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After last summer's fatal slurry air-tanker crashes, the industry is retooling the way it does business - and they're looking at the standard-bearer, Neptune Aviation of Missoula

Wounded by the loss of five pilots when a pair of airplanes broke apart while dropping retardant on Western wildfires last summer, the air tanker industry underwent an intensive off-season review of each company's ability to maintain the aging airplanes.

That, and the suggestion by some congressmen that aerial firefighting duties be given to the National Guard, has forced a much-needed change in the air-tanker culture, said Mark Timmons, president and CEO of Neptune Aviation Services, which operates a fleet of Lockheed Neptune P2Vs out of Missoula and Alamogordo, N.M.

"The industry is going to become more professional, or it's going to become extinct," Timmons said one afternoon last week, as Neptune's 18 pilots completed the company's mandatory yearly ground and flight school - re-currency training for the veterans, a final shakedown for the new hires.

Neptune began pushing for change - more extensive maintenance and training, better working conditions and pay - almost immediately after it got into the aerial firefighting business in 1993 by purchasing the assets of Black Hills Aviation.

"Ten years ago, this industry was like stepping back in time," Timmons said. "You were stepping back into the 1930s and 1940s; you got that feeling when you walked into hangars."

"You worked in grease and dirt and oil," said Bob Wofford, captain of Tanker 11 and Neptune's training officer. "The difference between what we have here and what I came into in 1973 - well, it can't be compared."

Neptune's hangar in Missoula is cleaner than most white-collar offices. Its mechanics and pilots work year-round in heated facilities and earn salaries that support their families without moonlighting. Every air tanker has a crew of two - a pilot and co-pilot - and a full-time mechanic.

Gone, too, is the "cowboy attitude," Timmons said. "The culture was: You took risks. You pushed the envelope. It didn't matter if you were tired or you were sick, you flew the airplane. When we came into the industry, those were the first things we started to change.

"And it's been a battle."

"It's an evolutionary change that happens over time with people like Mark pushing for safety and better training and better maintenance and facilities," Wofford said.

It took time to find the right combination of people, Timmons said. "Anyone who was not willing to change is not with us anymore. It's been a long, slow process. We didn't just figure it out that first year."

Now, because of the public and political pressures brought to bear after last summer's accidents, the rest of the industry is following Neptune's lead. Any who don't likely won't be around when the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management award the next five-year air-tanker contracts.

"Some of the other operators in the industry need a different approach," Timmons said. "Our concern - Neptune's concern - is that all the operators are being judged by the failures that occurred within one operator's company.

"That's one operator, that's not the whole industry."

Neptune Aviation's employees are professionals, Timmons said. They aren't adrenaline junkies. They don't take chances or cut corners. They don't put unsafe airplanes in the air.

"We maintain our airplanes to Navy standards, and we don't skimp on that," he said. "Safety is first. If we can't do it safely, we're not going to do it."

"If Lockheed had designed an airplane for firefighting, this would have been it."

Pilot Keith Laudert banked Tanker 44 around a ridgetop high in the Ninemile Valley, fixing his sights on the target - an imaginary fire upon which he would drop 1,250 gallons of imaginary fire retardant.

The Lockheed Neptune P2V slowed to 120 mph and leveled out about 150 feet above the treetops. Laudert opened one, two, then three doors beneath the aircraft and coated the ridge with a line of make-believe slurry.

Co-pilot Stacy Pitkin monitored the airplane, making certain all four engines were running properly, that oil temperatures were within the proper range - "taking care of the airplane," his pilot said. "You need a super reliable person sitting up here next to you, someone you can trust."

"As I approach the fire, my job is to talk to the firefighters on the ground and to fly the airplane," Laudert said. "I'm relying on Stacy for everything else."

Laudert turned a tight circle around the mountain and again fixed his eyes on the ridgeline. "Now we'll extend the line," he said. The air tanker leveled off, just above the trees, and Laudert opened another one, two, three doors, dropping the last of the imaginary retardant.

"This airplane is perfectly designed for firefighting," he said. "It's extremely strong. You've got good visibility from the flight deck and lots of power. It has an honest wing that wants to fly; it doesn't do anything to get you into trouble."

Lockheed built the P2V for the U.S. Navy. It was the longest-produced aircraft in Navy history, rolling off the assembly line from 1954 to 1957. Its mission: submarine patrol. For 10 and 11 hours at a time, P2V crews flew low over the ocean, hunting enemy submarines.

The aircraft originally had two gasoline-powered reciprocating engines. As the Navy added more and more submarine detection equipment, the P2V got so heavy it needed two more engines - the jet engines used now for takeoff and during retardant drops.

Black Hills Aviation and then Neptune Aviation retrofitted the airplanes for use as retardant planes, trading anti-submarine gear for six compartments that hold the thick, syrupy mixture firefighters use to slow a wildfire's advance.

