An arching spray of water from the Glendive, Montana, volunteer fire department greeted Tanker 05, a Lockheed Neptune P2V–5F fire bomber, after the red-and-silver radial- and jet-engine workhorse made its final flight.
The Dawson Community Airport salute was a fitting finale for the big-bellied tanker built in 1945, which served the Rockies, desert Southwest, and other wildfire hot spots for decades. Ten rescue and fire vehicles lined the runway during a final low pass as the airplane banked high into the blue sky of Montana, its Wright 3350-series engines thundering overhead with assistance from a pair of screaming auxiliary Westinghouse J34-WE-36 turbojets. Two hundred aviation enthusiasts applauded as the aircraft rolled to a stop, then flocked around the big bird.
Airport manager Craig Hostetler said the aircraft was “generously donated” to the airfield by Neptune Aviation Services to serve in its new role as a static museum piece. “I’m pretty excited about it. It’s obviously something that very few people get the privilege of having,” he said during a video interview. Hostetler complimented AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Craig Stebbins for the foresight to bring the working aircraft to Glendive. “He was the brainchild of this,” Hostetler noted.
Stebbins, an airport board member, said he “started making inquiries in 2014, and three-and-a-half years later, and a bunch of emails and telephone calls later … the effort paid off, and here we are.”
Neptune Aviation Services is the primary provider of air tanker services to the U.S. Forest Service, a position it’s held for more than 25 years. The company currently operates a fleet of nine British Aerospace BAe 146 firefighting air tankers that are capable of delivering a 3,000-gallon payload of fire retardant to the heart of wildfires. Additional retired Neptune P2V aircraft found homes in airport museums stretching from Belleville, Michigan, to San Diego, California, with the majority ramped among the Rocky Mountain airports familiar to Neptune crews and family members.
Kim Gonsioroski-Irigoin, the widow of tanker pilot Greg Gonsioroski, said the tight-knit air tanker community provided “many, many great memories, and much heartache,” too.
“Firefighters on the ground and in the air sacrificed time with their loved ones in order to protect others,” she noted. Her husband was killed during a 2008 mission aboard a sister ship known as Tanker 09. She said she hoped that when “people come to see this beautiful, beautiful airplane, they pause for a moment to think of the brave firefighters not only in the air, but on the ground, who sacrificed so much to protect others.”