MISSOULA, Mont. -- Another chapter in aviation history came to an end this past weekend as Neptune Aviation retired the last of their P-2 Neptune firefighting air tankers.

“Today is an ending of an era,” said Neptune Aviation chief operating officer Dan Snyder, “and we’re sending them out in style.”

Indeed, the company threw a giant send-off at its headquarters here, featuring food trucks, avgeek merchandise and static planes for kids -- and adults -- to climb through.

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The big draw, however, was the last opportunity to see the planes fly and perform their signature water drops. The company and its pilots performed three drops for the crowd, a display that came along with low passes and a final formation flight to close out the show.

It was an opportunity that was just too good to pass up for visitor Dan Dinneen, a retired firefighter who flew in from California to see the airplane off.

“I wasn’t gonna miss this for the world,” he said.

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With 30 years of wildfire firefighting under his belt, Dinneen is no stranger to the P-2. He figures he’s been on the receiving end of a P-2 retardant or water drop dozens of times.

“It was a beauty of an aircraft to see come in,” said Dinneen, reflecting on his time working fire lines in California.

“There were a couple of times on fires that we were in a tight spot, and the P-2 got us out. They saved our ass,” he said.

For Neptune, the retirement caps 24 years of flying toward fires with the P-2.

“These airplanes made Neptune what it is today: it’s where our name came from,” said Synder, who wasted no opportunity to snap photos of the final flight with his cellphone along with several thousand others in attendance.

The company first got its start in the air tanker business, flying converted World War II-era Boeing B-17 bombers under the name Black Hills Aviation, based in New Mexico.

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“The industry was fueled by a lot of retired [World War II-era] bombers back in the early days,” said Neptune P-2 captain Bob Webb in between flights. But as the older B-17s reached the end of their service life, it was time to move on to a new airplane.

The company switched to the Neptune, both in airplane choice and name, in the early 1990s, moving to its current home in Missoula in 1993. The reason for the switch of aircraft wasn’t exactly romantic.

“They were just available – there was a desert full of ‘em,” says Webb. Neptune would go on to fly eleven of the planes through their 24-year run with the company.

Most commonly known as the Lockheed P-2 Neptune, the first aircraft flew in 1947 for the U.S. Navy. It served primarily as a long-range submarine hunter and surveillance plane, often staying aloft for over twelve hours on missions along the nation's coastlines.
 
The airplane even briefly served as a Navy nuclear bomber in the late 1940s and early 1950s, though it wasn’t especially effective. A heavily modified version was able to launch off an aircraft carrier, but had to return to a land-based airport because of its configuration.

The curtain began to fall in the mid-1960s as its replacement, the P-3 Orion, arrived on the scene. The Neptune stayed active in reserve units until the late 1970s, earning it the title of longest-serving military aircraft for the better part of the following decade, said Snyder. It eventually would lose that superlative to the venerable B-52.
 
But as one life for the airplane ended, another was just getting underway.  

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Much like the B-17s that went before it, the P-2 turned out to be uniquely suited to aerial firefighting.

“It was designed to absorb World War II-style battle damage, and because of that it has a lot of structural strength,” Snyder said.

Add in two jet engines to help with takeoff and low-level mountain flying – yes, the P-2 has two World War II-era radial engines and two jet engines – and you wind up with a surprisingly maneuverable airplane.

The biggest selling point, however, may be the most obvious: “It has a bomb bay, which makes the retardant tank go in very easily,” Snyder said. Fully loaded, the plane could carry and drop more than 2,000 gallons of retardant or water on a fire.

However, despite its long list of credentials and years of service, the airplane couldn’t quite make the cut anymore.

Newer jets -- like the Bae-146 air tanker that will replace the P-2 at Neptune -- fly faster, safer, and can drop considerably more retardant.

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“It’s much safer now. Much more reliable; easier,” said P-2 captain Brad Ruble of the switch to jets. “It costs a lot of money but they don’t break. They’re smooth, quiet, and really easy to operate.”

That stands in sharp contrast to the hot, smelly, and often deafeningly loud experience that pilots get aboard the P-2.

“You gotta work harder than you do on the jets,” said fellow P-2 captain Webb.

“It’s not air conditioned; you sweat. You’re overwhelmed with everything: the aroma of the airplane and the smell of burning oil when you start the engine. It’s a different era,” Webb said.

“The workload is higher, the comfort is less – but we love it,” he said.

But Webb, too, is ready for the transition. “I’m not bitter about leaving it. I think it’s time to move on."

Ruble, who himself retired along with the P-2 after 38 years in the air tanker business, is likewise ready.

“I’ve done this long enough. I’m gonna miss it, but not very much,” he said after piloting his last flight. “I’ve done all I can do and it’s time to go home and be with my wife and family.”

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren is a Seattle-based photojournalist and aviation writer and a contributor to Ben Mutzabaugh's Today in the Sky blog. You also can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @photoJDL.

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