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Neptune Aviation eyes international firefighting contracts

Two BAe-146 air tankers undergo maintenance at Neptune Aviation Service’s facility at the Missoula International Airport. The Missoula-based company is eyeing new international contracts. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

With its fleet of aircraft working fires in the Northern Hemisphere, Neptune Aviation’s firefighting efforts have long been a seasonal affair, flying incidents down south in the spring and shifting north as summer wears on.

But two weeks after sending a tanker south of the equator for the first time in Neptune’s history, the Missoula-based company has its eyes on fighting fires year-round.

“Back in 2010, we started looking for international opportunities,” said Neptune CEO Ron Hooper. “In fact, in 2013, we bid on a contract down in Australia. We didn’t get it for a number of reasons. But since 2010, we’ve always had an interest in international opportunities.”

Neptune’s old fleet of P2V aircraft couldn’t leave the country, Hooper said. The ex-military aircraft was considered restricted, effectively limiting the company’s firefighting efforts to the continental U.S.

But the new BAe-146 is considered a standard category aircraft, and that opens up new opportunities to explore the international market, starting in Chile.

“They’ve been considering putting out a long-term contract this fall that would provide for an airplane to be down there full time,” Hooper said. “We’d be very interested in that, and we’d be very competitive based upon the performance of our service.”

Neptune dispatched Tanker 03 to Chile earlier this month to help combat that country’s worst fire season on record. The BAe left Brownsville, Texas, at 6 a.m. on a Friday morning and arrived in Santiago, Chile, two days later.

Sending the tanker to Chile marked the first time Neptune had flown its aircraft outside of North America. In the past, Hooper said, the company had assisted with fires in Mexico and Canada, so heading south of the equator marked a new milestone.

The fire season in the Southern Hemisphere aligns with Neptune’s aviation duties in the Northern Hemisphere, given the opposite seasons. The fire season down south runs from early November to mid-March, while the northern seasons extends from March to November.

Hooper said that could mean year-round business.

“Depending on how many opportunities there were, we’d have to get additional aircraft,” Hooper said. “The nine aircraft we have are pretty much committed to the U.S. efforts. It was happenstance almost that we were able to have an aircraft go down there.”

BAe-146 (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With two BAe’s in Neptune’s maintenance shop at Missoula International Airport, Hooper touched on the company’s growth since it last applied for that firefighting contract in Australia.

Back in 2013, Australia was seeking a turn-key operation. That required the winning bidder to provide not only an air tanker, but a lead plane and a portable retardant base. At the time, Hooper said, Neptune wasn’t positioned to provide those services.

“But we’re in a position now to provide those kinds of services – the lead plane, the air tanker, a portable mixing plant – by forming partnerships that do that,” said Hooper. “We understand Australia will be advertising another contract late this summer or early fall. We’d be interested in bidding on that again.”

Neptune’s mission to Chile has provided the international experience the company was seeking, and it has learned a bit in the process. Flying several thousand miles wasn’t the biggest challenge, nor was the language barrier.

Rather, Hooper said, the country’s lack of firefighting infrastructure has served as the greatest challenge.

“They don’t have an equivalent to a U.S. Forest Service, and they don’t have the aviation management skills the Forest Service has,” said Hooper. “When we got down there, fortunately we have very qualified and experienced pilots, and they were able to take that situation, understand what the need was, and manage the aircraft with other aircraft in the area and do it safely.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com