were supposed to be awarded last August, but protests by losing bidders forced the Forest Service to redo the process. The latest awards should be released in the next two weeks, according to National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. In the previous awards, no very large air tanker companies like 10 Tanker won a bid.
“The DC-10 has a niche in the firefighting environment,” Hooper said. “It’s totally different than the BAe, which is much more maneuverable. I think the DC-10 is for big campaign fires, where you’re building long lines. But if the Forest Service is on a limited budget, awarding contacts to 10 Tanker detracts from our ability to fly.”
Hooper said Neptune wants to fly 11 to 13 BAe jets by the end of the decade. That would cover about 40 percent of the Forest Service’s stated goal of 24 to 28 next-gen firefighting aircraft.
“We know we’re not going to get all 24 to 28,” Hooper said. “There’s competition out there. But our business plan is over the next five years, to phase out the P2s and phase in the new fleet of BAe-146s.”
10 Tanker President Rick Hatton made the case for his big plane in a news release distributed at each stop. He noted while the BAe can carry 3,000 gallons of retardant, his DC-10 can haul 11,600 gallons. Last year, one DC-10 flew 33 missions in 10 days, dropping 373,600 gallons of retardant on seven separate fires.
“It would have taken 125 or more round trips over multiple days by a number of aircraft that are never available in one location,” Hatton wrote. “Hence the same quantity of retardant, even if delivered, would have been far less timely or effective, and the cost would have been many multiples of the DC-10 cost.”
The DC-10 carries three retardant tanks in a pod under its belly. They’re the same tanks used by heavy-lift sky crane helicopters, just linked together on a former passenger jet. The rest of the plane is empty, except for a picnic table and bicycles for the crew to use when parked at a tanker base.
“We’re rumored to have an archery range in there,” Maxey said before leading a tour of the plane. “Or a bowling alley.”