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In between getting big jet-powered retardant bombers ready for next year’s fire season, Neptune Aviation mechanics are tearing apart another fleet of planes for the U.S. Forest Service.

The Missoula-based company won a contract to inspect and rearrange 15 C-23B Sherpa aircraft the agency received from the U.S. Air Force this year. Once done, the Sherpas will become the Forest Service’s main plane for delivering smokejumpers to forest fires.

“The Sherpa conversion was a competitive contract,” Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said. “Once they’re transferred from the military, we add equipment and get them certified with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). We do the maintenance, but we won’t be operating them.”

The Sherpas look like pointy-nosed boxcars with wings. Neptune assistant director for maintenance Nic Lynn said the squared-off design allows for an unusual rear door, where the whole back end can fold down to load heavy cargo or lift up to provide a straight-out jumper’s exit.

“They’ve been stored for a couple of years,” Lynn said. “We’ll get them woke up and ready to go.”

Each C-23B will arrive in Missoula in a slightly different condition, depending on its former use and inspection schedule. A plane needing everything checked and certified may need four or five months of work. One closer to the middle of its maintenance calendar might be finished in two months. It may come painted in the Forest Service’s white-and-orange flying colors, or still have its military paint job.

Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the Sherpas will replace almost all of the agency’s seven other smokejumper and transport planes. That includes the last Forest Service DC-3 smokejumper plane, currently based in Missoula.

The Sherpa can carry up to 10 smokejumpers, 20 passengers or 5,000 pounds of cargo. Most other Forest Service planes, such as the DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, Casa 212 or Dornier DO228, can carry up to eight smokejumpers. While the DC-3 can carry up to 16 jumpers for longer ranges, it is also the last of its kind in the agency hanger.

“Having a smokejumper fleet comprised mainly of one type of aircraft will enable the U.S. Forest Service to standardize operating procedures, training, maintenance and logistics support,” Jones said in an email. The agency will get rid of most of the other planes, except the Twin Otters that have special backcountry airstrip capabilities. It may also stop contracting with five other privately owned planes that have been used for smokejumper and support missions.

The Sherpas also can be used to ferry incident command teams, backcountry resupply missions, search-and-rescue patrols, wild horse feeding and other activities.

“We expect to have between two and four of these ready by the next year and a half,” Neptune marketing director Kevin Condit said. “The first one is almost done, and we should have two more here by spring.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.