A Montana aviation company has joined an international effort to suppress catastrophic wildfires in Chile. The Chilean wildfires have killed 11 and caused over $300 million in damage since they started burning in earnest about three weeks ago.
While they’re mostly under control right now, the wildfires are being described as the worst in the country’s history. And that’s how Missoula-based Neptune Aviation got involved according to company CEO Ron Hooper.
"All their resources were committed and they put out a plea internationally for assistance. They called us and asked if he had an aircraft available," Hooper says.
The Chilean request to Neptune was made last Monday. By this past Friday morning, one of Neptune's next generation four-engine-jet-tankers was wheels up and bound for Chile. It carried four Neptune employees.
"That’s the one that we could take internationally," Hooper explains. "Our other air tanker is a P2V. That’s a former military aircraft. We’re not allowed to take it out of the continental U.S. So the only option was sending our modern jet which is not restricted. In addition to that, the jet’s faster and carries a greater amount of retardant."
Hooper notes that despite the exotic location, aerial firefighting is just about the same anywhere you go:
"Once you’re down there it’s just another day once you overcome the language challenges. Most of the ground forces – probably 99 percent of the ground forces – do not speak English. So, trying to have communication with folks on the ground was a challenge."
So one of Neptune’s employees on this mission has taken on a bigger role than normal:
"One of the mechanics we sent down there is very fluent in Spanish. He’s been riding along in the cockpit and having communication with ground personnel in Spanish."
Hooper says Neptune's been keeping an eye open for potential international expansion opportunities ever since developing the first jet tanker back in 2011:
"My understanding is they’re starting to have dialogue within the Chilean government of advertising exclusive use contracts. They’re very interested in our participating in that. [This is an opportunity] for some exclusive use long term contracts."
Back home in the states, Hooper doesn’t expect an early start to the fire season given the generally wet, La Nina winter, but:
"What that does is it provides for additional vegetative growth, and you get a late fire season when things start drying out in July, August, September, October. So I think you’re going to see a pretty typical season in terms of timing, seriousness of fires, numbers and frequencies of fires," Hooper says.
The 2017 fire season will certainly be noteworthy for another reason. This will be the final service year for Neptune’s fleet of iconic propeller-driven P2V air tankers.
"They’ll be retired this fall when they come off contract."
Hooper says a couple of the old planes will be kept around in airworthy condition for air shows:
"The others will be going to museums. One will be put at the airport in Missoula at the gate, so a variety of 'next life,’ if you can use that term for the aircraft."
Neptune has seven airworthy, prop-drive P2V’s that are tanked and ready to fight fire. The company has nine jet tankers.
Company CEO Ron Hooper says the team making retardant drops in South America right now are on indefinite assignment, meaning they’ll stay as long as needed by the Chilean government.