The U.S. Forest Service has scaled back the number of firefighting aircraft that might be available this summer. Edward O'Brien explores on what that might mean for Montana.
Neptune Aviation CEO Ron Hooper is giving a tour of one of the company’s nine ‘next generation’ firefighting jets.
It's very spartan inside the red and white British Aerospace 146 jet tanker that's undergoing routine maintenance in one of the Missoula-based aviation company’s hangars.
Hooper explains that literally everything is stripped out of the airplane that is not essential for flying on the air-firefighting mission.
"For this aircraft the maximum is 92,000 pounds. The tank itself weighs 5,000 pounds, then we put another 30,000 pounds of retardant in it. Basically, we’ve got to get 35,000 pounds of stuff off this plane before we can use it as an air tanker," he says.
Tanker 15 has no amenities. This plane is a workhorse and will very soon be pressed into service. That’s because fire season is fast approaching in the northern Rockies.
It’s crunch time at Neptune. It’s also a transitional time. The company has finally retired the last of its Korean War-era P2-V tankers. Several will be sent to aviation museums later this year. Two remain airworthy and will be featured at airshows around the country, but their fire service days are over.
The rumble of that iconic propellor driven aircraft was a fire season staple for some 25 years.
“Folks who live here in the valley, particularly the Bitterroot Valley, commented on always looking forward to the sound of the old P2s growling over their homes, either taking off or coming back in," Hooper says. "It’s a unique sound. You don’t hear it anymore in the industry. Of course, our mechanics and our pilots who have been with those aircraft for a number of years, are going to miss it as well.”
The government’s contracts for those ‘Legacy’ P2V aircraft expired last year.
For 2018 the U.S Forest Service opted to cut by a third - from 21 to 13 - the number of air tankers on what are called "exclusive use" contracts this fire season.
Those contracts lock-in tankers for government use during fire season, while simultaneously providing a guaranteed revenue stream for companies like Neptune.
The reduced number of exclusive use contracts could save the Forest Service more than $240,000 a day during fire season.
Jennifer Jones is a spokesperson for the U.S Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management Program.
“We would like to have more air tankers available on exclusive use contracts and we’re working to introduce solicitations for those as well as for additional ‘call when needed’ air tankers," she says.
Under those "call when needed" contracts, the Forest Service doesn’t pay for aircraft unless they use them.
The agency pays a premium for call-when-needed contracts. According to fireaviation.com, tankers on standby status are more than 50 percent more expensive than those under exclusive use agreements. That means the planes rent for more than $45,000 a day versus $30,000.
Hourly flight rates for call when needed are costlier as well.
The government has eleven aircraft on those standby contracts this year; six more than in 2017.
All told, there will be just about the same number of air tankers available this fire season as last, but, potentially at more expense. Jennifer Jones of the U.S Forest Service declines to explain the risks and rewards of that approach, opting instead to point out that air tankers are valuable tools that help reduce the intensity and spread of wildfire.
“So that firefighters on the ground can construct fire line safely. That’s the way that fires are put out.
"Generally, air tankers alone do not put out wildfires," Jones says. "It’s hard for people to understand that, because those air tankers dropping the red retardant are very visible. That’s what the public sees. They don’t see the boots on the ground."
What’s more, she says it’s too soon to say whether the government’s contracts with air tanker vendors like Missoula’s Neptune Aviation, will actually wind up costing taxpayers more money.
She points out that during last year’s historic fire season, over 10 million acres of federal, state and private land burned. Roughly half that much burned in 2016.
“So there’s a lot of variability. You really need to look at what it’s costing over an entire season as opposed to just looking at that daily availability and hourly flight rate,” says Jones.
Neptune Aviation CEO Ron Hooper, says, "There’s just a lot of discussion back in Washington D.C. about the right mixture of exclusive use and call when needed. This year’s kind of unique in that all that’s got to play out. From our perspective we hope all that stabilizes by fall and winter and we get a good understanding of what the strategy will be going forward.”
The Forest Service is also scaling back contracts for large type 1 helicopters. Those are the largest in the helicopter firefighting fleet and prized for their initial attack prowess.
Two large choppers owned by Montana companies, one in Helena, the other in Hamilton, lost their federal contracts this year.
“Potentially if that means that they lose fires and they get larger than that’s going to mean more work for the fixed wing aviation assets," Hooper says. "On the other hand, they remain confident they can catch 95+ percent of their fires in initial attack stage. It’s just comes down to a matter of the right mix of assets while staying within the constraints of their budget."
Hooper doubts the new wildfire funding fix that treats, and pays for, wildfires the same as other natural disasters, will have any meaningful impact on the fire aviation industry.
“It provides more assurance that money’s going to be available, but that has not been an issue in the past," Hooper says. "The government’s been paying its bills regularly.”
Neptune Aviation now faces more competition than ever from within the fire aviation industry itself.
Eight years ago, there were only two companies flying a total of nine tankers.
Today, seven companies manage 30 tankers.
“When you get more aircraft available and, particularly this year, fewer available contracts, and the competition is as stiff," Hooper says, "we have to anticipate that our piece of that budget pie may not be as large as it has been in the past."
That means Neptune must continue diversifying its overall aviation operation while simultaneously seeking out new clients.
The company has landed a new call when needed contract with the state of Minnesota and is pursuing an exclusive use contract with California.
It’s also courting new overseas customers, most recently in both Chile and Australia.