Setting a Standard 10

Neptune stands at the forefront of 
aviation technology

On a hot, smoky summer afternoon in the Missoula Valley, the familiar drone of a low-flying prop plane.

Missoulians don’t even have to look up to know they’ll see the red and white underbelly of a Neptune P2V prop plane. The cumbersome-yet-graceful image of those former bombers flying low over the valley reminds us of the insistent fire danger in our region and the consistent impact Neptune Aviation Services has in managing that danger.

What most can’t see are the great minds—the engineers, foresters, pilots, computer programmers—and the hours it took to put that plane in the sky, with its belly full of sticky fire-retardant.

While Missoulians crane their necks and shield their eyes to watch the P2V buzz by, just a few miles to the west is the Neptune hangar, where a beehive of activity is engineering, testing, and maintaining the fleet of aerial firefighters that support efforts across the country daily.

You can’t cast a fly in Missoula without snagging at least one seasonal firefighter. A quick drive in any direction and you’re in the charred remnants of once-dense forests, and late-August sunrises are painted an eerie orange with the smoke from burning timbers. So we think all those beautifully lumbering firefighting tankers are ours. They’re for us and our forests. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they’re not.

Fire spreads across our country like a clock. The eastern seaboard starts the circuit at the beginning of the year. The hand sweeps through the southeast, then across Texas and into the southwest, and up the west coast and into our region in late summer. By the time August rolls around and our Missoula men and women are dropping out of airplanes and cutting lines in our state, the Neptune pilots and techs have logged hundreds of hours and dropped millions of pounds of “mud” all across the country. Neptune has been here for 24 years quietly doing this good work, and while Missoula offers a welcoming home, Neptune doesn’t spend a whole lot of time around here enjoying the fly-fishing and Griz games.

Missoula nurtures genius work in a variety of scientific advancements. It’s the air, the culture, the beer, the rivers—they make people want to innovate and create so they can stay here. Add to that a highly educated workforce, and a nationally renowned fire science research facility and there’s the formula for a quality-driven, community-minded success story.

Neptune moved to Missoula from Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1993. At that time, six of the nation’s aerial firefighting aircraft were Neptune P2V planes. But those P2Vs were already 50 years old. Purists and historians admire the construction and reliability of the Lockheed bomber. Regularly maintained and serviced, that plane is as functional today as it was coming out of the hangar in 1945. But then 2002 happened: Two plane crashes on one fire in one summer.

Imagine the Indy 500, where all the pit crews are working for one car. Ten years ago that car was the P2V. A giant, reliable, fuel-guzzling Suburban. A vehicle you can drive for 450,000 miles and carry 18 children and five dogs. Today, there’s a new car on the track. A fuel-efficient, luxury mid-size SUV with third-row seating that corners like it’s on rails. That new car, the British Aerospace (BAe) 146, is the newest player in aerial firefighting, and Neptune was the mastermind.

Progress and advancement is rarely smooth in any endeavor, and following the tragedies in 2002, it was time for aerial firefighting to make a leap. Given the directive from the U.S. Forest Service, Neptune’s world-class engineers studied, flew, and tested every possible new technology and decisively selected the BAe 146. It was a passenger commuter plane, designed to land on short airstrips and offered the benefit of centering the payload in the cabin, making retardant drops less awkward and more consistent.

In hindsight it seems a no-brainer, but the best inventions work that way. Other companies have followed Neptune’s lead, and the BAe is now an industry standard. As the beta-tester in a high-risk, high-investment business, Neptune demonstrates serious confidence and more importantly the knowledge, skills, and resources to support that confidence.

Neptune’s motto is: Embracing Family. Firm Handshake. Resilient Spirit. Underneath that straightforward, old-fashioned and respectful practice is a company that is pushing itself to always be better. Hopefully when someone hears that familiar P2V drone in Redding or Santa Fe, they’re as comforted as Missoulians are knowing the experts are on the job.