Two More Air Tankers Are Back In Service In Montana

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ The government agreed Thursday to put two more large air tankers back into service for the remainder of the fire season - on an experimental basis only. More than two dozen air tankers were grounded this spring because of safety concerns.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said two P2V tankers, owned by companies in Montana and Nevada, will be outfitted with special equipment to monitor how much stress the planes experience during firefighting duty. The remainder of the companies' fleets will stay grounded, at least for the next three months, as officials continue working with the planes' manufacturer to determine their airworthiness, he said.

Additionally, Rey said three DC-6 aircraft owned by an Oregon-based company, Butler Aircraft, also would remain grounded.

``Unfortunately, we do not have adequate information to certify the airworthiness of those additional aircraft at this time,'' Rey said in a conference call with reporters. ``Absent knowing the service life limit ... it's impossible to know how many hours an aircraft can fly before it begins to experience metal fatigue.''

The seven P2V tankers owned by Neptune Aviation in Missoula, Mont., and two owned by Minden Air Corp. of Minden, Nev., were among the 33 large air tankers grounded by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management this spring because of safety concerns. That decision followed a report by the National Transportation Safety Board on three fatal air tanker crashes.

Federal officials later agreed to let air tankers return to service on an individual basis if their operators could prove they are safe. A private firm, DynCorp Technical Services of Texas, was hired to analyze the tankers.

Members of Montana's congressional delegation and one of the P2V owners quickly criticized Thursday's announcement.

``In 90 days, Neptune could be out of business,'' said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. ``Neptune has an impeccable safety record, and there's no reason why their planes shouldn't be flying.''

Len Parker, one of the owners of Minden Air, said the 90-day delay was excessive.

``We've hired and retained the best engineers in the business and they've already done the analysis that the Forest Service says needs to be done,'' he said.

Rey and Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson, who oversees the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said they understand the criticism but safety is the first concern.

``We simply don't have the information to, in good conscience, put people up in these planes,'' Watson said.