Pilot in Chilean forest-fire crash was pilot to presidents

chileSantiago - The pilot of a helicopter that crashed in southern Chile, killing 12 firefighters combatting a forest fire, had flown the presidential plane for two presidents, local media reported Monday.

Eduardo Canala Pecchenino, 39, was on active duty for the Chilean Air Force and worked for the private firm operating the firefighting helicopter with permission from the military.

He and 12 firefighters who had been working since Friday to quench forest fires in the central Chilean region of Maule were killed when their helicopter crashed on Sunday. There were no survivors.

As a military pilot, Pecchenino had flown the presidential plane for former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos and current President Michelle Bachelet.

Canala Pecchenino's last mission on the presidential plane took place in December, when he travelled with Bachelet to the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador.

After that trip, he planned to start a course at the Air Force Academy of War in an effort to advance his career.

Rescue efforts in the mountainous, wooded area of Pellahue continued in the early hours of Monday, though rescue workers combing the site did not expect to find survivors.

Pellahue is some 400 kilometres southwest of the Chilean capital, Santiago.

The online edition of the Chilean daily El Mercurio reported that rescue workers at the site said the helicopter's wreckage was spread over a 60-metre radius. The machine, a Bell UH-1H, had been rented by the firm Celulosa Arauco (Celco) from Flight Service to assist in fire-fighting missions.

Fog and drizzle at the time of the crash may have hampered visibility.

Families of the victims said the firefighters had told them the helicopter had suffered from mechanical problems in the past and accused Flight Service of not properly maintaining the helicopter. (dpa)