Some Air Tankers Could Be Back In Service This Summer, Lawmakers Say

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As many as eight of 33 large air tankers grounded last week could be restored to service and used to fight forest fires this summer, Western lawmakers said Tuesday after meeting with Federal Aviation Administration officials.

Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA, said the agency has agreed to work with the U.S. Forest Service and private contractors to develop maintenance and inspection programs and a system for certifying the tankers as safe to fly.

The Forest Service and Interior Department last week canceled $30 million in contracts for use of 33 air tankers, citing safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people. Officials had said they would rely on military planes and other aircraft to fill the void.

Western lawmakers and governors, however, mounted a campaign to get at least some of the grounded tankers back into operation, saying their ability to drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant slurry is needed this wildfire season.

Forest Service officials said they lack the expertise to ensure that the privately owned tankers _ some of which are as old as 60 years _ were safe to fly.

Under a federal law, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management _ not the National Transportation Safety Board nor the FAA _ are responsible for certifying that planes used for public purposes are safe.

At a meeting Tuesday, lawmakers and the federal agencies involved agreed to work together to develop a system for inspecting the tankers and ensuring their airworthiness. Officials agreed to focus on eight former Navy P-3 Orions, which have a more complete history than other converted military planes typically used to fight fires.

``Ultimately, our goal is to get the planes in the air this summer,'' said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

While officials will work with the FAA and NTSB, at this point the Forest Service does not have a mechanism to guarantee the safety of the tanker fleet, said spokeswoman Julie Quick.

``If the tankers can be brought back on line, we certainly will use them. Right now, we have to work together to identify other options and possibilities,'' she said.