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.”

Neptune adopts new livery for their air tankers

The DC-10s operated by 10 Tanker will begin receiving new paint in January

New livery on T-01
New livery on T-01, December 18, 2020. Neptune photo.

Neptune Aviation Services released this photo of the first of their BAe-146 air tankers to receive new livery.

Their description:

Here is a sneak peak at the new look the Neptune’s tankers will begin sporting in 2021. Tanker 01 getting ready to depart Spokane for Missoula. The new paint scheme will make it easier for both air and ground observers to identify Neptune aircraft. Tanker 10 is up next for the new look.

Below is the previous design:

Tanker 01, a BAe-146
Tanker 01, a BAe-146, on the Sunflower Fire, Oregon, 2014 Todd McKinley.

The previous livery had the Montana state flag but no American flag. The company’s announcement said the new design has both.

The DC-10s operated by 10 Tanker will begin receiving new paint in January, John Gould, President and CEO of 10 Tanker told us.

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.

Talking tankers – Industry executive talks about large air tankers in an era of record wildfire, budgetary uncertainties, and COVID-19

Interview with Dan Snyder of Neptune Aviation

Tanker 02, a BAe-146, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire
Neptune’s Tanker 02, a BAe-146, dropping on the Elephant Butte Fire southwest of Denver, July 13, 2020. Photo by skippyscage.com.

By Paul Seidenman
for Fire Aviation

For aerial firefighters, 2020 is shaping up as a year of nonstop deployments as wildland fire events continue to shatter records for destruction, increasingly measured in square miles.  As those fires raged, large air tankers (LAT), as in years past, proved themselves as essential for the firefighting tool box.  To appreciate that, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services—an LAT operator—agreed to a wide-ranging interview with Fire Aviation.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fire Aviation – What changes have you seen with wildland fire events today, compared to a decade ago?

Dan Snyder – A decade ago, fire seasons were much more predictable.  Since then, we have seen many more fires yearly, particularly in California.  Along with that, wildland fires, today, have become much more destructive with respect to property and loss of life.

FA – At the same time, what changes have you seen with the fixed-wing air tanker fleet during that time?

DS – First, in 2010, there were three LAT service vendors—Aero Union, Minden Aviation, and Neptune Aviation Services. Neptune is the only one of those still in business.  Secondly, there has been a complete change in the LAT fleet mix.  The majority of the LAT fleet, prior to 2010, was propeller driven—mainly former military P-3s and P2Vs.  Today, it’s almost entirely jets, with just a few propeller driven LATs remaining.  And the number of companies offering LAT services has increased from three to at least seven.

Also, the contracting model has changed.  We have gone from 100% of the LATs under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts, to less than 50% under EU, with the remainder under Call When Needed (CWN) contracts.

FA – Neptune Aviation Services currently operates nine BAe-146 LATs.  How do LATs fit into today’s wildland aerial firefighting environment, given the proliferation of single engine air tankers (SEAT), the few very large air tankers (VLAT), and, of course helicopters?

DS – The LATs are the central pillar of USFS fixed wing aerial firefighting tactics, and the air tanker bases are built to support them.  The very large air tankers (VLAT) only fit into a handful of the tanker bases throughout the US.  Each aircraft in aerial firefighting—helicopters, SEATs, Scoopers, VLATs and LATs—are all tools in the toolbox and have roles that each does well. As an example the VLATs are great for building long fire retardant lines; scoopers work well when large bodies of water are near the fire.

Also, LATs are well suited for initial attack which requires rapid response time, and a high degree of maneuverability.  This allows them to operate over all North American terrain types.  For example, in mountainous areas, they are very effective in dropping retardant over a variable terrain profile.  With a retardant upload rate of at least 500 gallons per minute, they can get back in the air within 10 minutes.  Also, with 3,000-4,000 gallon capacity tanks, LATs carry roughly 3-5 times the retardant of a SEAT making one large airtanker more effective in most initial attack situations.  And, they can operate from more bases closer to the fires, and away from large airports where commercial traffic congestion can be a problem.

FA – Have you seen any changes that have made LAT and VLAT tankers more effective in wildland firefighting?

DS – Yes.  For example, this year (2020), those tankers were used to great advantage, even as the US Fire Service (USFS) had to react to the reality of firefighting fighting within COVID-19 restrictions.  Specifically, the USFS activated a large number of aircraft and placed them throughout the western US for initial attack purposes.  This resulted in less of a need to move people around, and led to more assets available at the outbreak of—and closer to—the fires, which I believe led to a higher success rate in initial attack.  It also made more aircraft available for large fire support.  In fact, this was the first time since the late 1990s, that there were 40 LAT/VLAT tankers, that this kind of deployment was done on such a large scale, and it was all COVID-driven.  We caught a lot of small fires and kept them from becoming large fires.

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Neptune’s Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire near Santa Barbara, California Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

FA – How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability of the industry to move people and assets to where needed?

