Officials: Air Tankers to Stay Grounded For Now

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Federal officials on Monday denied a request by two companies to return several large air tankers to service to fight wildfires, saying additional information was needed first on the life of the planes.

Officials lacked information on "operational life limit" of aircraft belonging to Neptune Aviation of Missoula, one of the criteria needed to help prove the air tankers airworthy, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center.

Officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management also turned down a request by Minden Air Corp. of Minden, Nev., to certify two air tankers for the same reasons, she said.

"Though Neptune has done a great job of maintaining" the air tankers, Davis said, "we don't have the stuff from when they were a young airplane to see what they've been through already."

The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, may have the information available but it is proprietary, she said, and officials plan to continue looking for ways to get that data.

In May, the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department announced they were ending the contract for 33 air tankers because of concerns with airworthiness and public safety. This decision came after an April 23 report by the National Transportation Safety Board on three air tanker accidents.

Federal officials later said some of the air tankers could be used to help fight fires this summer if their operators could prove they are safe to fly. In June, the Forest Service signed an agreement with DynCorp Technical Services, a Texas-based firm, to help in analyzing "airworthiness" documentation provided by operators of the large air tankers.


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