An Air Force Orion aircraft dispatched to Kiribati this morning to look for three missing fishermen has returned to Auckland because of engine problems.

Air component commander Air Commodore Darryn Webb said the aircraft "developed a technical issue while en route to conduct a search mission in Kiribati this morning".

"As a result, the crew decided to conduct a precautionary engine shutdown and to return to New Zealand for maintenance," he said.

The aircraft landed safely at Whenuapai air base at 1.15pm.

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"Most technical malfunctions of the engine or propeller systems require crews to conduct precautionary shutdowns," Webb said.

"The crew handled the situation this morning in accordance with normal procedures."

The aircraft earlier left Auckland at 4.30am today to search for three young Kiribati fishermen who have been missing for more than five days.

The trio, aged 25, 27 and 30, were last seen leaving Betio Island, the largest town of Kiribati's capital island of South Tarawa, aboard a 4.5m wooden boat about 3am on Monday.

They were expected to return home later that day.

The men had 56 litres of fuel, a bucket of water and 20 buns with them, according to Fiji's RCC.

Fijian and New Zealand authorities planned to scour 34,300sq km during the search effort.

The Air Force has six Orion aircraft that are used for surveillance of New Zealand's economic zone, the Pacific region and the Southern Ocean. The aircraft each have four Allison R56-A engines and normally carry a crew of 12.

The first five Orions were bought in 1966 and a sixth was bought in 1985.