The Navy returned to flight status yesterday the female fighter pilot it grounded two years ago in the midst of a smear campaign by civilian activists and naval aviators opposed to allowing women to fly fighter aircraft.

Lt. Carey Lorenz, whose allegations of sex discrimination are the subject of an upcoming Navy inspector general report, has been given back her right to fly land-based Navy aircraft. However, she will not be allowed to return to the cockpit of the F-14 Tomcat or any other carrier-based plane.

The decision was greeted as a victory by Lorenz, and defense sources said the Navy is trying to make amends to her for having been subjected to discriminatory treatment by superiors and colleagues in Carrier Air Wing 11 at Miramar Naval Air Station in California.

"This is an enormous step towards restoration of her reputation," said Susan Barnes, an attorney representing Lorenz in a pending civil court case against the Navy. "I think the Navy is trying to do the right thing, and I'm satisfied this is the best they can do at this time." Barnes said that, practically speaking, "resistance" among naval aviators "would be too strong against her" if Lorenz were to return as a fighter pilot.

Lorenz and Lt. Kara S. Hultgreen were the Navy's first two female combat pilots. Hultgreen was killed when the 32-ton plane she was flying plunged into the ocean on a landing approach in 1994. The Navy determined that the crash was due to mechanical problems and pilot error.

Hultgreen's death became a lightning rod for naval aviators and civilian activists who oppose allowing women to fly combat aircraft and who believe the Navy has put political considerations over safety and morale issues. The campaign, which sometimes calls itself "the Tailhook Underground," after the infamous 1991 Tailhook sex scandal, is spearheaded by Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness.

Donnelly in January 1995 began circulating leaked copies of Lorenz's confidential records in news releases and center reports. At the time, Lorenz was referred to as "Pilot B."

Donnelly said she could not comment on the decision because she did not know the Navy's rationale. She said her efforts were not intended to smear Lorenz's reputation but to raise legitimate safety concerns. "My primary concern is safety and excellence in aviation," she said. "The theories she has are totally unsupported."

Lorenz was grounded in May 1995, one month after receiving an outstanding fitness report and many previous laudatory reports. She was described then by her skipper as an "unsafe, undisciplined and unpredictable pilot." Lorenz alleges the rating was unfair and part of the campaign to oust her. Her commander and others say they had legitimate concerns about her flying abilities.

The restoration of her flight status splits the difference. In it, Vice Adm. D.T. Oliver, chief of naval personnel, effectively upholds the initial wing commanders' judgment that she was not a good enough pilot to land on aircraft carriers.

But it also recognizes she is capable of flying land-based planes.

Defense Department sources said the Navy is trying to make amends to a second female pilot and to discharge several aviators who they believe stole and leaked Lorenz's personnel records to Donnelly and treated Lorenz in malicious ways by ostracizing her and trying to intimidate her.

Included in that group would be Lt. Patrick "Pipper" Burns who, in exchange for criminal immunity, allegedly told the Navy he stole the documents. In an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court, Barnes alleges that two other lieutenants, three commanders and a captain helped create the smear campaign.

Navy officials would not comment on Lorenz's case but Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Kendell Pease said the Navy recognized it had made some mistakes and has corrected them. "That was the first time that air wing went through it," he said, referring to the integration of women. "We went through it and we learned."

During the wing's second tour of duty as a gender-intergrated group, which just ended, its top rookie pilot was a woman, he said.