Exclusive: The future of aerial firefighting

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Neptune Aviation President Jennifer Draughon and Vice President of Operations Nic Lynn explain how it has become one of the major players the wildland firefighting industry

Aerial firefighting has become a critical component in battling wildfires, especially in the face of increasingly long and severe fire seasons.

Neptune Aviation entered the aerial firefighting industry more than 30 years ago.

The company started off as a fixed-base operator (FBO) known as Northstar Air Express in 1990.

Founder Marta Timmons offered FBO service along with aerial emergency medical services in the beginning, but then in 1994, she became interested in aerial firefighting, and wanted to make a difference by offering safe, effective, and efficient aerial firefighting services.

Timmons purchased a New Mexico-based airtanker company, which operated a fleet of Lockheed P2V Neptune aircraft retrofitted for aerial firefighting.

She renamed the company and relocated to its current location, Missoula, Montana.

In an interview with IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey, Neptune Aviation President Jennifer Draughon and Vice President of Operations Nic Lynn share insight on the organisation’s history and how the company has evolved and grown along with it to become one of the major players in today’s wildland firefighting industry.

How has Neptune Aviation’s approach and strategy evolved over the last 30 years to address the increasing severity of wildfires?

When Neptune started in aerial firefighting, the wildfire environment was extremely seasonal.

The approach to wildland firefighting at the time was different than it is today, involving the use of more firefighting resources.

It was also based on regional fire needs at the time, rather than the national approach that is currently used.

As the fire season expanded and the number of large fires increased, that model shifted due to multiple factors: Fires had to be tackled at a larger scale across a greater area, and as demands on aerial support grew, there were increasing concerns over the airworthiness of the airplanes and pilot safety.

To address those challenges, Neptune became the first aerial firefighting company to introduce a maintenance control center, so that field operations and functions were continually supported by a dedicated team that wasn’t involved in other activity.

That way, we could have a team that could travel with the aircraft and support it during its full deployment.

That has become a key factor in our ability to maintain 99% availability of our aircraft when called on for wildland firefighting.

In those early days of the company, the same pilot would take a plane out for 180 consecutive days, but that has changed with the times as well.

We now employ 35 pilots to fly our fleet of nine airtankers, providing pilots and crews with better work/life balance.

The increasing severity and length of the wildfire season has led us to expand our firefighting strategy from a seasonal to year-round effort.

While not in the air, we conduct maintenance and upgrades to our aircraft.

Our team is constantly planning to ensure that three of our airtankers are available whenever we receive the call for support.

Can you describe Neptune’s readiness protocols and how you ensure timely and effective deployment Air Attack and Tanker teams?

When a wildfire strikes, rapid response is crucial and readiness protocols are of the utmost importance.

Neptune’s yearlong firefighting preparation helps to ensure that we are ready, and from an airtanker perspective, we make sure that we have a minimum of three aircraft ready to go at any point of the year.

We alter this program based on two different approaches to execute it effectively.

The first component is off-contract readiness, when we keep crews and assets available to respond quickly.

Over the past year, we were asked to support three off-contract scenarios, and we were ready to respond within 24 hours.

We make sure that our aircraft is ready, and that flight crews are available for the mission.

In fact, we sometimes need to send out our company-owned aircraft to pick pilots up from their location to get them where they need to be.

We have also implemented an advanced training program for our pilots.

Rather than training exclusively during fire season, we stagger pilot training throughout the year, so that all our pilots have all their current required training and are ready to get in the aircraft.

During the season (on-contract), we staff each plane with four people – a captain, first officer, a crew chief, and a second mechanic in a support vehicle that chases the aircraft.

This team preps the aircraft each day, goes through acceptance checks, addresses any issues that arise, so that before we are on duty, the airplane is ready to go, and it is in that ready state all day.

This minimises the time from dispatch to take off, which helps us to launch the aircraft within the 15-minute requirement.

What are some recent technological advancements Neptune has integrated, and how do they enhance firefighting efficiency?

Our staggered pilot training program received a boost with the addition of a flight simulator that we brought online over the past year.

In the past, we would have to send pilots to the UK, Italy, or Australia to get access to receive flight simulator training.

Having capabilities in house gives us a more affordable and convenient way to provide continuous training for our pilots, and to raise the bar on training to the next level.

We took a major step in improving our training by instituting a Flight Operational Quality Assurance Program.

This is something the commercial industry has done for years to evaluate data on the flying characteristics of their pilots.

We run information through our system and look for trends.

We then deliver a monthly update to our team to provide continuing education on steps for improvement and focus our training on the team’s performance in that specific area.

