Fewer tankers under contract, but Neptune Aviation looks to busy fire season

Posted at 4:01 PM, Jun 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-13 18:01:35-04

MISSOULA – The company has fewer fire tankers under "exclusive use" contracts to the Forest Service, but Missoula-based Neptune Aviation is expecting a lot of business this year.

In fact, the Neptune tankers have already been getting a lot of flight time this spring. 

The last few years have seen incredible growth for Neptune Aviation. Neptune led the charge into deployment of the "next gen" jet-powered air tankers, converting the powerful BAe-146 jets to replace the aging fleet of P2V prop-powered planes.

However, this year a delay in Forest Service appropriation means fewer Neptune tankers specifically earmarked for use during the entire fire season.

"Well, last year we had 12 contracts. This year we got four," said Neptune Aviation CEO Ron Hooper. "Now, when I say contracts, it’s ‘exclusive use’. Those are the contracts where we get paid a daily rate to be out there every day. The rest of our aircraft are on ‘call when needed’. They only get paid when they are actually used. So for us there’s concern about the revenue stream of course. But if we have a fire season like last year’s they’re going to need every plane they can get their hands on, so I’m confident we’ll be fine."

That means Neptune’s fleet is flying, but on a fire-by-fire basis as they are called out. I asked Hooper whether that gives the company more flexibility to make money.

"Yeah, I wouldn’t want to wish not having them. Like this past winter we had three months to do heavy maintenance on nine airplanes. It was really a tough job to get accomplished," Hooper said. "Operating ‘call when needed’ you’ve got more maintenance time that’s for sure. But I’d rather have nine exclusive use any day."

But with the fire season outlook looking robust again this year, Neptune is geared up for a very busy summer. Actually, their jets have already had a busy spring.

"You know, we’ve been out since the first week in March. Our fifth airplane just went out this morning to Northern California. The director of DNRC was quoted as saying that the conditions right now are just as they were last year, at this time of year, and she’s anticipating another pretty severe fire season."

And Neptune continues to develop other business opportunities, acquiring another jet for its growing charter business.

One big difference in the Neptune hangers this year. It’s the first season without the legendary thrum of the P2Vs, which were retired at the end of 2017.

"A lot of the guys, the pilots, miss flying those. And the maintenance folks miss hearing the engines, the radial engines start up. So we’re missing them. I think we’re going to keep two of them in flyable condition so they’ll be in air shows around the state."

Neptune was recently awarded "call when needed" contracts to fight fires in California and Minnesota.