“It’s a story of blood and aircraft wreckage strewn across fields.” A poet could not have offered a better description of Captain Akrivos Tsolakis’ career in the Hellenic Air Force and as an air accident investigator.
“It’s been an adventurous career, the stuff of films, I could almost say,” the respected expert tells Kathimerini after learning that he will be receiving the Jerome F. Lederer Award for this contribution to flight safety from the International Society of Air Safety Investigators (ISASI).
This is the highest distinction in the field and the ceremony will take place on September 5 during a formal dinner at the ISASI annual seminar at The Hague.
“I have been awarded 44 times, by various agencies and foreign nations, even Turkey, but this is the highest honor I have ever received,” says Tsolakis.
“This award is not just about flight safety. It is about human life and is a reward for our contribution to humanity. That is why I consider it the top of the pyramid. I am even more pleased by the fact that it is a distinction for Greece as well, because my country, which I have been serving ever since I was a lad, is the most important thing to me,” he adds.
Tsolakis entered the field of flight safety in 1959 as an officer of the Hellenic Air Force, when he went to the University of Southern California for its aviation and security program.
When he returned to Greece, he founded the Army General Staff’s Flight Safety Directorate and later, as a pilot for Olympic Air (with 18,300 flight hours), he also set up a flight safety department at what was then Greece’s national carrier.
He was head of flight security for Olympic until he retired in 1990 and in 2001 was appointed president of the newly established Greek Air Accident Investigation & Aviation Safety Board (EDAAP), where he remains an active proponent at the age of 89.
Under Captain Tsolakis’ stewardship, EDAAP has investigated more than 250 air accidents, “from the smallest to the biggest,” he says. His biggest ever case was the August 14, 2005, Helios Airways Flight 522 crash in Grammatiko, eastern Attica, in which 121 people perished.
“It was the most important investigation of my career because of its complexity, but also because the eyes of the entire world were on us,” says Tsolakis.
“That investigation was also very productive because it led to adjustments in the system. We had recommended a series of changes, five of which are still being applied today on new airplanes and in staff training,” the expert adds.
From the Aerosvit Flight 241 crash in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, in 1997, in which 70 people died; the three EKAV ambulance helicopters that crashed within just over two years of each other in early 2000; and the government jet that went down in 1999, killing then foreign minister Yiannos Kranidiotis, his son and another five people, Akrivos has had a hand in the investigation of “every single one.”
We ask the veteran investigator whether he revisits old cases: “Of course I do. These are wounds that run deep and are never forgotten.”