We started this program four years ago, and we have seen continued progress each year.

We also recently upgraded the navigation communications systems with advanced avionics to better align with the firefighting mission.

When we purchased the BAe 146 aircraft that comprise our current fleet (and replaced the P2V), the equipment was tailored more to the needs of commercial airlines.

We needed something more sophisticated to elevate the situational awareness of our pilots.

The upgrade to the new avionics system, has been a significant advantage for our team, improving the GPS and terrain data while enhancing our aircrafts’ collision avoidance capabilities.

How does Neptune’s pilots’ experience translate into the effectiveness of your operations on the ground?

The 30 years we have been involved in aerial firefighting combined with the longevity of our pilots and the experience they have has improved the effectiveness of our retardant drops.

Today, with automation and advanced avionics and all the advancements that have been made, firefighting and the application of retardant from the pilot’s perspective is still a relatively manual process.

Retardant application can’t be guided by GPS – you need pilots who have experience reading the winds, the terrain, and the fuels on the ground to ensure the retardant coverage level, the drop height, and the speed of the aircraft all align to ensure that optimal drop coverage on the ground.

Pilot experience is what makes it successful, and our team does an excellent job of that.

We continue to build on that through an effective mentoring program.

Our more experienced pilots are training our new pilots coming in, and our new pilots rotate through three pilots to learn their techniques and gather information they need to be successful.

What motivated Neptune Aviation expansion into air attack services?

Air attack capability was a natural progression for our company.

First, it helps us to diversify our business.

We are experts in aerial firefighting, and this helps us to leverage our strengths.

It is also a wonderful introduction into the fire environment and this capability gives our young pilots the critical experience that they need.

Air attack and air tanker pilots are very mobile.

They are national assets, so you can wake up one day in Texas and go to sleep in Alaska.

That environment and lifestyle aren’t for everyone, and air attack gives us the opportunity to expose them to that.

It also gives them experience in the fire environment.

They start to understand the Fire Traffic Area (FTA), they learn the complexities of ground operations, helicopter operations, SEATs, LATs and then they start to gain an understanding the tactical side of firefighting.

What’s a heel, toe, flank – what are the different fuel types and how do we attack each of those? It’s a wonderful education for the pilot as a means of stepping into the airtanker realm.

We can move that person into air tankers, and we see a much quicker progression when they move to the left seat of an aerial firefighting airtanker because they already understand the lifestyle, the environment, the mission, the tactics, and the lingo.

It’s created a wonderful growth path.

Adding air attack services has also helped with our international growth.

When we serve countries, such as Australia, we can offer up a package to them.

We can bring the BAe 146 for aerial firefighting activity along with our air attack platform, and we can serve our international customers better operationally and more completely by providing this full solutions package – especially in regions where they do not have air attack capability.

How is the expansion into air attack services shaping your pilot recruitment and training strategies​​?

The truth is that we can build airtankers quicker than we can grow pilots.

Having the air attack program to optimise that timeline to increase our pilot pool allows us to grow our company at the pace we are trying to achieve.

While incorporating air attack services has helped our pilots to receive great real-world training, our recruitment and training strategies are still two-pronged.

Our pilots are not required to be involved in air attack to become aerial firefighters, although it is preferred.

We are also routing qualified candidates without experience into air attack first.

As we build more tankers and step into new platforms, the pilot pool is a key component of our ability to grow.

Taking someone who has not been in the fire environment, it takes 3-5 years of experience before they are able to sit in that left seat and be an initial attack captain.

How do the challenges and responsibilities in air attack operations differ from those in tanker operations​​​​?

Air attack is more of a support role for the mission, while the tanker is more tactical.

Air attack functions as a control tower, orbiting the fire and controlling the aircraft as they enter and exit the airspace.

The tankers come into the FTA at a lower altitude.

The typical air attack mission is four hours long and can support one fire, or more depending on the need.

The skills for each role are unique, and as mentioned, it takes 3-5 years to become an airtanker captain.

Learning to operate that tanker at 150 feet above the fire, and the other techniques needed to be a successful captain take time, and going through air attack helps pilots to prepare.

What advancements or expansions are planned for Neptune Aviation’s aerial firefighting fleet and services​​?

We moved the bar with the BAe 146, becoming the first in the industry to bring the next generation aircraft online.

Our current fleet is excellent, but we are actively researching and identifying our next platform, and we will be focused on that over the coming years, as we slowly phase out the 146s.

Our next platform will help us to better serve our customers both domestically and internationally.

Drawing on our 30 years of experience, we will deliver the best airtanker capabilities in the industry.

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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