Neptune Aviation’s fleet of P2V retardant bombers returned to the air Tuesday, after one of its planes crashed in Utah on Sunday, killing two pilots.
“As a company, we’re dealing with the loss, but as to our core direction, we’re still the same company,” Neptune president Dan Snyder said by phone from Cedar City, Utah, on Tuesday. “We’re still moving forward. And we still plan on adding two more 146s this summer.”
Neptune has developed a BAe-146 jet plane for firefighting and won an interim contract from the U.S. Forest Service to use it this year. The Missoula-based company is waiting for word from the U.S. Forest Service on how many contracts for next-generation aircraft it will award this year.
“Even if the contracts don’t come on line, we have every intention to bring those aircraft on and offer them to the Forest Service,” Snyder said. “The plan is as the BAe’s come on, we start retiring the P2s. We’ll do that according to our ability to maintain them. We don’t want to move too fast as a company.”
Neptune has seven remaining P2Vs on contract with the Forest Service. They vary in age, although all are around 50 years old. Tanker 11 – which crashed Sunday – was built in 1962. The planes were originally designed for anti-submarine combat in the Korean War. For years, Neptune’s Missoula facility has been manufacturing its own parts and equipment to keep the fleet airworthy.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the Associated Press the Lockheed P2V tankers are safe. But he acknowledged the need to modernize the nation’s aerial firefighting fleet.
“This is some of the most dangerous flying they do,” Tidwell said of the tankers’ pilots. “They’re flying at such low elevations. They’re under a heavy load with the fire retardant and usually around a big fire. It’s not quiet air. It’s very turbulent.”
Tanker 11 crashed on Sunday afternoon while dropping retardant on the leading edge of the White Rock fire on the Utah-Nevada border west of Cedar City. Reports from the Iron County Sheriff’s Department indicated the plane was down to tree-top level when a wing either hit a tree or the ground.
The plane cartwheeled into the ground, leaving a debris field more than 600 feet long. The crash killed pilot Todd Tompkins, 48, and co-pilot Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, both of Boise, Idaho.
“The indications were there was nothing wrong with airplane before impact,” Snyder said. “We have conflicting witness reports. Tanker 11 did have a lead plane working with it.”
Large air tankers typically have a smaller lead plane fly the route where the retardant should be dropped before the big plane makes the run.
The forest fire burned over the crash scene before firefighters could reach it. Tanker 11 had a cockpit voice recorder, or black box, on board that could provide details of the plane’s last minutes. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Nicholas Worrell said the agency’s investigators reached the scene on Tuesday to start collecting evidence.
“What we will be doing while the investigator is on scene is look at all the components – the environment, the human side and the machine,” Worrell said on Tuesday. “Once we’ve gathered the information, we may issue recommendations so we can prevent it from happening again.”
Worrell classified the Tanker 11 crash a “regional accident,” which often does not produce conclusions that would trigger safety reviews of other planes. Neptune crews took a voluntary stand-down shortly after the accident on Sunday to mourn the pilots, check planes and make sure all involved were physiologically and emotionally ready to return to duty.
Worrell added no connection exists between the Tanker 11 crash and another P2V large air tanker owned by Minden Aviation that also crash-landed on Sunday after one of its three landing gears failed to extend. The Forest Service ordered new inspections of Minden’s second P2V before allowing it to resume firefighting.
Snyder said neither the National Transportation Safety Board nor the Federal Aviation Administration had asked Neptune to make any inspections or changes because of Sunday’s crash. Neptune has two other P2V tankers working the White Rock fire.
The fire had burned 5,863 acres by Tuesday, down from earlier estimates of 8,000 acres. Fire spokesman Chris Hanefield reported it was 20 percent contained, with 325 people, four helicopters, six engines, four dozers and three water tenders on scene. It was burning in pinion pine and juniper forest, sagebrush and grasses on steep, rugged terrain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.