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The Missoula International Airport has a new gate guard.

Early Tuesday morning, airport crews maneuvered a retired Lockheed P2V-7 Neptune aircraft, most recently used to fight fires around the country, into its new permanent position beside the airport entrance. After decades of service in the United States Navy and then for the U.S. Forest Service, “Tanker 10” stands as a symbol of Montana’s long firefighting history.

Airports often display decommissioned aircraft near their entrances to showcase the area's history and welcome visitors.

The red and gray aircraft was built in 1957, and was used by the Navy to hunt Soviet submarines off the U.S. coast. In the 1960s and '70s, P2V-7 Neptune aircraft were transferred to the National Guard, and a handful eventually were bought by Neptune Aviation Services Inc., a Missoula-based company that named itself after the aircraft.

“There was an excess of airplanes with a lot of great life in them, and they converted well to the mission of aerial firefighting,” said Kevin Condit, the marketing director for Neptune Aviation. “They could fly low, fly fast, they were maneuverable, and they were built really well and could take a lot of abuse.”

This made them perfect for fighting fires. In the past 25 years, Neptune Aviation has grown into the largest airtanker provider for the U.S. Forest Service. After purchasing a fleet of P2V-7 Neptune aircraft, the aviation company removed unnecessary military components and converted the planes into fire tankers by 1988.

After their conversion, each aircraft held a 2,700-gallon retardant tank for subduing forest fires. This year, the entire fleet will retire as their contract with the Forest Service ends. They are the longest serving airtankers to fight fires with the Forest Service, said Dan Snyder, chief operating officer for Neptune Aviation.

Snyder said it took four months to prepare the aircraft for display at the airport entrance. Neptune employees plugged all holes and cracks to keep birds and other critters from getting inside the plane. They repainted the exterior, and removed nonessential parts.

Moving the plane from the hangar to its new location required some creativity — sandbags doubled as ramps to roll over curbs — but now in its permanent position, the new gate guard marks the beginnings of an “airport park.” Eventually, picnic tables and information on the aircraft’s history will complete the park, Snyder said.

Missoula International Airport Director Cris Jensen said the airport never considered installing a gate guard in the past, because no aircraft fit well with Missoula’s history until now.

“It’s very representative of the people who have dedicated their lives to fighting fire across our country, so we think it’s a great monument to their service,” Jensen said.

For people driving by, who may not know about Missoula’s firefighting history — smokejumpers, aerial firefighting, the Forest Service — Jensen hopes the aircraft will serve as an invitation.

“Hopefully, it causes them to want to know about it,” Jensen said. “We’re hoping that it inspires them to learn a little bit more about the history of the airport and the different levels of firefighting in Missoula.”

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