France's firefighting air pilots back to regular duty after deadly crash

On Thursday, the pilots of France's fleet of Canadair water-dumping planes will return to the skies after a 10-day grounding at the height of fire season - restoring firefighters with one of their most powerful weapons.

The planes were grounded Aug. 1 when two Canadair CL 415 pilots plunged to their deaths on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Though the cause of the crash is still not clear, safety experts have checked all 10 remaining planes in the fleet and pronounced them fit to fly, the Interior Ministry said in a statement Wednesday.

The temporary loss of the Canadairs put extra pressure on firefighters on the ground. The Canadair fleet is the main airborne firefighting force in France. Without them, firefighters were left with just water-carrying helicopters and other planes that are best suited to combatting small fires.

This weekend, French authorities brought in more than 1,000 firefighters and 250 vehicles from around the country to help combat Mediterranean fires, said civil defense spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Soupra.

Without the Canadairs to douse the flames, "fires are more virulent, and you need to take all possible security measures," Soupra said in a telephone interview.

In southern Europe, forests are too small and too populated to employ the North American technique of letting fires burn out naturally. Despite the massive efforts, fires burn throughout the summer here, sometimes spreading to homes, disrupting transport links and forcing the evacuations of people from houses and camp sites under threat.

The European Union's head office said Wednesday that this year was on track for an increase in fires across Europe _ comparable to the disastrous 2003 season. Then, 40 people were killed and 740,000 hectares (1.8 million acres) _ an area almost equivalent to Corsica _ of forests burned.

For firefighters, this summer has already been deadly.

In Spain, which is suffering through the driest summer since record-keeping began in the 1940s, a blaze apparently sparked by a barbecue fire killed 11 firefighters last month.

Also in Spain, the pilot of a small Polish-made Dromader M-18 water-carrying plane crashed into trees Saturday as he attempted to douse a fire near the Portuguese border. His death, and the death of the two French pilots, has drawn attention to the daring flyers who risk their lives.

France's Canadair pilots are the creme de la creme of aviation: Most are former fighter pilots, stunt flyers or members of the French aircraft carrier fleet.

Ludovic Piasentin, one of the men killed in Corsica, was a former fighter pilot who had racked up more than 10,000 flight hours. His co-pilot, Jean-Louis de Benedict, was a longtime Air Force flight engineer who got his pilot's wings in 1995.

Canadairs - squat, round-nosed planes that look something like a flying boat - fill their 6,137-liter (1,595-gallon) tanks by landing on lakes, oceans and rivers and scooping up water. Pilots make trips back and forth between the water source and the fires, dropping into heavy turbulence zones to douse the flames.

"It's extremely violent, it takes place at low altitude, there is heavy turbulence and wind, the planes are put into complex situations," said Dominique Pipat, a filmmaker who spent three months preparing a documentary about the Canadair pilots.

"It's serious piloting _ they're not flying from point A to point B in a Boeing. ... They love the adrenaline. They're very humble about what they do."

Piasentin and de Benedict were buried Friday. They were awarded posthumous Legion of Honor awards. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy praised them as "the very definition of courage", the AP reports.

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