Of course, the airplane only carries the payload. It's up to the pilot to deliver the goods to the desired location. Laudert said it's like shooting a basketball.

"You just get a feel for it," he said. "There's no way to teach it, really. It's something you pick up, that you improve upon by practicing year after year. Great basketball players can make the shot from anywhere on the court; they shoot from experience. It's the same in this job. It's my eyes and my thumb that hits or misses the target."

If the airplane isn't level, the retardant won't drop straight down and work its way through the trees. If the airplane is too low, the slurry will hit the side of trees - and will be a greater danger to firefighters on the ground below.

At 9 pounds per gallon and 120 mph, fire retardant can knock the tops out of trees or the wind out of a firefighter. So the pilot always has his eyes not only on the fire, but on the firefighters. One he wants to hit; the other he hopes to avoid.

Even after 34 years, every retardant drop is a little different, Laudert said. "I'm still learning new things every day."

Last summer's fatal air-tanker crashes were all too similar. Both airplanes were owned by Hawkins and Powers Aviation of Greybull, Wyo. Both airplanes exploded and fell to the ground after wings sheared off as they delivered retardant to wildfires.

On June 17, a C130A air tanker was flying low over a California forest when its wings snapped off. All three crew members aboard Tanker 130 were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board later found fatigue cracks in the wings of the 46-year-old airplane.

On July 18, a Consolidated PB4Y-2 - also owned by Hawkins and Powers - lost a wing while ferrying retardant to a wildfire near Estes Park, Colo., killing its two-man crew. Again, crash investigators found fatigue cracks in the airplane. That air tanker was 57 years old.

The accidents brought all of the nation's privately owned fleet of air tankers under intense scrutiny, as federal officials wondered aloud whether the airplanes were too old to be safely used for firefighting. The U.S. Forest Service temporarily grounded all air tankers, then allowed all but the C130s back into service.

This winter, the federal government asked Sandia Laboratories of New Mexico to audit every air-tanker company on contract to the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management for its ability to maintain the aging airplanes.

"The pilots that we lost were members of the fire service, of the fire family," said Rodd Richardson, the Forest Service's regional director of fire, air and aviation in Montana and northern Idaho. "And whenever you lose one of your family, you do some soul searching. It is healthy to question what is going on and to re-evaluate and choose a route for the future where you don't sustain those kind of losses."

"When we lose someone, it works on us," said Barry Hicks, the Northern Region's aviation officer. "Anything we can do to avoid that situation, we want to do."

In recent months, investigators from Sandia Labs inspected every air tanker and reviewed every company's maintenance regime, operational procedures, training requirements and management structure. Only the companies and airplanes that pass Sandia's muster will be given contracts to fight fire this summer.

Neptune Aviation hasn't yet seen its written review, but investigators told Timmons they found no problems with Neptune's fleet of P2Vs or any of its operating, maintenance or training procedures. Neptune, in fact, is the model by which future regulations will be patterned, they said.

None of the airplanes involved in last summer's crashes were P2Vs. In fact, all of the structural failures ever reported in the air-tanker industry came out of Hawkins and Powers, Timmons said.

The Forest Service's concern was understandable, given the catastrophic nature of the accidents, he said. "They wanted to make sure the airplanes were safe to fly."

"But there are lots of old airplanes," Timmons said. "There are B52s in Iraq right now that are 50 years old. You can maintain an aging airplane as long as you have the abilities and the expertise to do it."

The C130s should never have been in use, he said. They had, in fact, been put into storage by the military on the recommendation of the manufacturer. They were not supposed to have been flown anymore, and were only taken out of mothballs because of pressure put on the military by the Forest Service.

The C130s will not return to service.

But Timmons believes other aging aircraft, including his fleet of P2Vs, can be safely maintained for use as air tankers for many years into the future. Sandia Labs, in fact, hailed Neptune's maintenance and flight training as comparable to commercial airlines like Delta and Southwest.

Every spring, Neptune's crews attend flight simulator training at American Airlines, then spend two weeks in Missoula - one week at ground school, one week in the air. Then, just before the wildfire season heats up in Arizona and New Mexico, they return to Missoula to perform water drops for their final Forest Service certification.

A month from now, maybe sooner, they will depart for their summer assignments. The Forest Service sends tankers and crews to bases throughout the West, then moves them around as the wildfire season reveals itself.

Neptune sends a mechanic with every air-tanker crew, so its pilots don't have to maintain the airplanes.

"That's the way these airplanes were designed to be maintained," Timmons said. "When you get done flying, you have a mechanic who comes in and starts working on the airplane so it's ready to go the next day."

Wofford remembers the days - not so long ago - when pilots were expected to work on their airplanes at night and fly during the day. "Some companies would still like to see their pilots out there hammering on the airplane," he said.

