Some Air Tankers Could Be Back In The Air This Summer, Forest Service Says

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Some large air tankers that had been grounded over safety concerns could be back fighting fires this summer if their private operators can prove they are safe to fly, federal officials said Wednesday.

The Forest Service grounded the 33-plane fleet last month because it had no way to tell if the aging planes were safe. But officials said Wednesday they have worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop guidelines to assess the planes' air worthiness.

The private companies that operate the military surplus planes will be asked to supply detailed records showing each plane's flight history, maintenance and other information, said Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service.

Once that information is received, the Forest Service will work with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board to determine what planes can be returned to service, Rey told the Senate Commerce Committee.

Pressed by lawmakers as to when the planes could be back in use, Rey said some will probably never return. But others could be returned to service in about 30 days, he said.

``If they have the records, and if the records are adequate, and if the records indicate the planes are air worthy,'' then some could be returned to service, Rey said, adding: ``That's three ifs.''

Western lawmakers welcome the possible return of the air fleet but fretted that bureaucratic delays could cause the planes to miss the crucial summer firefighting season.

``Some faceless little person ... can give us the run-around and we won't get the planes off the ground and put out fires,'' said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana.

News of the possible return of some air tankers followed an announcement Tuesday that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will contract for nearly 130 more aircraft to fight wildfires this summer.

Private companies will supply up 48 smaller air tankers, and 71 large and medium-sized helicopters to take up the slack, officials said. Eight military C-130 aircraft also will be used. The extra firefighting help will cost about $66 million.

The move came amid heavy criticism from congressional leaders, firefighters and others in the West, where wildfires have burned through thousands of acres.

The Forest Service and BLM canceled $30 million in contracts for use of the large air tankers on May 10, citing safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people.