After two low passes over the Crater Lake Klamath Regional Airport, the landing gear came down and a venerable old warbird made its final landing Sunday.
Crowds cheered as the engines shut off at the refueling pad of the air tanker base in Klamath Falls, welcoming a Lockheed P2V Neptune built in 1954 that earned its retirement after over six decades of service.
Operated by Neptune Aviation out of Missoula, Mont., the twin-engine prop plane, later outfitted with two additional jet engines during the Vietnam War-era, was originally designed during World War II to hunt submarines.
The aircraft served in that role for the Navy until 1962, when it was repurposed for surveillance. It was saved from the aircraft boneyard in 1975 by Black Hills Aviation and converted into a fire-bomber, eventually acquired by Neptune Aviation for aerial firefighting operations for the past 14 years under the designation Tanker-06.
On Sunday, a contingent comprised of Forest Service dignitaries, staff and curious citizens gathered at the northeast end of the airport to welcome the aircraft to its final resting place. The aircraft, operated by a two-man crew, taxied to the air tanker base shortly after 2 p.m., passing under an arc of water sprayed by fire trucks and a large American flag hung from a fire truck ladder. This practice is a tradition in the aviation community for any aircraft or retiring pilot upon completion of their final flight.
After being stripped for parts this winter, Tanker-06 will take up permanent residence at the airport, a static display alongside the Tanker 61 Memorial site in honor of flight crews who have died fighting wildfires.
The Tanker 61 Memorial, an observation tower adjacent to the airport fence at the air tanker base on the northeast corner of the airport, stands in memoriam of Chuck Sheridan and Leonard Martin, who died in a Douglas DC-7 crash on Oct. 1, 1992.
The tower provides an observation deck for the public to observe air tanker refueling operations, and includes memorabilia from Tanker 61 while honoring the 180 pilots and crew who have died in service fighting wildfires.
“We will put concrete pads beneath it and jack it up, then it will be on permanent display,” said Dale Alter, mix master at the air tanker base. “The airport said we could re-route the fence so that there will be a way for people to access the P2V through the Tanker 61 memorial.”
Once the engines shut down, curious crowds got a chance to peruse the aircraft and climb inside.
Despite the scale of the aircraft’s exterior, the interior provides rather cramped quarters for the seven-person crews that once hunted submarines from the various observation posts in the air frame. Kids, Forest Service staff and seniors walked the exterior or climbed into the cockpit, a rare up-close glimpse at a World War II-era aircraft.
Classic flying tanker
The flight marked the end of an era for Neptune Aviation, a company that is named after the classic warbirds it has flown for years. While Tanker-06 is being retired as a museum piece, two other Neptunes belonging to the company will continue operating, but solely for air shows and demonstrations.
Neptune Aviation now fly British Aerospace 146s, a four-engine jet aircraft primarily used for commercial air service.
“It really is amazing, my co-pilot and I were just talking about how when we started flying it’s the dream of every pilot to get to fly old aircraft – the ones we normally one see in museums,” said Ryan Baer, first officer for Neptune Aviation.
“I can’t believe I got this job getting to fly P2Vs and fighting fires with them. I pinch myself, where else can I get paid to fly a 36-cylinder radial engine with Vietnam-era jets strapped on and get to drop mud at 200 feet in the mountains — this is a dream.”
“It is important to keep this history alive,” added Alter. “It is important to hold onto the history alongside the new aircraft.”
Fire suppression support
The air tanker base in Klamath Falls has had a relatively busy summer, pumping around 411,000 gallons of fire retardant so far, according to Alter. Crews have supported fire suppression efforts on the Stone Fire, but did not participate in the Watson Creek Fire because of severe smoke conditions essentially shutting down air base operations.
Alter noted that one air base this summer has pumped more than six million gallons of retardant for aerial firefighting efforts.
“This is a big deal not just for Tanker 61 or Tanker-06, but all in general — we owe a debt of gratitude to those folks,” said Roland Giller, tribal relations specialist and partnerships coordinator for the Fremont-Winema National Forest.
“In a lot of ways wild-land firefighting is a part of our culture out here. Air tankers and helicopters don’t put out fires, but they’re a very important tool. There are situations where having air tanker support is essential in firefighting.”