The status of Greece’s aerial fire-fighting armada is in crisis after the Hellenic Air Force endured its third major CL-215/415 disaster since 2014. On June 26, 2016 at 11:09 GMT, the piston-engine, fire-fighting aircraft of the Hellenic Air Force, the Canadair CL-215, crashed close to the village of Stefani, near the Dervenochoria area, approximately 30 km northwest of Athens. The accident occurred while the aircraft was performing fire fighting operations with five helicopters and seven other planes. Prior to the accident, the airborne fleet were battling a large wildfire that began the night before and had spread rapidly as a result of strong wind gusts. It had been reported the accident happened when an engine lost power as it flew over the wildfire with a load of water. As a result, the plane’s pilots performed an emergency landing within a largely wooded area. Fortunately, no serious injuries were sustained and the crew was able to abandon the broken plane on foot prior to it becoming engulfed by fire. Two pilots involved in the crash were sent to the 251 Air Force General Hospital in Athens for a medical examination as a measure of precaution.
The crash of the 26-year old CL-215 mirrors the accident of another Greek CL-215 one year earlier. In that incident, a former Yugoslav Air Force plane, along with a Serbian civil aircraft, experienced a technical glitch during a fire-fighting operation of their own, crashing near the village of Faraklo, 170 km southwest of Athens. That crew also successfully escaped with minimal injuries. Their crashed aircraft was damaged beyond repair. One year before that, on May 5, 2014, Greece lost a more modern fire-fighting plane in a non-fatal crash – a Bombardier CL-415GR flipping over attempting to land on the water 20 km southwest of Thessaloniki. That aircraft was not able to be salvaged.
These two most recent CL-215 accidents are the latest in a total of nine CL-215 major disasters the Hellenic Air Force has endured over the last 39 years. Of those accidents, four of them were fatal and a total of 10 Hellenic Air Force aviators have lost their lives. Even though airborne fire-fighting procedures are one of the most difficult and deadly missions of the Hellenic Air Force, the rising amount of CL-215 aircraft accidents in Greece speaks volumes about the aging CL-215 fleet being deployed for such rescues. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias stated in 2014 the physical shape of Greece’s aerial fire-fighting armada is “critical”. Even though the Air Force constantly takes measures to keep the planes in operational shape, these aircraft are lacking modern technology and are showing their wear and tear over years of use.
After joining the Hellenic Air Force in 1974, 25 different kinds of CL-215 models have served Greece. Of those, 20 are owned by Greece. Sixteen were obtained new and the other four belonged to the former Yugoslav Air Force. In 1997, 13 extra engines and additional spare parts were acquired from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for $24.4 million USD. As well, five Canadian-registered CL-215s were leased by Greece between 1998 and 2000. At that time, transfers of recently-purchased CL-415s had not yet begun, justifying the option to lease the planes.
Presently, the Hellenic Air Force owns 11 piston-powered CL-215-1A10 planes – one was built in 1974, three in 1976, another in 1978, another in 1979, two more in 1980, another two more in 1986 and finally, the last one was manufactured in 1990. Each plane is listed in the inventory of the 355 Tactical Transport Squadron (355 MTM), located at the Elefsis air base, close to Athens. Unfortunately, because the fleet is getting substantially older, concerns about the logistics, in conjunction with ongoing economic barriers, limit the amount of operational CL-215s aircrafts to be used at no more than five.
Before Greece’s current economic crisis started, the country was in the process of modernizing its aerial firefighting armada. Between 1999 and 2004, 10 new turbine-powered fire-fighting aircraft – the Bombardier CL-415GR/MP – debuted in service with the Air Fire Fighting Squadron (383 MEEA), as well as the Hellenic Air Force 383 Special Operations, currently located at Mikra air base, close to Thessaloniki. Now that they have had two major accidents, one of which resulted with two casualties, the 383 MEEA now operates eight CL-415GRs planes. Only five of them are prepared for a firefighting mission at a moment’s notice.
Among the financial barrier problems they are pressured with, the Hellenic Air Force also desperately needs to update its gradually decreasing inventory of fire-fighting aircraft. The first concern is the CL-215. Replacing it with the highly costly CL-415 is not a financially feasible option. An expensive alternative is to replace the engine on the remaining Cl-215s, converting those aircraft into turbine-operated CL-215Ts, which will give them stronger high-and-hot functionality. A much more affordable approach would be to replace all of the CL-215s with amphibian Air Tractors, aka AT-802 Fire Boss, that have already been used for years to extinguish wildfires in the Mediterranean nations of Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Montenegro and Croatia. With a 3,100-liter capacity, the PT6-powered water-bomber is able to perform various forest and agricultural spraying duties. The AT-802, manufactured in Texas, may also be a worthy substitute for out-dated Hellenic Air Force agricultural and fire-fighting planes, such as the PZL-18 Dromader and the Grumman G-164 Ag-Cat.