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The twin-engine Canadair CL-215 lands at the Elefsina Air Base west of Athens for just a few seconds before taking off again in another successful touch-and-go exercise. As the Hellenic Air Force’s firefighting pilots continue their assessment flights, the engineers of the Aircraft Maintenance Squadron are battling the clock in the hangar, scrambling to get the country’s water-dropping air fleet in fighting form ahead of the fire season.
This is no easy tasks, as the majority of the aircraft were purchased in 1974-79. Last year, the HAF gave the fire service nine of its 11 Canadair CL-215s to use, some of which presented mechanical problems while on the job last summer. Work is now under way to provide the service – which also has to contend with an aged fleet of fire trucks – with as many aircraft as possible before the weather heats up and Greece sees its usual barrage of wildfires.
“This aircraft was built in a different time and, therefore, according to a different philosophy,” says Captain Ioannis Sentouxis. “Nothing is automatic, so all the checks have to be done manually by the pilot. Even the pedals are wire-operated. There is no hydraulic assistance or a computer to monitor the engine’s performance and intervene when needed.”
These technological shortcomings mean that pilots have to keep an eye on the all of the aircraft's functions while also monitoring air traffic in the area, often amid dense smoke and rugged terrain.
"It's tough both mentally and physically," says Mr. Sentouxis.
Sentouxis sits in the cockpit of one of the CL-215s and points out each instrument, explaining what they do. He also tells us that many pilots suffer from back pain as the seats are not equipped with dampers and every bump and jolt shoots through their bodies.
That said, the Canadair CL-215’s 18-cylinder engine is one of the “most successful and advanced piston-powered engines ever developed,” according to squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Giorgos Tsantidis. “As long as it is serviced and maintained it is reliable.”
There are additional problems, however, arising from the fact that the basic design of the aircraft when it was first produced in 1969 already dated to the 1930s, while most of Greece's are around 40 years old. “Many of the parts are very hard to find so we can have long delays in repairing certain damage. It is a daily struggle,” says Lieutenant Colonel Antonios Vourvoulis as he shows us around the maintenance hangar.
There, two aircraft are undergoing their annual inspection and another is in the final stretch for being green-lighted for action. The entire plane is taken apart once a year and the engines are sent either to a repair firm in the United States or to the Hellenic Aerospace Industry. After a series of rigorous checks, the aircraft is reassembled and put through a series of test flights before being sent off to battle.
“The commonest problems are reduced performance, oil leaks and malfunction of the rotor shaft,” says Vourvoulis.
Every type of firefighting aircraft has its advantages and disadvantages, but in the case of the CL-215, the task at hand for everyone involved is that much harder. “They can only be in the air from dawn to dusk,” says Captain Vassilis Maris, who has been flying these aircraft for the past seven years.
The fuel for the CL-215s is also hard to come by and cannot be supplied by any civil airport. “It requires preparation and an operation to transport fuel to other locations when we are out of range of our usual supply centers,” says Maris.
“It is a reliable aircraft, but quite old. We would like to have something more modern,” adds one of the younger men of the crew, First Lieutenant Giorgos Papaioannou, who fought his first fires last year.
The first front he came up against was in Kapandriti, northeast of Athens, yet it was the huge fire on the Ionian island of Zakynthos that made the biggest impression. “We were flying over the island at dawn the next day and saw that everything was burned. It was so vast we didn’t know where to start. It really was very distressing,” he says.
For each of the 70-odd pilots of the 355 Tactical Transport Squadron, this is a period of preparation and alertness. Other than the available aircraft, they have also received a new batch from the maintenance crew that needs to be tested and evaluated so that they will be ready to respond to any call.
“There is no such thing as an easy fire. All of them are tough and require excellent reflexes,” says Sentouxis.
"There is only respect, no fear. You learn to respect the vessel."
It is impossible to predict what the next few months will bring and too early in the season to gauge whether there are indications of a tough fire season.
Greece’s General Secretariat for Civil Protection started drafting fire warning maps in 2003 and has a team of two forest rangers and a meteorologist executing this task. The job is quite challenging as they have to collect and interpret a plethora of data in order to assess the fire hazard in different parts of the country. They also measure the undergrowth in certain areas ahead of each summer in order to ascertain the risk of wildfires breaking out later in the season.
“What happens in the summer depends on different variables in the weather we will have, which are very hard to predict. All forecasts, at least in terms of meteorological parameters, are based on the next 24 hours at best. I therefore believe that unless we have major heat waves drying out the undergrowth, we will have a smooth summer,” says Foivos Theodorou, the general secretariat’s director of emergency planning and operations.
Back in Elefsina, engineers and pilots continue their preparations – working against the clock and multiple challenges.
"I wish our services won't be needed, but eventually we'll have to be on the frontline this summer," says Mr. Sentouxis.