102311 neptune air tanker

Neptune Aviation's BAe-146 jet air tanker makes a test drop at the Missoula airport in 2010. Neptune is the first company to have a new tanker approved by the U.S. Forest Service.

Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has secured a new contract to provide two next-generation retardant bombers for wildland firefighting.

The U.S. General Services Administration released the $8.7 million annual award Thursday for use of two jet-powered, 3,000-gallon retardant tanker aircraft over four years, starting in 2014. The contract has an additional five one-year extension options. The total potential cost for all nine years is $141.7 million, according to the GSA.

Neptune Aviation chief operating officer Dan Snyder declined to comment on the contract announcement Thursday, saying there were a few unfinished items to be settled before he could discuss it. The company had started an official protest after missing out on the U.S. Forest Service’s next-generation contact awards last year, but suspended the effort.

The company has four BAe-146 jet airplanes in addition to its eight older P2-V propeller-driven tankers. Two BAes were outfitted with 2,600-gallon retardant tanks. One of those jets currently has a five-year contract for firefighting services, while a second operated through 2013 on a short-term “additional equipment” contract.

The new GSA contract applies to Neptune’s two newer jets. Snyder said all four BAes would be getting a new 3,000-gallon tank design that received approval Monday.

GSA officials noted the award was an “other than full and open competition,” which came after a competitive bid process. Neptune won one of the original next-generation contracts, but was eliminated after two other bidders protested the results.

“Neptune Aviation supplies the Forest Service with eight of the nine total Legacy air tankers, which represents 88 percent of the Legacy fleet,” a GSA release noted. “Given this percentage, as well as their reliable performance over the last 10 years, Neptune is a critical supplier of this vital resource for the Forest Service.

“The current fleet of large air tankers (P2-Vs) operating under the Legacy contract is old, with an average age of more than 50 years. Most of the remaining P2-V air tankers face retirement by 2021.”

The Forest Service awarded five contracts for seven new jet-powered air tankers last spring, and Neptune was left off the list. But only two of the expected planes were able to go to work, with the other five missing their contractual start dates, according to the GSA release. The contractors told the Forest Service they would not be able to have all five planes available before June 2014.

“However, such availability remains uncertain, and default terminations of those contracts remain a possibility,” the notice stated. “With only 11 large air tankers currently available to the Forest Service out of the 18-28 needed, it is vital that the Forest Service pursue any available avenues to obtain the services of as many large air tankers from experienced and reputable contractors.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.