Five Air Tankers To Be Restored To Service, Administration Says

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Five large air tankers that had been grounded over safety concerns will be back fighting fires Monday, after their private operator demonstrated they are safe to fly, federal officials said Friday.

The five planes, P-3 Orions owned by California-based Aero Union Corp., were among 33 planes grounded in May because officials had no way to tell if they were safe.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton and other officials said Friday that after working with the Federal Aviation Administration and a private contractor that inspected the planes, officials were confident the air tankers being returned to service were safe.

Officials have not decided where the planes will be based or where they will be deployed, Norton said.

More planes owned by other companies may be returned to service this month after DynCorp Technical Services, the government's contractor on plane inspections, completes reports on those planes, officials said.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management canceled $30 million in contracts for use of the large air tankers in May, citing safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people.

Since then, lawmakers and governors in Western states have pressed officials to reconsider their decision, calling the large air tankers vital to firefighting efforts.

Mark Rey, the agriculture undersecretary who directs U.S. forest policy, said a reconfigured fleet of smaller planes and helicopters has been as successful in fighting fires as the 33 large tankers were last year.