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Little planes buzz. Big jets whoosh. But Missoula’s skies will soon lose the rumble that signified a P2V coming back from a wildfire.

“When I land at some random airport in Kansas, they flip out when they see it start,” Neptune Aviation pilot Dale Dahl said of the red-tailed bomber he’s flown for 20 years. “It sounds like the thing is coming apart. The oil gets burned out on every start. They call the fire truck on us. They just don’t know what goes on.”

The two big propeller engines have 18 cylinders apiece, fired by 72 spark plugs. The radial design means oil always leaks from somewhere. Starting a P2V resembles waking up a dragon. After this September, the dragon may never see flame again.

This year marks the last season of firefighting for the Lockheed P2V planes. Missoula-based Neptune Aviation will retire its last four radial-engine air tankers in favor of new BAe-146 jets.

“That’s where our name came from,” Neptune Chief Operating Officer Dan Snyder explained. The company grew out of an older wildfire air tanker business called Black Hills Aviation of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Black Hills started flying retardant bomber missions with military surplus B-17s before switching the P2 Neptunes.

Neptune Aviation opened in Missoula in 1993 in conjunction with Northstar Air. Northstar provided hangers for aircraft, sold fuel and had contracts for ferrying medical patients and flight school training. Neptune got into the air-tanker world with an initial six P2Vs.

“We were getting a lot of aircraft out of salvage yards and from surplus military,” Snyder said. “At our highest, we had 11 flyable P2s. It’s got a strong structural air frame, can fly at low levels for long periods of time, and it’s designed to drop stuff. That helps significantly — to have a bomb bay.”

The plane’s initial design took shape toward the end of World War II. In the late 1940s and '50s, the P2V was the only Navy plane big enough to carry that service’s nuclear weapons. It was engineered to fly off aircraft carriers, although it couldn’t land on one. It also served as a surveillance and submarine-hunting plane, packed with electronics and a crew of nine or more.

“If you think of your grandma’s big old TV-stereo console, that’s what used to be in here,” Dahl said. “It was 25,000 pounds of old-school technology that now comes on an iPhone and a Fitbit.”

In its role as a retardant bomber, the P2V moves about 20,000 pounds of liquid payload at 150 mph. It requires two auxiliary jet engines to add enough oomph for take-off and mountain maneuvering. That leaves room for a hammock strung inside the fuselage, as well as coolers for lunch and a bicycle for the crew to ride around the fire base when they’re waiting for assignments.

The whole air tanker industry took a knee in 2003 after a series of fatal accidents triggered a federal safety review. Each contractor had to find a way to certify its aircraft could meet structural and capability standards that were never considered when the planes were originally built.

“The P2 was the only legacy aircraft that came out of that program,” Snyder said. “It was a hugely expensive undertaking. Other companies just went out of business. Before the termination order, there were 40 or 42 air tankers flying. When we came back, there were only 19.”

Neptune’s P2Vs endured, but their days were numbered. The U.S. Forest Service started its Next-Generation Air Tanker search, looking for planes that could carry 3,000 gallons of retardant powered by jet turbine engines that could cruise at least 300 mph.

“The fact that Neptune Aviation Services kept an older aircraft, which was never designed for the high-stress environment of aerial firefighting, in service for nearly a quarter-century, speaks volumes about the creativity and technical capabilities of a private operator which invested its own funds to do it,” said George Hill, executive director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association in Washington, D.C. “This represents an excellent example of private enterprise at work to maintain an essential national resource, as wildland fires become increasingly destructive, and fire seasons are getting that much longer.”

***

On its last summer, the P2V plays like the dad at the neighborhood basketball pickup game. Dahl doesn’t care.

“I get my butt handed to me when I compete with those guys,” Dahl said of flying with modern jet tankers. They fly hundreds of miles per hour faster and drop hundreds of gallons more retardant. They have factories that still sell replacement parts while Neptune has to fabricate its own. Their pilots sit in pressurized, air-conditioned cockpits.

“This aircraft is all cables,” Dahl said. “You actually have to drive it. You get cuts and bruises and calluses. In the airplane world, it’s just more challenging.”

That said, Dahl also compared it to Corvettes at the car show. The super-fast 2017 model with its Bluetooth sound system earns attention.

“But then the 1967 small-block-powered Corvette rolls in,” Dahl said. “Even at half the speed and half the cost, it’s the one everyone wants to talk about.”

Dahl claims he was virtually “conceived, born and raised” on firefighting aircraft. His father, Earl Dahl, flew smokejumper planes for a contractor in Billings. Dahl himself earned money for flying time by mixing retardant loads at the fire base. He started flying at 16, got his pilot’s license at 21 and was working wildfire at 21 and a half. He’s spent 20 years flying P2Vs.

Retardant tankers operate in one of the strangest flight environments imaginable. Combat aircraft must fly equally well before and after they drop huge loads of bombs, while evading attacks from the ground and other aircraft. The P2V flies similar maneuvers, but exchanges getting shot down with being blown up — way up.

“We do not fly into the plume (of a wildfire’s smoke column),” Dahl said. “The chances of coming out are less than spectacular. We’ve seen big pieces of timber up in the air that’ll cave in the leading edge of a wing.”

On the other hand, the P2V fears no drone. All air operations must stop for safety reasons if an unauthorized drone enters a Temporary Restricted Airspace over a wildfire — something that’s happened three times this summer in western Montana. But while a hobby-shop toy helicopter can ruin a real copter’s tail rotor or a jet’s intake, it probably wouldn’t scratch the paint on the old warbird.

The P2Vs have flown fires all over the United States. Because they’re military surplus, they may not be allowed on overseas missions despite having all their Cold War-era military secrets removed long ago. That was one reason Neptune opted to redesign a passenger jet for its new air tanker. The move paid off last winter when a Neptune BAe-146 helped firefighters in Chile manage a horrific wildfire season.

Neptune has four P2Vs flying fires in 2017: Tankers 05, 06, 14 and 44. Tanker 07 has rested in Missoula as a replacement for any active plane that needs repairs. Tanker 10 recently got installed as the entrance display for Missoula International Airport. Tanker 12 has disappeared into the maintenance bay, slowly getting cannibalized for spare parts. Tankers 43 and 45 rest in Alamogordo, able to fly but not in service.

“We have a lot of interest from people requesting aircraft be donated as gate guards or for museums,” Snyder said. “Some Navy squadrons would like them back. We expect Tankers 44 and 14 will remain in Missoula for air shows, and for the heritage and legacy.”

To commemorate the end of the P2V era, Neptune Aviation will host an open house on Sept. 30 at its hangars along the east end of Missoula International Airport. 

For pilot Dahl, it will be a reunion of sorts with the community of people who love the old plane.

“I know people from all over the world who are telling me ‘We’ll be there,’ ” Dahl said. “Just the local firefighters who’ve been hit by us — that would be a huge crowd.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.