Neptune acquires their ninth BAe-146

Above: A BAe-176 recently acquired by Neptune lands at Missoula, November 20, 2016. It will become Tanker 16 sometime next year. Photo by Bill Moss.

Neptune Aviation’s ninth BAe-146 arrived at Missoula, Montana on Sunday, November 20, 2016. The aircraft, to become Tanker 16, was last flown by Daallo Airlines and had been stored at Djibouti-Ambouti International Airport which is near the “horn” of Africa at the south end of the Red Sea. On November 9 Neptune re-registered it as N478NA.

In September the company acquired their eighth BAe-146, Tanker 15.

Ron Hooper, the CEO of Neptune, said they arranged for the aircraft to be flown across Africa and the Atlantic by a company that specializes in ferrying. We asked him why, rather than using their own personnel:

When we ferried Tanker 15 over [in September] the timing was poor, all of our flight crews were out on fires. So we did contact this company, Southern Cross, and negotiated with them to ferry the aircraft home. Based on that experience, Bill, it was more convenient and cost effective for them to bring Tanker 16 over.

n478na T-16 tanker neptune
N478NA, a BAe-176 recently acquired by Neptune, taxis after landing at Missoula, November 20, 2016. Photo by Bill Moss.

Bill Moss, who took these photos, researched the three-day ferry flight. He said international flight tracking is not always accurate, but found that after taking off from Djibouti on November 18, it was scheduled to make stops at:

  1. Cairo, Egypt
  2. Sofia, Bulgaria
  3. Leipzig, Germany
  4. Belfast, Ireland
  5. Keflavik, Iceland
  6. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
  7. Goose Bay, Labrador
  8. Sault Ste Marie, Ontario
  9. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  10. Missoula, Montana (arriving at 4:30 p.m. on November 20, 2016)

A BAe-146 does not have a tremendously long range, so it required more refueling hops than most large jet-powered passenger aircraft. A year ago when an RJ-85, a variant of the BAe-146, ferried from North America to Australia to begin an air tanker contract, it carried additional fuel in a bladder. Air Tractor makes an optional kit that enables their Single Engine Air Tankers to carry extra fuel in the retardant tank on long ferry flights.

Neptune’s plans are to begin conversion of their two recent acquisitions, T-15 and T-16, this winter, expecting to have T-15 completed by late winter after which they will bring T-16 into the hangar to begin the process on that aircraft.

Mr. Hooper said the existing U.S. Forest Service “legacy contract”, under which six Neptune P2Vs are working, expires after the 2017 fire season. When a new contract, “Next-Gen 3.0”, is awarded for the period beginning in 2018, he expects to have retired all of their P2Vs, and their air tanker fleet will consist exclusively of BAe-146s. The USFS hopes to award the contract in the Spring of 2017, Mr. Hooper said.

Neptune currently has two air tankers still working on fires. Tankers 10 and 41, both BAe-146s, are in the South, temporarily based at Tri-Cities Regional Airport in eastern Tennessee about 15 miles north of Johnson City.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill M.

Neptune acquires their eighth BAe-146

neptune BAe-146
Neptune’s eighth BAe-146 arrives at Missoula September 29, 2016. Photo by Bill Moss.

One of the major winter projects at Neptune Aviation will be converting their eighth BAe-146 airliner into an air tanker. Aircraft N477NA arrived in Missoula September 29 after flying across the Atlantic via Reykjavik International Airport in Iceland.

Bill Moss, who took these photos, told us that the aircraft’s previous registration identifier was LA-HBZ and it had been flying for Bulgaria Air for the last five years. It has served with 10 different operators since its first commercial flight in 1988 for American Airlines.

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Neptune Aviation, said they are not certain what the aircraft’s tanker number will be, but they are considering Tanker 15. (Update November 22, 2016: it is confirmed to be Tanker 15.)

neptune BAe-146
Neptune’s eighth BAe-146 arrives at Missoula September 29, 2016. Photo by Bill Moss.

As the fire season in the west winds down, Mr. Snyder said two of their air tankers were released yesterday for the year but they still have seven operating for the U.S. Forest Service and one with CAL FIRE. All of their P2V’s will be migrating to their maintenance facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico which has a winter climate much more friendly to radial engines than Missoula.

Another long term project Neptune is working on is performing some of the work on the C-23B Sherpa aircraft the USFS got from the US Army to convert them to civilian SD3-60 certificates. They are usually working on one or two of the planes at a time, Mr. Snyder said, and will continue that project at least through 2017.

“That really is going to depend on the contract situation”, Mr. Snyder said when we asked if they plan to acquire any more BAe-146’s. “The Next-Gen 3.0 contract is supposedly going to be released sometime in the latter portion of this year or the first of next year. And that will greatly dictate what we do as a company, depending on how many line items they decide to release and what that situation looks like from a contracting standpoint.”

