Pilot is first victim of 2009 fires

The pilot of a small water-dropping plane yesterday became the first casualty of this year’s wildfires after his aircraft crashed on the island of Cephalonia, prompting questions about the age and condition of the country’s water-bombing fleet. Authorities named the pilot of the Polish-made PZL M-18 Dromader aircraft as 55-year-old Stergios Kotoulas. The experienced pilot and father of two crashed shortly after noon as he was helping to put out a wildfire in the Kataleio area of the Ionian island. A preliminary assessment of the crash site indicated that the plane struck overhead power cables before hitting the ground. It was revealed that the airplane was 26 years old and had more than 4,700 hours of flight time. The production of PZLs, which are less than 10 meters in length and are also used for crop-dusting, began in the late 1970s. The PZLs, as well as US-made Grumman Trackers, converted to carry water instead of torpedos, and Canadian-made Canadair CL-215s, some of which have engines that are more than 40 years old, have been the subject of some controversy recently as many believe that they are too old and even obsolete to be used to combat wildfires. Kathimerini has discovered that in April 2005, the man in charge of the fire service’s airplanes wrote to his superiors, as well as air force chiefs, to ask them to form a committee to examine whether PZLs in particular should still be used. In the last 26 years, six PZL pilots have been killed and another six injured in accidents. However, this call went unheeded and last year 37.5 million euros were set aside for the maintenance of the small airplanes. Government sources insisted that the prospect of renewing some of Greece’s firefighting fleet is currently being discussed along with the idea of passing control of these aircraft to the air force rather than the fire service as it has better facilities to service the planes.