Neptune Aviation Tanker 5, one of two P2Vs recalled from retirement. Mike Eliason
WHITE FIRE DAY 2 --- A tanker makes a drop of fire retardant on the White Fire burns in the Los Padres National Forest Tuesday afternoon in this view near the intersection of Camuesa Connector trail and Camuesa Road. Photo by MIKE ELIASON/SBC

California Fire Emergency Prompts Recall Of Retired Air Tankers To Active Duty

P2V aircraft entered active duty after a mere nine days of retirement.

Two Neptune Aviation Services P2V Neptune air tankers, recalled to active duty just nine days since being retired, are fighting fires that have ravaged much of Northern California in recent days. Their deployment commenced after the Missoula, Montana-based aerial firefighting company officially retired its remaining seven P2Vs in a formal ceremony on Sept. 30.  The company has operated the aircraft since it was founded in 1993.

The tankers, dispatched at the request of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) on Monday, Oct. 9, were flown from Neptune Aviation’s southern maintenance facility at Alamogordo, New Mexico, to Chico, California, where they have been operating since Tuesday, Oct. 10, dropping fire retardant.

The Neptune Aviation Services P2V fleet, which once numbered 11, was the world’s last—and largest—operational group of the Lockheed-built, Cold War Era anti-submarine warfare aircraft.  Each aircraft--powered by two Curtis Wright R-3350 radial engines, plus two Westinghouse J34 jet engines--was modified with a 3,000 gallon (27,000 pound) capacity internal tank to perform its “initial attack” firefighting mission.

According to Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation Services’ chief operating officer, the company’s fleet at retiremen included the US Navy’s last operational P2V, built in 1962 and retired in 1980, with more than 2,000 flight hours. Snyder reports that when Neptune Aviation Services officially retired its P2Vs it had five that were airworthy. Two others were technically flightworthy, but had not undergone their annual major airframe and powerplant inspections. 

“The retirement of the P2Vs had nothing to do with safety or mechanical issues, but rather the policy of the US Forest Service (USFS)—our main customer—not to award contracts on legacy aircraft after this year,” says Snyder. “In fact, one of the tankers we took out of retirement has another 2,300 cycles remaining on the airframe, while the other has 500.”

Snyder adds that the two aircraft, operating under a CALFIRE call when needed, will continue flying on the fires for as long as needed.

Neptune Aviation Services has been replacing the P2Vs with modified BAe 146 regional jets, of which the company currently has nine, to satisfy USFS requirements for modern tankers.

Bill Thost

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