"But this company has professional maintenance people who work on the airplanes," he said. "If the airplane is broken, the pilots go to the hotel and rest. And if it's a serious problem, the company flies in other maintenance people. I've seen as many as five mechanics working on an airplane so it can get back in service."

Neptune has eight P2Vs and nine crews available for firefighting duty this summer - one more than last summer. The ninth crew travels from base to base, giving crews time off to rest, and to visit their families.

"We want our pilots to have lives," Timmons said. "Pilots are on the road for five or six months a year, working six out of seven days. It's not an easy lifestyle."

"There is this misconception that we are all a bunch of daredevils," Laudert said, as Tanker 44 emerged from the mountains and into the Missoula Valley, within sight of the Missoula airport. "But everyone here has a family, and every intention of going home to that family next fall."

Laudert never wanted to be anything but an air-tanker pilot. He saw his first air tanker dropping retardant as a boy in southern Idaho, and decided on his life's work that very day.

"That's all I ever worked for," he said. "It's all I wanted to do."

But the industry has changed over the years - changed for the better, Laudert said. There have been improvements in aircraft maintenance and pilot training, and operators like Neptune have started to pay their pilots year-round wages and benefits.

This will be Laudert and Pitkin's first summer together, as captain and first officer of Tanker 44. Pitkin is one of Neptune's new hires; he flew smaller fire patrol aircraft last summer. The summer of 2000, he was a co-pilot for Hawkins and Powers; his former partner was one of the men killed last year.

"The tragedies last summer forced me to think about what I wanted to do," Pitkin said. "But this business is such a small family. I didn't want to leave this group of people.

"In the end, for me, it wasn't the airplanes or the money. This was where my family was, so it's where I wanted to be."

As the pilot, Laudert's job is to train his first officer to eventually take over his job. "You prepare for everything," he advised at the end of a training flight last week. "You only get caught if you're not prepared."

Neptune's pilots spent the week practicing emergency and instrument flight procedures in the mountains around Missoula. Newly paired pilots, like Laudert and Pitkin, got accustomed to one another.

"I've got to trust my co-pilot to take care of the airplane," Laudert said, "and he's got to trust me not to fly into a mountain. If you don't have that trust, you're not going to get along."

By its nature, aerial firefighting is stressful. Pilots worry a lot about other aircraft - airborne sightseers attracted to wildfires by the smoke. "That's the worry, not about our own airplane but about other aircraft," Laudert said.

"We can work some long, hot days," he said. "It's a physical job. There's a lot of mental strain."

But some of the roughest days are those spent waiting - in-between wildfires or for the weather to clear, he said. "Tanker pilots have to be able to be really busy, really aggressive, and then to wait and wait and wait. It's the waiting that gets to people."

There are only about 40 air tanker captains in the United States, by Laudert's count. "And yes, there are some characters involved. But there's a difference between characters and cowboys. We are professionals. We do an important job, and we do it to the best of our ability."

Just as Missoula residents saw Neptune's red-tailed air tankers flying low over the mountains as pilots trained this past week, so will Westerners see the big aircraft dropping slurry on wildfires this coming summer.

The Forest Service has no plans to discontinue or reduce its use of heavy air tankers, said Richardson, the regional fire manager. The agency will actually re-emphasize the use of air tankers on initial attack - when wildfires are first reported and can be caught at under 100 acres.

Veteran pilots like Laudert and Wofford have the credentials needed to respond to emerging wildfires, and to drop retardant even if there are no firefighters on the ground. "It's a cost-containment issue as much as anything," Richardson said.

"If we can catch fires when they are small, then they don't cost very much," he said. "It's when fires get over 100 acres and grow into these massive fires that our costs go up."

"Large air tankers buy us a tremendous amount in terms of early attack," said Hicks, the regional aviation officer.

"That's where we're most effective," Wofford said. "When the fire is small, we can go in there and knock it down pretty well. If it's a burning snag, we can actually put it out."

The Forest Service ran hundreds of millions of dollars short of the funds needed to fight last summer's fires and will quickly get into the same trouble if this season is similarly busy, Timmons said. Air tankers are part of the answer: Any fire caught quickly is a money saver.

"We are not a total answer," Wofford said. "We never pretended to be. But we can be of great assistance in controlling and guiding a fire."

"The public needs to be aware that we do provide a service," he said. "We work hand-in-hand with firefighters on the ground. There are times when they can't actually get into some of those hotter spots, and that's where we come in handy. We can come in and lay down retardant and maybe cool a fire down a little bit."

"Air tankers are an integral part of what we do," said Hicks. "I was heartsick over last summer's accidents, but happy to see the emphasis on additional inspections. I want those air tankers out there and available this summer, and for a long time coming."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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