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Neptune air tankers come out of retirement to fight northern California wildfires

Neptune’s next-generation tanker fleet also attacked the fires in California on Monday and Tuesday, with T-10, T-12, T-40 and T-41 combining for 30 drops on Monday alone. (Photo courtesy Jeremy Ulloa via Neptune Aviation Services Facebook page)

Two of Neptune Aviation’s P2V air tankers no sooner settled into retirement than they were reactivated Monday and dispatched to northern California to drop retardant on several wildfires raging there.

Tankers T-05 and T-14, which dazzled crowds on hand for their retirement party Sept. 30, were on duty Tuesday at the wildfires that have already killed 17 people and consumed 2,000 homes and businesses in San Carlos and Napa, California.

They joined four of Neptune’s next-generation air tankers in the aerial firefight – T-10, T-12, T-40 and T-41. The British Aerospace BAe 146 fleet combined for 30 retardant drops on Monday and were back in the air alongside the P2Vs on Tuesday.

Missoula-based Neptune has aerial firefighting contracts for the 2017 wildfire season with both CALFIRE and the U.S. Forest Service.

As of Tuesday afternoon, California fire officials reported 17 separate wildfires in northern California, with at least 15 people dead and 2,000 structures destroyed, including homes, resorts, businesses and Napa Valley wineries.

More than 115,000 acres had burned over eight counties. All of the counts were expected to rise as firefighters are able to move into areas that were quickly overtaken by fire – in some cases leaving residents to flee on foot, with none of their possessions.

Just days after Neptune Aviation’s “retired” T-14 air tanker departed Missoula for Alamogordo, N.M., for retrofitting to perform in air shows around the country, the P2V was called back into service to fight wildfires burning in northern California. (Wayne Banker/Neptune Aviation)

Neptune Aviation’s tanker fleet is an essential part of that response, and photos of the heavy aircraft at work were starting to appear on social media by Tuesday.

The aging P2V tankers weren’t expected to appear again on the fire line, with officials believing their 2017 firefighting tour had ended.

Neptune, in fact, gave the fleet a grand sendoff into retirement at their hangars just south of Missoula International Airport on Sept. 30.

Thousands of spectators cheered and reminisced as the former Navy reconnaissance planes rumbled overhead, releasing ceremonial water drops along the runway.

Last Friday, Tanker T-14 left Missoula bound for Alamogordo, N.M., the site of Neptune’s other base of operations. There, it was to receive a “makeover” for its post-retirement life performing in air shows around the country.

The return to duty came before that work commenced.

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. Next year, there will be no P2Vs on firefighting duty, only the next-generation tankers developed by Neptune and a few other companies.