Some Large Air Tankers Can Be Flying By July 4

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The chairman of a House forest subcommittee said Friday the U.S. Forest Service could have the first group of decades-old heavy air tankers, grounded last month, under contract to fight fires by July 4.

"We're making headway," Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said following a meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., with representatives of the Forest Service, Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and the Bureau of Land Management.

Walden said the Forest Service and FAA have given tanker contractors the criteria they must meet to have their planes certified as airworthy, and the first inspections could be completed by early July.

"If those aircraft pass the test, the Forest Service could have a new contract in place within 24 hours," he said.

The meeting was the third arranged by Walden and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, since the Forest Service canceled $30 million in contracts with operators of 33 air tankers on May 10. The action came two years after two tankers broke up in the air, killing five people.

Four companies, accounting for 20 of the grounded tankers, have submitted new engineering reports for review. Walden said the first decision is expected to be on Aero Union's submittal, with other decisions to follow by mid-July.

While Walden was optimistic, a Forest Service representative told Western governors last Sunday that the odds of using the planes are slim.

Corbin Newman, the agency's national fire plan coordinator, told the Western Governors Association that officials will scrutinize maintenance information, inspection records and other documents before considering returning the aircraft to fight forest fires.

While Newman said planes that are safe could be flying under contract again, he added, "I think the likelihood of that is small..."

The tankers can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant on forest fires, and the groundings upset some Western governors whose states rely on the aircraft during fire season.

The Forest Service has added more single-engine air tankers - basically retrofitted crop-dusters - and helicopters to bolster air support. Eight military C-130s also are available across the region. One of the smaller tankers crashed while battling a wildfire last week in southern Utah, killing the pilot.