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After five years of contract bidding, protests, challenges and re-bids, Neptune Aviation now has a solid footing in the U.S. Forest Service’s fire aviation fleet.

This fall, the Missoula-based company received four five-year contracts for exclusive use of four BAe-146 retardant bombers as part of the federal agency’s “Next Generation” firefighting program. It also landed an agreement to transform up to 15 military surplus C-23B Sherpa planes into civilian smokejumper and cargo aircraft.

“We’re glad to have it resolved,” Neptune President Ron Hooper said Monday. “Right now from the air tanker standpoint, things will be pretty stable for a while.”

The next-gen tanker contracts are worth about $5 million a year per plane. Neptune has been acquiring BAe passenger jets and remodeling them to carry 3,000-gallon retardant tanks for firefighting. It now has six of the jets, and is working on a seventh this fall. It also flies six P2-V propeller-driven tankers, some of which date back to the Korean War.

Under the Forest Service’s contract system, the six P2-Vs and one of the BAes are on “legacy” contracts for the next three years. Hooper said when that period is over, three of the older P2-Vs may be retired and the company may try to replace them with modern aircraft. It is also looking into contracting some of those planes with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which handles state wildfire protection

Neptune will fly five BAe-146 jets for the Forest Service, plus a sixth that’s on contract with the state of California. And it’s about 80 percent finished transforming a seventh BAe that will serve as its “swing” plane, temporarily replacing others when firefighting gets busy. That involves removing all the seats and passenger services, installing a 3,000-gallon retardant tank and changing the computer and flying systems to handle the stress of aerial firebombing.

Hooper said starting in 2017, the aircraft contracts will switch from six-day-a-week to seven-day formats. That will put extra pressure on flight and maintenance crews, as well as the aircraft. The swing plane and its crew will substitute in for other tankers that need to stand down for repairs or rest during active fire seasons.

“For now, this is the plane of the future,” Neptune marketing director Kevin Condit said. “It does a lot of things really well, delivering retardant low and slow and meeting the requirements of the Forest Service.”

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The next-gen contracts were the Forest Service’s response to a crisis that developed in the early 2000s when its fleet of aging tankers had a series of fatal crashes. Safety inspections grounded the whole fleet of heavy tankers for a couple of years. Even after modifications and reviews, the fleet shrunk from 44 planes in 2002 to eight in 2013 – most of which were Neptune’s P2-Vs.

In 2010, the Forest Service announced its request for new jet-powered planes that could carry at least 3,000 gallons of retardant and have a cruising speed of at least 350 mph. The P2-Vs carry about 1,500 gallons and can cruise at around 250 mph. Neptune applied for and won several contracts, but several competitors challenged the awards. The contracts and protests went through several reviews before the agency was able to release seven contracts this fall.

Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said this fall’s awards came through unprotested, so the seven contracts should be in action next fire season.

The Forest Service now has 14 privately owned large air tankers on exclusive-use contracts, and is bringing an additional seven U.S. Coast Guard surplus HC-130H transport planes into service over the next few years. The agency wants a fleet of between 18 and 28 modern, large air tankers.

“(The C-130s) have a limited service life of six to 12 years, so we will continue to pursue acquisition of additional Next Generation air tankers through various means,” Jones said. “Those means may include purchasing air tankers.”

Hooper said he’s watching for 2017, when the legacy contracts expire and Forest Service may have an opportunity to issue more next-gen contracts.

“We’re anticipating another round of competition for at least seven large tankers,” Hooper said. “They haven’t formally announced that yet, but we expect they’ll advertise fairly soon. And we have fairly quick access to aircraft. We’ll continue to monitor that marketplace.”

During the last two weeks of August, lightning ignited more than 2,600 wildfires across public and private lands in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, northern Idaho and Montana. More than 2,400 of those wildfires were suppressed during initial attack, or within about 24 hours of being detected. Neptune planes flew about 2,200 hours of retardant missions in that period.

So far in 2015, approximately 9.3 million acres of private, state and federal land have burned nationwide, making it one of the more destructive years since 1960. More than 4,400 structures were destroyed. The Forest Service has spent more than $1.7 billion on wildfire suppression.

Neptune employs 185 people, nearly all of whom live in Missoula. It keeps a staff of 20 at a maintenance base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. And some of its flight crews live outside Missoula, but spend months of each year living with their airplanes.

“These long-term contracts provide some stability to our long-term future,” Hooper said. “And not just our air-tanker division but our charter-jet division and our general aviation maintenance work. We’re better able to manage our long-term financial strategies. This is very significant to the future of Neptune.”

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