Neptune receives $2M state loan to acquire two hangars

Neptune's air tanker 15 hangar
File photo. Neptune’s T-15 in the hangar, May 15, 2018.

Neptune Aviation has received a $2 million state loan to purchase two aircraft hangars at Missoula International Airport in Montana. This will add nearly 300,000 square of aircraft storage plus office space.

From the Missoula Current:

“The loan stems from the state’s Infrastructure Loan Program and was awarded by the Montana Board of Investments. Under the program, the airport serves as the loan administrator and Neptune receives tax benefits in exchange for creating new jobs. Doug Hill, director of State Loan Funds at the Montana Department of Commerce, said Neptune’s $2 million application was based on the creation of 120 new jobs.

“They need to be considered full time when I do my review,” said Hill. “For each job that’s created, Neptune is able to borrow $16,666. That’s how we came up with the $2 million amount.”

“The Infrastructure Loan Program helps Montana businesses finance the acquisition of publicly owned buildings and related improvements. It also looks to boost economic development and create jobs in the basic sector of the economy.

“The loans are awarded to companies that employ at least 15 people. The new jobs that are created must pay the private annual wage in Montana, which is currently $44,100, according to Hill.”

Firefighters criticize closure of air tanker base at West Yellowstone

They said more retardant could have been applied during the Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman, Montana

100-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello
100-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello. The location of the Bridger Foothills Fire is identified. Wildfire Today map.

Two current or former firefighters were quoted in the Billings Gazette as asserting that the downgrading of the West Yellowstone Interagency Fire Center air tanker base in Montana to a Call When Needed base may have affected the amount of retardant applied on a recent fire near Bozeman, Montana.

200-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello
200-mile radius circles around tanker bases at Helena, Billings, and Pocatello. The yellow circle is around West Yellowstone. USFS map.

Bridger Foothills Fire

The Bridger Foothills Fire that started September 4, 2020 northeast of Bozeman burned 8,224 acres and destroyed 28 homes. Three firefighters were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters September 5 when their safety became compromised by the spread of the fire. After the danger passed they moved to a safety zone and were later treated at Bozeman Health for “smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion” and then released.

West Yellowstone air tanker base

From the Billings Gazette, quoting a former smokejumper who had been based at West Yellowstone:

“The Bridger fire could have been staffed with more planes and twice the retardant dropped had West Yellowstone been used with the other bases,” said Tommy Roche, a retired wildland firefighter, in an email.

In addition to the former air tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, there are three other bases in that part of the country. Listed below are all four with their distances from the Bridger Foothills Fire.

  1. West Yellowstone, 73 miles
  2. Helena, 76 miles
  3. Billings, 118 miles
  4. Pocatello, 142 miles
gallons Retardant used at Air Tanker Bases
Retardant used at Air Tanker Bases in the Forest Service’s Northern Region, 2009-2018. (Screenshot from document supplied by the Custer National Forest, November 3, 2020; a letter signed by Shawna Legarza, Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service at the time)

Forest Service will not release the Conklin de Decker and Associates air tanker study

From the Billings Gazette:

A Freedom of Information Act request, filed more than a year ago by West Yellowstone airtanker base manager Billy Bennett, for the Forest Service’s airtanker study has not been fulfilled. “In my opinion, I do not believe the study exists!” Bennett wrote in an email. “No one admits to ever having seen it.”

According to documents provided to Fire Aviation by the Custer National Forest in Montana, in 2019 the Forest Service commissioned an independent analysis of next generation air tankers performance by Conklin de Decker and Associates (CdD).

We asked for a copy of the study today and were told by Forest Service Fire Communications Specialist Stanton Florea that it “…contains proprietary information. You would need to file a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act Request] with our national office.”

Forest Service did not release the RAND air tanker study

We were told the same thing after requesting and then filing a FOIA to obtain a copy of the $840,092 RAND air tanker study completed in 2012. The Forest Service refused to honor the FOIA, saying “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4.” Their refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete” and that the USFS wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”

RAND finally released it in 2012. Both air tanker studies were prepared at taxpayer expense.

The RAND study recommended that the U.S. Forest Service upgrade its airborne firefighting fleet to include more scooper air tankers. “Because scoopers cost less and can make multiple water drops per hour when water sources are nearby, we found that the most cost-effective firefighting fleet for the Forest Service will have more scoopers than air tankers for the prevention of large fires,” said Edward G. Keating, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “However, air tankers are important in an ancillary role in initial attack for the minority of wildfires where water sources are not nearby, and possibly for fighting large fires as well.”

Performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone

In a letter signed April 4, 2019 by Shawna Legarza, who at the time was the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, she wrote, “Based on CdD information, the BAe-146 [air tanker] will not be able to operate from West Yellowstone unless temperatures are below 69°F”, and included the table below. She also wrote, “Retardant will not be downloaded”, meaning the BAe-146 must always carry 3,000 gallons.

The performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone is due to the elevation at the base, 6,640 feet above sea level. On a warm day the thin air results in a density altitude that makes it difficult for the aircraft to take off with a full load of retardant on the 8,400-foot runway.

CdC study, retardant loads at tanker bases Northern Region
Reportedly from the CdD study, retardant loads at tanker bases Northern Region. Supplied by the Custer National Forest.

The table indicates that there would be no restrictions for the C-130, C-130Q, RJ 85, and the MD-87 air tankers, but the BAe-146 tankers operated by Neptune Aviation would not be able to carry a full 3,000-gallon load of retardant under certain conditions. The BAe-146 and the RJ 85 are very similar, but the RJ 85s operated by Aero Flite have more efficient engines than the BAe-146.

Closing West Yellowstone air tanker base

The letter from Director Legarza included this:

Based on safety and efficiencies, Region 1 should consider whether any future investment into the West Yellowstone Airtanker Base is warranted. The airtanker bases in Billings and Helena, Montana, and Pocatello, Idaho are within 30 minutes flight time for a next generation airtanker and can maintain the airtanker response and capability needed for that portion of your geographic area. Additionally, a temporary airtanker base could be setup at the Bozeman, Montana airport if the fire situation in that portion of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming warranted a quicker response.

Forest Service begins to appreciate scooping air tankers

Another reason cited by the Forest Service for downgrading the West Yellowstone tanker base was the “increased use of scooper aircraft”, such as the CL-415 which can skim across a lake while scooping up to 1,600 gallons of water without having to return to an airport to reload with water or retardant. Historically the agency has been extremely reluctant to use scooping air tankers but four are currently under contract. For years they completely disregarded the RAND report’s recommendations about the efficiency of scoopers.

“The timing for the new scooper contract is this winter for the 2021 season and it is expected that Bridger Aerospace (based in Bozeman, MT) will have four turbine CL-215’s ready to bid which will add to the four CL-415’s on the current contract for a total of 8 nationally,” said Marna Daley, a Public Affairs Officer for the Custer National Forest in an email. “Regionally, Canadian scoopers are available and used through the agreement the Montana DNRC has with Canada.”

Bridger Aerospace is in the process of acquiring six old piston engine CL-215s that have been overhauled and upgraded with new turbine engines; they are designated as CL-415EAFs.

Tanker 281 Cedar Fire Nevada
Air Tanker 281, a CL-415EAF, completed over 60 water drops in support of firefighters at the Cedar Fire south of Elko Nevada on its first ever mission. Photo July 21, 2020 by K Mita, Bridger Aerospace.

West Yellowstone becomes a CWN base, dependent on portable retardant infrastructure

The West Yellowstone air tanker base is now classified by the Forest Service as a Call When Needed base. In the fall of 2019 the powder retardant was removed and the retardant mixing equipment was decommissioned according to documents supplied by the Forest Service. The base can now only be used to reload air tankers if a transportable retardant mixing plant is ordered and set up at the airport.

Forest Service’s evaluation of the use of air tankers at the Bridger Foothills Fire

In an email to Fire Aviation, Ms. Daley explained the agency’s opinion about the use of air tankers and the availability of the West Yellowstone tanker base during the Bridger Foothills Fire:

In terms of LATS (Large Air Tankers) and VLATs (Very Large Air Tankers) the Bridger Foothills Fire initial attack (day 1) and extended attack response (day 2 and day 3) was the most effective air resource response on the Custer Gallatin in 20 plus years.  There wasn’t a moment where suppression efforts were lacking a retardant response.  The ability of the Helena and Billings tanker bases to reload was unprecedented and fire managers were able to get full retardant loads on every tanker drop.  The transition of the West Yellowstone Tanker base to a call when needed base did not affect the outcome of the Bridger Foothills fire.  The base in West Yellowstone could have been opened under the Forest’s Call When Needed plan but that was not requested or needed because Helena and Billings bases were far more efficient.

