The toughest summer for firefighting aircraft in half a century

The toughest summer for firefighting aircraft in half a century

Last year, a seaplane from the 43rd Air Force Group broke one of the floats hanging under its wings while loading water in Pollensa Bay. The plane lost stability and would have crashed if the pilot had not been skillful. In the same place, off the island of Mallorca, in March 2003, one of those planes painted red and yellow crashed into the sea, the silhouette of which has become so popular in the Spanish sky that you can see it , everyone wonders where the fire is.

Two crew members died in that incident, the latest of a list of 15 in the 51 years that this unit was affiliated with the Air Force and dependent on the Department of Ecological Transition, heir to the former Department of Agriculture. One death is too many, but 15 in half a century isn’t that many for a high-risk mission: you fly very low, between ravines and cliffs, dodging columns of smoke and the eddies and turbulence that the wind blows between mountains and mountains creates that you feed the fires yourself. The planes bought by Spain have neither weather radar nor autopilot. Its sensors are the crew’s eyes and its computers are their brains.

“Loading at sea, between the waves, is more complicated than in the swamp,” explains an experienced pilot to illustrate what happened a year ago. Except when, like now, the drought has emptied the reservoirs and it is not known if the depth is sufficient to jump into the water. The jugs, as they are popularly called, do not need much: only 50 centimeters. In 12 seconds, they glide across the surface at 70 knots (130 kilometers per hour) and fill a 6,000 liter tank, without the help of an absorption engine, just by inertial force. But depth is difficult to gauge from the air, and to avoid surprises they had to forego some unsafe tributaries of the swamps. Pilots have enough to calculate how to get out of the reservoir, which is often surrounded by mountains, with a weight of six tons.

During the fire season between June 1st and October 31st, holidays and permits are suspended and the 144 troops stationed in Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid) are deployed to six bases from which they cover the entire territory of the peninsula: Santiago de Compostela , Salamanca, Badajoz , Malaga, Zaragoza and Pollensa. There is no permanent division in the Canary Islands. If necessary, it travels from Malaga and is ready for use in five and a half hours.

Group 43 has 18 Canadair aircraft: 14 older CL-215s and 4 CL-415s, but only ten are in service. Their average age is over 30 years and they suffer from recurring collapses and structural problems, signs of fatigue, according to military sources. Teresa Ribera’s ministry has launched a program to modernize ten planes for 24.5 million and has the purchase of another four in its portfolio, but while the fleet is being renewed, the forest fires are not stopping in a summer hit by heat waves follow each other relentlessly.

132 fires to extinguish

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“This year is the most intense in the unit’s history. Even the elders don’t remember anything like that,” admits Colonel Miguel Oliver, leader of Group 43. “The toughest and most vicious,” concludes Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who visited his headquarters in Torrejón this Thursday. The data speaks for itself: as of August 15, there must have been 132 fires, more than double the number for the same period last year (61); it has made 588 trips to extinguish fires, compared to 255 in 2021; and it has logged 2,034 flight hours, almost three times what it was at this time a year ago (827).

The defense has offered to adapt four Chinook helicopters with a lifting capacity of 4.5 tons for firefighting and is even studying the use of the A400M aircraft, which could carry 20,000 liters. None, however, have the versatility of the pitcher to fill up at a nearby reservoir and return to the fire time and time again. He does this from a height of about 30 meters and attentively downwards: his water discharge can kill a person or destroy a house.

The seals, as they are also known because of their radio call sign, retire at sunset. Although night vision goggles have been tested, fire blinds pilots and power lines are a difficult trap to see. That doesn’t mean they’re idle at night. The invisibles, mechanics and maintenance workers, are busy checking the planes so they will be ready at dawn.

Colonel Oliver is proud of all his subordinates, but he doesn’t fool himself. “The great fires are not put out by the sky, you have to set foot on earth to stop them,” he warns. Minister Robles thanks them for their work and asks them to take care of themselves. There’s no time for more. Spain burns on all four sides. A sign reads the unit’s motto: “Turn off… And let’s go!”

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