As wildfires have become increasingly destructive and widespread, aerial firefighting tankers must be ready to fly on a moment’s notice. Neptune’s team of aviation maintenance professionals have their fleet of BAe 146 air tankers ready with a 99% (plus) dispatch reliability rate. The near-perfect dispatch rate, which would be the envy of most commercial airline operators, is due to Neptune’s aggressive winter maintenance program, carried out at its Missoula Montana Airport (MSO) headquarters and maintenance complex.
Success starts with Structure.
Clifford Lynn, Neptune’s Director of Maintenance, cites the company’s highly structured winter maintenance program as an important contributor to the reliability of the next-generation air tanker. According to Lynn, Neptune’s maintenance team designed the FAA-approved airframe inspection program (AIP), which builds upon BAE Systems’ OEM maintenance protocol for the aircraft as a commercial jet.
As he described it, every year, each aircraft gets an A Check, a C phase check and D phase check. Every two years the C check is completed and every four years the D check is completed. These C and D phase checks include a corrosion control, and structural inspection program. The airframe, retardant tanks, and the engines are what the winter maintenance primarily targets.
“We schedule our winter maintenance, so anything due in the next 12 months, 400 hours, and/or 600 cycles is complied with during the heavy (C and D) check,” said Lynn. “To date, the nine air tankers are averaging 300 cycles per year. Some line replaceable units (LRU) are not changed during the checks if they have significant time on them remaining.”
Lynn added that for most life-limited components such as the landing gear, oxygen and fire bottles, Neptune follows the OEM maintenance protocol.
Because of the stressful environment in which the aircraft fly, some components have to be inspected at more frequent intervals, he noted. “Also, we have some additional tank related inspections.”
Winter maintenance on Neptune’s BAe 146 airframes is carried out exclusively in-house, the only exception being an occasional component X-ray for corrosion control. Similarly, all inspections and maintenance on the ALF 502 powerplants are done by Neptune’s technicians, with the exception of a few specialized subcomponent inspections and tests, which are outsourced. Neptune owns six hangars, plus three additional support buildings at Missoula, with total hangar space encompassing 140,000 square feet. Lynn reported that his team has the capability to run three maintenance lines simultaneously, but Neptune usually runs only two at a time.
EXPERIENCE IN ACTION
Neptune mechanics have a combined 900 years of airtanker experience.
Neptune mechanics have 2,100 years of aviation maintenance experience.
Availability Rating for Neptune aerial firefighting aircraft. Experience & Reliability matter – when a wildfire starts, Neptune is ready to fly.
Currently, Neptune’s maintenance staff numbers approximately 100. “We look for airframe and powerplant (A&P) certified mechanics with heavy airframe, as well as avionics experience; however we do not shy away from uncertificated or entry level mechanics with the right attitude,” said Lynn. “Experience on the BAe 146 and the Honeywell ALF 502 engine is nice to have, but not a must-have.”
He added that about 60 percent of the current maintenance cadre worked for Neptune when it still flew the P2Vs. All of them transitioned to the successor airplane through completion of a BAe 146 familiarization course, which Neptune runs itself. Specifically, that includes multiple online BAe 146 system specific courses as well as a 40 hour in person class. New employees, said Lynn, are assigned to a shop lead. “The shop leads are the coach mentors of their team for professional development,” he pointed out.
Rapid Repairs in the Field.
The familiarity of Neptune’s maintenance team with the BAe 146 extends from depot level inspections and repairs to field level service, utilizing Neptune-owned business aircraft to fly parts and mechanics to the air tanker’s location if the aircrafts dedicated support van does not have the specific part needed. Usually, a field repair—and aircraft return to service—can be accomplished within hours, or a day at most.
Lynn cites the dedication, skill and drive of its maintenance staff as the primary reason for Neptune’s exceptional dispatch rate. “It is the Neptune team that drives that success,” he said.