Thursday, 27 August 2009

Pilot killed fighting fire

Summer wildfires in Greece have claimed their first fatality this year. A pilot was killed while dousing a fire on the island of Kefalonia, about 170 miles west of Athens.

The pilot was killed in the Katelios area of the island after he steered his single-seater aircraft over the fire, and made his drop. Authorities cannot yet explain why he steered into high voltage power lines as he lifted.

The Polish-built Petzetel aircraft he flew carried about a tonne of water treated with fire retardant, and was originally designed as a crop duster. Greece owns a large fleet of these planes, converted to firefighting use, because they are quick off the ground and very manoeuvrable. They are meant as a first line of defence, dousing fires while they are still small.

But it is a dangerous business, because pilots must fly low to the ground and cannot always control the aircraft's behaviour after discharging the enormous weight of water they carry.

"He was a very good man, he had done a great deal for Kefalonia," said prefect Dionysios Georgatos. The Katelio fire, which had threatened homes, had successfully been put out, he said.

Greece lost two pilots to a similar accident in 2007. They were experienced pilots flying a new Canadair aircraft over fires in Evoia. After dropping their six tonnes of water they experienced the usual uplift, but in this case it was followed by a sudden drop. As they were operating at very low altitude, they had no time in which to lift themselves by using their engines.

The Petzetel was one of nine aircraft fighting three separate fires across Greece. The other two were at Aspro Horio, on the island of Paros, and Karystos, in Evoia.

You can hear my radio reports at www.npr.org (click on hourly news).

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