November fire duty presses Neptune’s aircraft maintenance ahead of spring season

A BAe146 air tanker undergoes maintenance at Neptune Aviation in Missoula. The company’s role in California has added pressure back home as crews prepare aircraft for the spring fire season. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current fire photo)

Neptune Aviation deployed six aircraft and two dozen personnel to the California wildfires earlier this month, helping the state combat its most destructive fire in state history.

While the Missoula-based company is ready and willing to help, its role in California has added pressure back home as crews prepare for the spring fire season.

“If you’ve got to have these fires, we want to be there helping – it’s what we’re in the business for,” said Neptune CEO Ron Hooper. “But it puts us in a little bit of a stressful situation with maintenance.”

As of Tuesday, Neptune had six BAe146 air tankers and 24 personnel assigned to the California fires. Under normal conditions, those aircraft would be in Missoula undergoing maintenance.

But given the shifting climate and prolonged fire season, nothing is normal anymore. Hooper said Neptune has been forced to adjust as well, assisting in late-season fires while gearing up for the spring.

“We’ve got three airplanes in hangars now undergoing heavy maintenance,” Hooper said. “They’ll be ready by early February.”

That makes the three tankers now in Missoula available for the early spring fire season, which has come earlier and grown more intense. In the Western U.S., the season has widened by more than 80 days since the 1970s, according to the Center for Climate Communication.

The Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, which killed 19 firefighters, started in June. Hooper said his six tankers now in California should be ready by then, even if the maintenance window is tight.

“It’s compressed our maintenance cycle, but we’ll manage it,” he said. “Our director of maintenance has revised his schedule, and we’ve got the manpower in place. We’re not concerned about getting it accomplished, but it is a pressure situation.”