Air tanker 10 to become permanent display at Missoula airport

Tanker 10
Tanker 10. Neptune Aviation photo.

Neptune Aviation’s P2V air tanker 10 has been retired for several years but will live on as a permanent static display at the Missoula Airport. The company is refurbishing the aircraft, removing the reusable avionics, giving it a new paint job, and making it animal and wind resistant before it is installed on a platform to be built at the entrance to the airport.

The number on the aircraft, Tanker 10, has a storied history, having been used on a B-17, the P2V, and is currently on the tail of a recently converted BAe-146.

T-10 Medford
T-10 at Medford, Oregon. Photo by Tim Crippin July 31, 2016.

Neptune’s air tankers are much busier than last year

According to an article at KXIF, this year the air tankers operated by Neptune Aviation have flown twice as many hours compared to the same time last year.

The company has 12 tankers under contract, six P2V’s and six BAe-146’s, plus two of each that can be cycled in as maintenance is required.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…The company’s “P2V” prop tankers, and “next gen” jets have already flown more than 1,000 hours, starting with the first firefighting assignments in the Southeast US back in February.

“Three or four years ago we had six contracts for the P2s and the jets weren’t flying. So this year we’ve got six of the jets and six of the P2s under contract,” Neptune Aviation CEO Ron Hooper said. “They’re all out very busy. And we’ve got two of each as our maintenance aircraft. We can cycle the aircraft in and out as maintenance is required.” …

Neptune trained with their air tankers in New Mexico

Some of the aircraft that were at Missoula were relocated to Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport.

Above: A Neptune Aviation BAe-146 landing at Redding August 7, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Neptune Aviation used seven air tankers in New Mexico for the company’s annual training according to a story in the Alamogordo Daily News. Crews used the opportunity to practice dropping on simulated fires and to perform maintenance on the piston engine planes. The company had seven BAe-146 jets and seven radial-engine P2Vs in the warmer climate for about two weeks.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

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“…Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer Dan Snyder said the company brings their operations down to Alamogordo for about two weeks in February because of the warm weather is more amenably for their aircraft.

“We do all of our aircraft and ground training for the P2V aircraft down here,” Snyder said. “We also bring all of our flight crew for all of our company flight and ground schools here. Missoula is a lot colder. The weather is not as inclusive.”

He said with the P2V aircraft it needs a lot more preheating or warming up before a flight.

“Here it allows us not to have to do a lot of preheating,” Snyder said. “We can fly more. The airspace here is not as congested like up in Missoula. Down here we do have military air traffic but Holloman has been very accommodating for us. They’ve helped us out a lot.”

He said Neptune trains between Alamogordo and Roswell airport.

“It works out well for us because we have mountainous and flat terrain so we can do all of our drop training here,” Snyder said. “Our training includes using water with our drop training. We use retardant on fires but when we’re training, its water. We fill with water because it’s cheaper. We’re not fighting a fire during training so we use water.”

In Alamogordo Neptune houses the P2V Neptune’s while the BAe-146’s are housed in Missoula. Neptune does all of their heavy duty maintenance at Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport on the P2V aircraft.

“We have about 15 full time personnel that live here in Alamogordo,” Snyder said….”

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UPDATE March 24, 2016: The newspaper article said Neptune moved seven BAe-146 air tankers from Missoula to New Mexico for the training. We checked with Dan Snyder of Neptune this week at the Aerial Firefighting conference, and he confirmed that the BAe’s remained in Montana, and did not go to New Mexico.

BAe-146 flyover UM
This is a screen shot from a very low resolution video of a Neptune BAe-146 flyover at the 2015 University of Montana homecoming game in Missoula.

New lead plane?

A comment by Bill Blake after we posted this photo on the Wildfire Today Facebook page gave us an idea… about starting a rumor that the Department of the Interior has received ten F-15E surplus fighter jets from the Air Force and will be using them as lead planes in 2016. In return, the Air Force got the 182 DoI drones.

The photo was taken by Colin Moeser as Neptune’s Tanker 02 was paralleling an F15E Strike Eagle landing in Boise in 2015.

Neptune completes their part of the conversion process on two USFS Sherpas

Photo above: C-23Bs being worked on by Neptune Aviation. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation has finished their portion of the process of converting two of the U.S. Forest Service C-23B Sherpa aircraft to civilian SD3-60 certificates. The contract Neptune received last year could involve converting another 13 of the former U.S. Army Sherpas. The USFS expects to use them to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

Neptune’s project began at the USFS facility in Ogden, Utah where the first two aircraft were done, but is in the final stages of being moved to the company’s facilities in Missoula, Montana for the remaining aircraft.

Field Aviation in Oklahoma City began the process in October, 2015 of converting the analog cockpits in the Sherpas to glass flight decks using the Garmin G950 system.