DS – It has gotten better.  At the start of COVID in the US, airline schedules were severely reduced, and hotels and restaurants were closed.  Today, restrictions are not as bad, so moving people around is not as significant an issue as it had been.  Now, that’s just in the US.  With international operations, there are still significant issues.

FA – Since fire seasons are only projected to get worse, and fires more destructive, do we need even greater numbers of fixed wing tankers—both LAT and VLAT?  If so, by your estimate, about how many more does the country need?

DS – The number of large and very large air tankers operated by private industry today—about 38—is about the same as we had in the late 1990s.  The aircraft are faster, more reliable, and carry larger quantities of retardant, but costs have increased, putting even more strain on firefighting agencies’ budgets.  The Rand report–(Air Attack Against Wildfires — Understanding U.S. Forest Service Requirements for Large Aircraft)–which was released in 2012, indicated an optimal fleet under exclusive use contracts would be 18-28 LATs.  We have exceeded that, so there are enough aircraft for a normal or average fire season, as well as surge capacity for an above normal fire season.

FA – The USFS has moved more toward CWN and away from exclusive EU contracts, as you indicated earlier.  Could this ultimately impact the ability of the industry to invest in more aircraft, support staff, pilots and maintenance infrastructure, degrading the industry’s ability to respond to what could be a new normal with fire seasons?

DS – Yes. If we see several below average fire seasons, I believe we will see a negative impact on the air tanker industry under the current contacting model.  The Blue Ribbon Task Force report, which was published in 2004, suggested longer term contracts to assure vendor capability to maintain high standards in maintenance and training.  While the industry has made great strides–through significant financial investments in higher quality aircraft, better maintenance, and crew training–my concern is that going to CWN contracts, could begin to undermine the strides the industry has made.

FA – The USFS also wants to move toward one-year guaranteed contracts, with additional years as options at its discretion.  For now, what is the standard USFS EU contract length?  What are the potential consequences for LAT/VLAT operators should one year guaranteed contracts become standard?

DS – NextGen 1 and NextGen 2 contracts were 5-year contracts with five one-year options.  NextGen 3.0 is the one-year contract, with option years.  If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved.  It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.

FA – There has been talk about the need to conduct aerial firefighting at night.  In your opinion, are equipment vendors offering avionics which would make this possible for LAT/VLAT operators?  In fact, is it even practical and safe?

DS – The technology exists for aerial firefighting at night, but it’s expensive, and there is no cohesive package you can purchase and install on a fixed wing aircraft to make it practical and safe.  I think it is much lower risk for helicopters, but not ready for the fixed wing world just yet.  Will we get there?  Yes, but I’m not sure when.

FA – In recent years, the private aerial firefighting industry has been concerned about government becoming more involved in the business.  For example, CAL FIRE has configured ex-Coast Guard C-130s for tanker operations.  Is this still a concern today?  Do you see more State fire protection agencies getting into aerial firefighting?

DS – CAL FIRE has always had its own program, and it is increasing its aerial firefighting capacity.  However, I do not see other States following the CAL FIRE model.  The USFS has given up on it, because it has seen private industry creating the capacity, and it no longer sees a need for its own program.  Also, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is not interested.

FA – Air tanker operations demand special flying skills.  How has the industry done with respect to pilot recruitment and retention?

DS – The industry has done well with pilot retention and training  Turnover tends to be low, because it draws a very unique subset of individuals that get into the industry and stay long-term.

Tanker 02, a BAe-146
Tanker 02, a BAe-146, at Missoula during winter maintenance May 25, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

FA – Pilots and mechanics in aerial firefighting are constantly on the road and away from home during busy fire seasons.  Does that impact retention?

DS – Yes.  In fact, some 10 years ago, at Neptune, we addressed that by increasing the number of employees and instituting a rotating schedule, so that our people are not away for very long periods.  For example, we try to provide a work schedule for our mechanics of one month on, one month off.  For pilots, the goal is three weeks on and three off.  It has worked out well, and we have seen a lower turn-over rate as a result.

FA – LAT and VLAT operators have modernized their operations through acquisition and modification of former commercial jets.  In your opinion, will the next step be some type of purpose-built tanker?  What are the challenges and issues that might prevent that from happening anytime soon?

DS – Cost is a big factor.  If the wildland management agencies are interested in a purpose built aircraft, budgeting models will have to change significantly.  A brand new CL 415, which is a purpose-built scooper, is about $38 million.  A new C-130 is about-$50-60 million, but a used C-130 can be had for $10 million or less, depending on condition and number of flight hours.  The industry can tank a half-life commercial airliner for a fraction of a purpose-built aircraft cost.  So, while a purpose-built tanker would be great, I don’t know that it could do anything more for the industry than a repurposed commercial aircraft.

Tanker 02, a BAe-146
Neptune’s Tanker 02, a BAe-146, at Missoula during winter maintenance May 25, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Protests for new helicopter and air tanker contracts may not be decided until July or September

Four companies filed protests with the GAO

Neptune's five BAe-146 air tankers
Five of Neptune’s BAe-146 air tankers in 2014. Neptune Aviation photo.