Marta Timmons of Neptune Aviation passed away

Neptune Aviation Services’ Chairwoman of the Board

Marta A. Timmons
Marta A. Timmons

Marta Amelia Timmons passed away October 10, 2020. After starting an aircraft charter company and a Fixed Base Operation at the Missoula airport, she purchased Black Hills Aviation and moved it from New Mexico to Missoula, renaming it Neptune Aviation Services.

Funeral services will be live streamed October 31 at 10:30 a.m. MDT.

Ms. Timmons was passionate about many things, aviation was just one of them. Below is an excerpt from the very interesting obituary posted at the funeral home’s website.

Inspired by heroes such as Amelia Earhart, Marta was a proficient multi-engine private pilot. She began her Missoula based aviation business endeavors in 1989, opening the charter company Thunderbird Aviation. In 1990, she began construction of a Fixed Base Operation (FBO) in the Missoula airport. Northstar Air Express offered all FBO services as well as aerial EMS services. The FBO now operates as Northstar Jet and continues to grow offerings and employment opportunities.

In 1994, Marta became keenly interested in the aerial firefighting industry. She wanted to make a difference with a mission to provide safe, effective, and efficient aerial firefighting services to our Country. She discovered the airtanker company Black Hills Aviation, located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, which operated a fleet of Lockheed P2v Neptune aircraft retrofitted for aerial firefighting. She entered into purchasing negotiations and soon thereafter acquired the company that would be renamed and relocated to Missoula, Montana. Thus, began her legacy with Neptune Aviation Services. Always the visionary, Marta recognized the need for a Next Generation Airtanker. In 2010, leading the industry, Neptune started the Next Generation Airtanker trend, introducing the BAe-146 Airtanker. In 2017, Neptune retired the last of the venerable P2Vs.

Neptune has contracted with the US Forest Service and other agencies fighting fire for over 25 years. Marta has grown the company from 30 employees to over 200. Marta was an innovative leader who firmly believed in the values of Embracing Family (not only her personal family but also the Neptune/Northstar family), Firm Handshake (when Marta gave her word she stood by it), Resilient Spirit (through the good and bad she was here for us). She was committed to the mission of Neptune/Northstar, creating solid jobs for Missoula families and contributing to the Missoula community.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Greg.

Teen firefighting pilot flies Blackhawks and Chinooks

Ashli Blain is 19 years old

Ashli Blain, firefighting helicopter pilot
Ashli Blain, screenshot from KECI video.

Ashli Blain, a 19-year old college student, recently went back to school after spending her summer fighting fires from helicopters as a command pilot in Blackhawks and copilot in Chinooks. She works for Billings Flying Service out of Montana.

New hybrid quad-rotor UAS is being used on fires this summer

It can stay aloft for 12 hours mapping the fire and providing real-time video

FVR-90 hybrid Unmanned Aerial System
FVR-90 hybrid Unmanned Aerial System. Bridger Aerospace photo. (N171RE)

Bridger Aerospace has been operating an unmanned aerial system (UAS) on wildfires this year that first went into production in 2019 built by L3 Latitude Engineering. Their FVR-90 Hybrid quadrotor vertical take-off and landing unmanned aircraft has four rotors and a pushing propeller that can stay aloft for 12 hours. Orbiting over a fire above other aircraft at 12,000 feet it can use standard visual video cameras or heat-sensing infrared technology to monitor and map fires in real time.

In June the system was used on the Sawtooth Fire in Arizona, flying all night to map the perimeter and monitor spread of the fire. The next morning the UAS crew gave briefings to the Operations personnel so they could be armed with the latest intelligence.

Unlike drones that need a catapult to take off or a net to be recaptured, the FVR-90 can use the electrically-powered rotors to take off and then engage the gasoline-powered propeller for forward flight.

The Ravalli Republic has an interesting article about the aircraft being used this week on the Cinnabar Fire southeast of Missoula, Montana. Firefighters on the Sawtooth Fire made an 80-second video about the use of the aircraft in Arizona.

FVR-90 hybrid UAS
FVR-90 hybrid UAS. L3 Latitude Engineering photo.
FVR-90 hybrid UAS
FVR-90 UAS taking off at the Cinnabar Fire, August 30, 2020. (N151RE) InciWeb.
Bridger Aerospace
Bridger Aerospace’s UAS at the Sawtooth Fire in Arizona, 2020. The map was produced using data collected by the aircraft overnight. Bridger Aerospace image.

