Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
2024 Montana Primary elections
Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Retirement Of Storied Firefighting Tanker Marks End Of An Era

Tanker 10 on fire duty.
Courtesy Neptune Aviation/Dan Stijovich
Tanker 10 on fire duty.

Neptune Aviation’s red-tailed Tanker 10 flew hundreds of firefighting missions all over the United States. Tuesday it embarked on its final mission: being placed at the entrance of the Missoula International Airport to greet incoming passengers.

Neptune CEO Ron Hooper says it’s an honor to have that twin-propeller aircraft in such a prominent place:

“That’s the nice thing about having it here as a gate-guard, we’ll be able to go over and reminisce and see it and take care of her," Hooper says. "Particularly for the flight crews and the mechanics who’ve worked on these planes here at Neptune for the past 24 years now, it’s an emotional day for them."

Neptune Aviation says old Tanker Number 10 dropped over 11-million gallons of retardant during its service life. That’s the equivalent of over 843,000 kegs of beer.

By the time the plane retired, it had racked up over 11-thousand engine hours. As Neptune points out, that’s over 5 round trips to the moon.

Rick Gauthier is Neptune’s tanker shop manager. Tuesday he was in charge of getting Tanker 10 from its hanger to its final resting spot in front of the Missoula airport.

The move was one part well-choreographed ballet and one part wrestling match. Fences had to be cut down, signage and streetlights had to be narrowly avoided. Eventually an enormous front end loader was summoned to help out. It took a few tries, but after an hour and a half Gauthier and his team muscled and finessed the plane into place:

“Our attitude is always 'can-do,'" Gauthier says. "We’re going to figure out how to do it and we did. It was a great team – between the airport guys and our guys – yeah, it made it a lot easier than it could have been. We’ve all seen those things on YouTube where you don’t want to be 'that guy'."

Tanker 10 on the way to its new home at the entrance to the Missoula International Airport, June 20, 2017.
Credit Edward O'Brien
Tanker 10 on the way to its new home at the entrance to the Missoula International Airport, June 20, 2017.

The company is transitioning away from the old propeller-driven P2 tankers in favor of newer, more agile jet tankers that are contracted with the U.S. Forest Service.

Here’s Neptune’s Nick Lynn:

"The new jets are doing a great job. They’re faster. They carry more. They’re more reliable. They’re modern. They’ve got a lot going for them. The P2s have done an amazing job for us and they deserve a place of honor like this."

Neptune CEO Ron Hooper says this fire season marks the beginning of the end for the company’s remaining iconic propeller driven P2V tankers:

"We actually have seven of the P2s that are in flyable condition. Four of those seven are under contract with the U.S. Forest Service. This will be their final year. This fall we plan a public celebration out here to retire the entire fleet."

Neptune spokesman Kevin Condit points out the old prop-driven P2s were initially designed to serve the U.S. Navy in multiple roles. Tanker 10, for instance, worked as a submarine hunter, maritime patrol plane and a reconnaissance aircraft:

"They’ve seen action during the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War – even in the Falklands War. It’s an aircraft that’s been around. It’s kind of neat in the sense that we re-purposed an aircraft that was the sword and turned it into the plowshare; turned it into a peaceful-use aircraft that’s helped out countless families in danger from forest fires."

Tanker 10 (foreground) on naval patrol.
Credit Courtesy Neptune Aviation
Tanker 10 (foreground) on naval patrol.

Not all of Neptune’s employees are feeling sentimental about the P2v's final months. Rick Gauthier says Tanker 10’s new role at the Missoula airport terminal entrance is certainly, “better than it being turned into beer cans, that’s for sure."

But Gauthier looks forward to all the advantages that he says are offered by modern firefighting jet tankers:

“If we have an engine go out on one of the old P2’s, we have to haul an engine to wherever it is. With the jets we can lock out an engine, fly it home, fix it here, and fly it back into action. The old radial engines just require a tremendous amount of work. That’s one of the nice things, they’re just more modern," Gauthier says.

Neptune plans to host a public going-away party to say farewell to the remainder of its active P2V firefighting air tankers at the end of this fire season, but hasn’t set a date yet.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
(406) 243-4065
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information
Related Content