Two recent attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to award contracts for firefighting aircraft have been protested.

On March 26 the agency awarded exclusive use (EU) contracts for five Next Generation 3.0 large air tankers. Erickson Aero Air and Aero Flite were each selected for two awards and Coulson Aviation received one. This would have added five tankers to the 13 that are currently on Next Gen 1.0 and 2.0 EU contracts, to bring the total up to 18.

However Neptune Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. Usually a protest prevents any contract awards from a solicitation. The due date for the GAO decision in this case is July 15, 2020. Neptune currently has four large air tankers on the existing contract while 10 Tanker has two.

The other protest was for 28 Type 1 helicopters, designed to tag on to the previous four-year contract that expired April 30, 2020. Both Billings Flying Service and Croman Corp. filed protests which are due to be decided by September 8, 2020.

In May, 2020 the Forest Service awarded guaranteed EU 90-day contracts for 24 Type 1 helicopters and 12 Type 2 helicopters. These aircraft, based on the national Call When Needed agreement, are considered national aviation resources to be used for initial attack and large fire support. It will be possible to extend the contract period beyond 90 days depending on the national situation. The plan was for the helicopters to begin their Mandatory Availability Periods on June 1 or June 15.

All of the contract awards for Next Generation EU air tankers since 2013 have been protested by companies that did not receive a contract. In each case the action delayed activation of the new contracts by months. If you are interested in a deep dive into these protests, check out our April, 2020 article, “Protests of air tanker contracts have been common.”

Two companies file protests over air tanker contracts

Five additional large air tankers on contract were announced March 26

T-41 Redding
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, lands at Redding August 7, 2014 after dropping on a fire in northwest California.

(UPDATED at 2:46 p.m. MDT April 10, 2020)

Two companies have filed protests with the Government Accountability Office regarding recent contracts for five large exclusive use air tankers. The U.S. Forest Service announced on March 26 that three companies received contracts on the Next Gen 3.0 solicitation — Erickson Aero Tanker for two tankers, Aero Flite for two, and Coulson for one.

Neptune Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier both filed bid protests (here and here) on April 6, 2020. The due date for the GAO to adjudicate the action is July 15, 2020.

Neptune has four tankers and 10 Tanker has two on the existing Next Gen 1.0 and 2.0 contracts. There are a total of 13 aircraft on the two contracts.

Typically a protest halts all work on a new air tanker contract. We asked Kaari E. Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist with the Forest Service, if that was the case in this instance, and she replied, “Due to the timing of the protests there is an automatic stay of performance.”

How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?

We calculated the cost per delivered gallon

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

Today I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Statistics for the use of air tankers, 2000 through 2019

And, more details about the new Call When Needed contracts

 
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019
Usage of large air tankers, 2000-2019. Revised Feb. 24, 2020. Fire Aviation.

(Updated Feb. 24, 2020)

This chart shows data from 2000 through 2019 for the number of large air tankers (LAT) on U.S. Forest Service Exclusive Use (EU) Contracts, the number of times each year large air tankers were requested by firefighters on a wildfire, and the percentage of requests that were not filled (Unable to Fill, UTF). 

New Call When Needed contracts

More information is now available about the Large Air Tanker Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in December, 2019. Six companies have a total of 36 aircraft on the list, a number of aircraft that is one more than first announced.

The costs below are estimates provided by the Forest Service for one aircraft  based on the contracts awarded. Kaari Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service who sent us the information, told us that the estimates assume 36 days a year, for 4 years, and 100 flight hours a year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold approximately 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

Update February 13, 2020. With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above, it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and not including the costs of retardant, are: 
$7.00:  MD-87
$8.50:  BAe-146, C-130, & 737
$10.00: RJ85
$4.50:  DC-10
$3.00:  747

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. 

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2007 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

The CWN contract was awarded 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018 —  the exact amount of time it took to award the first Next-Generation EU air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013.

Exclusive Use Next Generation 3.0 contracts

And speaking of long time frames, it has been 450 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for the third round of EU Next Gen air tankers, Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required 12 months ago. Ms. Carpenter told us today that the FS expects it to be awarded in “early March, 2020.”

Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study

The Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study began approximately 2,812 days ago in 2012 and to date no substantive results have been released, other than a two-page “fact sheet”.  Senator Lisa Murkowski asked about the study during a Congressional hearing April 9, 2019 and FS Chief Vicki Christiansen told her a report would be released “soon”. Ms. Carpenter told us today it would be released in the Spring of this year, 2020.

In the hearing 10 months ago Colorado Senator Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

When asked if firefighting aircraft were worth the cost and if they were effective, the answers from land management agencies have often been, “Yes”.

How do you know?

“We just do”. (I’m paraphrasing here).

The study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires. Theoretically this would better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

Last year one person familiar with the issue told me that they thought the actual, accurate data from the AFUE would never be released — like the situation with the RAND air tanker study that the Forest Service never released even after our Freedom of Information Act request. Two years after it was completed RAND released the document.