Missoula bids farewell, with gratitude, to Neptune Aviation’s firefighting workhorses

Neptune Aviation celebrated the long career of its P2V air tankers with ceremonial water drops, including Tanker 05’s red, white and blue display. (David Smith/Neptune Aviation)

Missoula gave the nation’s aerial firefighting workhorses a rousing sendoff into retirement Saturday afternoon with ceremonial water drops, fond reminiscences and a grand-finale flyover.

Thousands of spectators from across the globe cheered as Neptune Aviation’s P2V tankers rumbled overhead, releasing clouds of water across the Missoula International Airport runway much as they laid molasses-thick slurry atop the leading edge of wildfires for the past two-dozen years.

From start to finish, it was a bittersweet farewell.

“Well, Neptune, we made it,” proclaimed Greg Jones, Neptune’s vice president for project development. “It’s been a long haul – what a history for this airplane and the service it’s given to this country.”

Johnson Flying Service brought the first P2V to Missoula as a firefighting air tanker in 1972, the first such use of the surplus Navy reconnaissance planes.

But it was Neptune Aviation that expanded and extended the P2V’s history beyond all expectations.

After starting Northstar Aviation in 1992, Missoula aviator and entrepreneur Marta Timmons bought Black Hills Aviation of Alamogordo, N.M., in 1993 and brought her newly christened Neptune Aviation (in honor of its six firefighting air tankers) to Missoula.

Neptune flew the P2Vs for 24 fire seasons, including the ongoing 2017 season when four were under contract with the U.S. Forest Service across the West: Tankers 05, 06, 14 and 44.

As Missoula’s skies darkened late Saturday afternoon, the four tankers flew across the valley in formation, then circled the mountaintops single file before landing to a hero’s welcome.

All across the city, residents ran to windows and onto sidewalks and porches to see the final passes of aircraft they’ve come to know – by sight and sound – over the decades.

“They’ve been around a long time,” Neptune CEO Ron Hooper said Saturday. “They put in 35 years with the Navy and another 30 years of fire service. These aircraft have been in the service of this country for a long time.”

Thus the warmth and sentimentality of the afternoon’s celebration, which drew past and present Neptune employees, Forest Service firefighters and foresters, World War II veterans, pilots and aircraft buffs, and hundreds of children who grew up with the rumble of slurry bombers arriving and departing Missoula’s Aerial Fire Depot.

Hooper remembered those who flew the P2Vs for the Navy, and those who died while flying the aircraft on wildfire duty. Their courage and sacrifice have not been forgotten, he assured.

Jones gave the crowd a brief primer on the P2V’s history, and encouraged folks to swap stories as they walked among the aircraft parked on the ramp.

Lockheed initially built the P2V to carry nuclear warheads for the U.S. Navy, Jones said. But the aircraft did its military service flying low over the ocean, hunting enemy submarines for 9 and 10 hours at a time.

It was the longest-produced aircraft in Navy history, rolling off the assembly line from 1954 to 1957.

Neptunes originally had two gasoline-powered reciprocating engines. As the Navy added more and heavier submarine detection equipment, the aircraft got so heavy it needed two more engines – the jet engines later used for takeoff and during retardant drops.

Black Hills Aviation and then Neptune Aviation retrofitted the airplanes for use in firefighting, replacing the reconnaissance gear for six compartments that hold the firefighting slurry.

What distinguished the aircraft was its power and strength, crew members past and present said Saturday. It was as if Lockheed had designed the P2V for aerial firefighting.

This airplane wants to fly.

“The performance and what this aircraft is capable of is phenomenal,” said Jones, who was both a pilot and a mechanic of the P2Vs. “We are going to miss it.”

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Other countries used the P2V as a military aircraft as well, and that’s how a couple of Saturday’s attendees came to know Neptune’s fleet of tankers, the last on active firefighting duty.

The Royal Netherlands Navy operated Neptune aircraft as well, retiring them in 1982.

That’s how Gert Kromhout made his acquaintance with the planes, growing up under the approach of Naval Air Station Valkenburg, home base of the Dutch Neptunes.

He saw the last Dutch Neptune flight in 1982, and the French Neptune’s farewell visit to Valkenburg in 1983. He skipped school twice to see that plane’s arrival and departure, his parents grounded him for two weeks.

Nearby was the home of Iwan Bogels, whose home was a half-mile from touchdown at NAS Valkenburg. The Neptunes “flew through the garden,” he said.

Said Bogels: “The mighty rumble of the Wright R-3350’s, the squeaking of the brakes and the beautiful design of the airframe made this aircraft my all-time favorite.”

The two men have traveled to Missoula before to see the P2Vs on firefighting duty, and had to be on hand for the grand finale.

To say they’ll be missed “is an understatement,” said Bogels, who needed to “hear and smell the Neptunes before they retire.”

“After that,” he said, “the air-tanker scene just will never be the same again.”

Thousands of well-wishers gathered at Neptune Aviation Saturday afternoon for the retirement of its fleet of P2Vs. (Ryan Alter/Neptune Aviation)

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Next fire season, there will be no P2Vs delivering slurry to fire lines – replaced by the next generation of private air tankers, some larger, some smaller, all retrofitted from commercial rather than military aircraft.

“The number of lives these aircraft have affected in this community, at Neptune Aviation, in this nation is phenomenal,” said Neptune’s Jones.

“We are also very fortunate that Neptune is a major, major influence in how we do aerial firefighting in this country,” he said.

The company now delivers retardant to wildfires via a fleet of converted British Aerospace BAe 146s, eight of which were under contract for the 2017 fire season to the U.S. Forest Service and the CALFIRE. A half-dozen remained on active duty in California on Saturday.

But the P2Vs will always hold onto the hearts of pilots and firefighters alike, and of the many Westerners who saw the planes in action and benefitted from their fearless flights.

“It’s always sad to see the end of an era,” said Missoula’s  Tucker Eslinger. “You can’t beat the roar of one flying overhead.”

Said Pat Hintz: “There’s nothing like the roar of those engines as they labored overhead. … I will miss them, and rushing outside to see them flying over the house headed out on yet another mission.”