By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

With Chile experiencing its worst fire season on record, Neptune Aviation Services has joined the international effort to help douse the country's devastating forest fires.

Ron Hooper, CEO for the Missoula-based aviation company, said Monday that Neptune had dispatched one BAe 146 tanker to the 1.5 million-acre fire.

“Tanker 03 departed Brownsville, Texas, on Friday morning at 6 a.m.,” Hooper said. “It took the better part of two days for T-03 to make the flight from Brownsville to Santiago, Chile.”

Hooper said the airtanker arrived in Santiago at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Sending the tanker to Chile marks the first time Neptune has flown its aircraft outside of North America. In the past, Hooper said, the company has assisted with fires in Mexico and Canada.

But since developing its modern fleet of tankers in 2011, Neptune has been looking for expanded opportunities, and they appear to be lining up.

Chile may seek large airtanker services before next year's fire season, which typically runs from October to January – opposite the fire season in the U.S.

Australia and Argentinia also have expressed interest in Neptune’s firefighting capabilities. Hooper said the BAe 146 is well-suited to the task.

“It boasts an unbeatable combination of outstanding low altitude maneuverability and flexible speed options,” said Hooper. “This gives it unmatched compatibility of operations with the existing network of U.S. airtanker bases, and the unique ability to serve as a versatile ‘tool in the toolbox’ in Chile.' ”

The airtanker now in Chile is one of 9 modern aircraft owned by Neptune. Seven have been converted to firefighting capabilities while another is in the works and should be ready by May.

Hooper expects the final BAe 146 to be converted by April. The company looks to have all 9 aircraft under contract in 2018, when it will retired its historic P2V airtankers.