Bridger Aerospace receives the first Viking CL-415EAF

This is the first of six ordered by Bridger

first Viking CL-415EAF “Enhanced Aerial Firefighter” was delivered
The first production Viking CL-415EAF “Enhanced Aerial Firefighter” was photographed in the central Rocky Mountains en route to Bridger Aerospace’s facility in Bozeman, Montana. Longview photo.

The first Viking CL-415EAF “Enhanced Aerial Firefighter” was delivered to Bridger Aerospace’s facility in Bozeman, Montana as part of a contract that with all options exercised is valued at $204 million covering the purchase of six of the amphibious scooping air tankers.

Manufacturer’s serial number (MSN) 1081, the first Canadair CL-215 to undergo the major modification to the EAF “Enhanced Aerial Firefighter” configuration, took its inaugural flight on March 9, 2020 outside of program-collaborator Cascade Aerospace’s facility in Abbotsford, B.C.

Tim Sheehy, founder and CEO of Bridger Aerospace Group stated, “Aggressive initial attack and advanced technology in support of the wildland firefighter are the core of Bridger’s ethos. The Viking CL-415EAF is the most capable initial attack asset on the planet and we are proud to be the launch customer for this incredible capability.”

CL-415EAF Bridger Aerospace
CL-415EAF. Bridger Aerospace photo.

Robert Mauracher, executive vice-president of Sales and Marketing for Viking, commented, “The delivery of our first Enhanced Aerial Firefighter is the culmination of a multi-faceted collaborative project originally launched in 2018 and represents the partnership that has developed between Viking, Longview Aviation Capital (LAS), and Bridger over the past 24 months. We are now looking forward to adding a second aircraft to their fleet in the coming months.”

The Viking CL-415EAF modification program forms part of a staged approach to utilize the advancements made with the LAS converted aircraft as the basis for the proposed next-generation Viking CL-515 new-production aerial firefighting and multi-purpose amphibious aircraft.

The Viking CL-415EAF “Enhanced Aerial Firefighter” is a specially selected CL-215 airframe converted to turbine configuration using Viking-supplied conversion kits. It features a new Collins Pro Line Fusion integrated digital avionics suite, Pratt & Whitney PW123AF turbine engines, increased fire-retardant capacity, and improvements to numerous aircraft systems.

The Viking CL-415EAF represents the evolution of the type, utilizing the higher delivery two-door water drop system combined with a zero-timed maintenance program and a “new aircraft” factory-supported warranty program. All obsolete components impacting the worldwide fleet of CL-215 & CL-415 aircraft are replaced in the CL- 415EAF, and the upgraded aircraft is designed to failsafe FAR 25 certification criteria with no preset life limit.

Bridger Aerospace and Ascent Vision Technologies join forces to deliver COVID-19 PPE

Delivery face masks Bridger Aerospace
Members of Bridger Aerospace and Frenchtown District Rural Fire Department. Minuteman Aviation photo by Mel Holtz in Missoula.

What started as a modest campaign to provide a couple of hundred face shields to Bozeman Health, has opened doors to assist other first responders in staying safe. In an effort to fight against COVID-19, Ascent Vision Technologies (AVT), a military defense contractor, adapted its production know-how to rapid prototyping and production of the shields. After an outpouring of gratitude and requests for more units, the AVT team is now working to produce up to an additional 5,000 units.

Its sister company, Bridger Aerospace (BA), an Aerial Firefighting company based in Belgrade, Montana, with its fleet of 14 airplanes (mix of Aero Commanders, Kodiak 100’s, and a CL-415EAF), can bypass commercial shipping channels to deliver equipment and personnel on-demand. An opportunity to fulfill a request made by the Frenchtown FD presented such an occasion. The Bridger team used their newly acquired Daher Kodiak 100 to hand-deliver 30 units to a Fire Department crew based in Frenchtown, Montana.

Tim Sheehy, CEO, has pledged to assist any other first responders in need. So far, BA and AVT have delivered over 300 shields to Bozeman Health and first responders and will be delivering masks to other fire departments and healthcare professionals across Montana.

Bridger Aerospace was in the news last month when it was announced they would be acquiring six CL-415EAF scooping air tankers. Longview Aviation in collaboration with Cascade Aerospace, is upgrading Canadair CL-215 air tankers to become CL-415EAFs.

Experiment with stipple images

A P2V lands at Redding
A P2V lands at Redding, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert

These photos are the product of an experiment using a mobile phone app, SnapDot.

Air Tanker 41, a BAe-146 Missoula 2014
Air Tanker 41, a BAe-146, partially blocking the sun as it flies over a wildfire conference at Missoula, MT May 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.