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Missoula firm applies to put tankers to work

Missoula firm applies to put tankers to work

MISSOULA - Neptune Aviation has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Forest Service to get its fleet of grounded airplanes back into the air for what many predict will be a raging fire season in the coming months.

Neptune was one of many companies to respond to a standard, national request for 20 large airtankers, said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. The deadline for the application was Monday.

The value of the contracts is difficult to determine, Eardley said, because the proposals include bids. In past years, the budget for 33 airtankers for a season was about $20 million, he said.

The NIFC contracting staff will likely begin to award the first contracts to the companies that meet the RPF's requirements "within the next couple of weeks,” Eardley said.

The requirements center on the service life of the aircraft, Eardley said.

Last May, the Forest Service abruptly canceled its contracts for Neptune's eight airtankers and 25 others around the West because of concerns for public safety and airworthiness.

The decision came after three airtankers crashed while working for the Forest Service. None of those planes was owned by Neptune, which operates P2Vs, a former Navy submarine warfare plane that was in production from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.

Neptune's P2V tankers were made during the latter part of that production period, and have received extensive modifications since then, Neptune president Kristen Schloemer has said.

"These are aging aircraft,” Eardley said. Many of the 33 aircraft did not have complete service histories or other basic data such as the number of hours flown, he said.

"Without that, there's no way to gauge the airworthiness today,” he said.

Last summer Neptune officials produced volumes of information on the maintenance, upgrades and other extensive work performed on its aircraft.

In August, the Forest Service gave the go-ahead to one of Neptune's tankers as part of a test program. That plane carried equipment that monitored the structure and stress on its wings.

Federal officials said the in-flight data will supplement a new operational life-limit study of the planes, which will be conducted for the Forest Service by Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the P2V tanker planes.

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