Neptune Aviation received their fifth BAe-146 February 2 when it arrived at Missoula on a snowy Sunday. The aircraft is still painted in the colors of United Express it had when the aircraft was operated by Air Wisconsin, but will soon take on Neptune’s white with red trim color scheme, and will have a big 02 on the tail. The work to build the tank system began even before it arrived in Missoula but there is still much to do before it can drop retardant over fires. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, told us that they expect to have it ready to go by the first of August this year.
Tanker 02 will receive the new, upgraded tank system that has already been installed on two of their other BAe-146s, Tankers 01 and 10. The modifications will help to correct some of the bugs in the first generation of the BAe-146 tank, which was criticized for inconsistent flow rates, especially when dropping downhill and for the last several hundred gallons in the tank. Neptune is calling the redesign the “Rev 300”. Mr. Snyder said it has received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA, and in August it also passed the new more stringent requirements introduced in 2013 for static and grid testing required by the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB). The air tankers with the Rev 300 will have interim approval from the IAB to operate without restrictions.
In addition to the three air tankers above, Neptune’s other two BAe-146s, Tankers 40 and 41 are also getting the redesigned 3,050-gallon tank system installed.
Mr. Snyder described the tank:
In addition to meeting the new 2013 IAB criteria, Neptune fielded a lot of new technology in this system that has never been used in large airtanker tanking systems to date. The systems have been significantly changed from the original tanks seen during operations last year. Additional exits have been added to give the tank excellent performance in all pitch attitudes, including down-hill drops.
The new gating system has the ability to be adjusted during a drop. Enhanced computer sensing and control have taken constant flow tanking to a new height, “Active Control”. Active Control allows the computer to actively monitor the flow performance and modify the exits to maintain the selected coverage level, based on aircraft ground speed, tank flow-rate, g-loading, and aircraft pitch attitude.
The new sensing and control system has yielded a tank that has a very high level of repeatability and consistency under all flight conditions. All these enhancements are significant improvements over the concept of Constant Flow tanking systems of years past.
Neptune will have six P2Vs and one BAe-146 on contract in what the U.S. Forest Service calls the “legacy” air tanker category this year. A second contract that the USFS awarded without competition to Neptune on December 12 for two BAe-146s is being protested by four other air tanker companies. Until it is settled, which should happen by March 28, it is unclear what Neptune will have in the air this year other than the seven air tankers on the legacy contract. In addition to those seven, Neptune will have at the beginning of the summer, three other BAe-146s ready to fight fire, with a fourth coming on line by the first of August.
This latest protest, which has become routine in the USFS air tanker contracting process, and the recent acquisition by the agency of seven, 27+ year old C-130s discarded by the Coast Guard which will be converted into air tankers, makes it difficult for Neptune and other vendors to make long range plans about the acquisition of millions of dollars worth of aviation assets that may or may not be wanted by the federal government.
Mr. Snyder said that if there is a need, they can acquire additional BAe-146s and convert them in about four months — several airframes concurrently if necessary.