photo of pilot carried by Notícias de Coimbra

Portuguese pilot dies in fire-fighting combat in Foz Côa

Tragedy announced mid-way through evening news

A Portuguese pilot (see update below) died tonight after the Fire Boss (single pilot) plane he was flying came down in a vineyard in Castelo Melhor, Foz Côa.

The annoucement came through mid-way through this evening’s news bulletins – at the time with very few details.

It has since emerged that the pilot “was carbonised and the amphibious plane completely destroyed”.

According to local mayor João Paulo Sousa, damage was so extensive that “the model of plane could not be identified, although everything indicates it was a Fire Boss”.

Rescue services rushed to the scene, with a helicopter from Civil Protection also dispatched. 

GPIAAAF – the entity that investigates air and rail accidents – is putting together a team in order to be at the crash site by dawn.

At this early stage, it is unclear what caused this accident. The only certainty is that it happened shortly before 8pm.

President Marcelo has already reacted to the tragedy, saying” it is a loss that shocks us all (…) Very, very sad news”.

So far, the identity of the pilot has not been given, but Marcelo described him as “someone still relatively young who had served in the Air Force (…) He was fighting a fire in Torre de Moncorvo (…) I present my condolences to his widow, and to what seems to be, a child… He had a daughter”.

Noticias de Coimbra has since published the photograph of a young man (image above), which presumably is the pilot, without giving his name.

Prime minister António Costa has tweeted his ‘great consternation’ at the news, sending his condolences to the pilot’s family and friends. In a separate tweet sent out at the same time he said: “To all operatives on the ground, I send my solidarity and thanks for their work and dedication in the combat of fires that have assailed our country”.

This is a terrible way to go into another weekend full of uncertainty in a country ravaged by wildfires.

President Marcelo said “it is a painful moment, precisely when everything in the global panorama of this week (of fires) was showing signs of stabilising.

“These men are heroes”, he said of firefighting pilots. “No-one can imagine the overwhelming conditions in which they have to perform. They risk their lives in the service of all of us”.

The country’s head of State has said he means to be present at the funeral ceremony.

PSD leader Luís Montenegro has also tweeted his message: “Losing a life taking part in a mission to protect people and property, facing individual risks for others, is an injustice that shocks us all. Our very heartfelt condolences to the family of the pilot who died today fighting this scourge of wildfires”.

UPDATE: The pilot has now been identified as André Rafael Serra, aged 32.

Mayor Sousa has been telling SIC Notícias the accident appears to have happened as the pilot was “trying to fill up in the Douro River”. According to the mayor, the plane’s engine may not have been able to pull up in time, leading to the plane crashing into the terraces of the ‘Quinta do Crasto’ vineyard. All this is hearsay for the being, and will need to be established by forensic investigation.

Minister for Interior Administration José Luís Carneiro has sent out a note to the country’s media organisations, describing this evening’s news as  “tragic moment”.

“I present my condolences to the family of the pilot-commandant who died today as a result of an accident with a firefighting plane, while he was operating in the combat of a fire in Torre de Moncorvo, Bragança”.

The minister also extended “heartfelt condolences to friends and colleagues who are part of the Special Rural Fire Fighting Division”.

“In this tragic moment, I send a word of solidarity to all those who, with professional dedication and generosity, are giving inestimable service to the country in the combat of fires”.

The minister also thanked all the operatives involved in this evening’s grim recovery mission.

Pilot had 12 years flying experience

Jornal de Notícias has described André Rafael Serra as an experienced pilot. “He had 12 years flying experience of these type of planes, in the context of formation and in action”, says the paper.

“André Rafael Serra was married and lived in Lisbon. He joined the Portuguese Air Force in 2009 and was considered an experienced pilot. Close to 20.00 hours, André Rafael Serra was flying the amphibian Fire Boss in combat of a fire in Urra, Torre de Moncorvo, when he went to fill up with water at the Douro River in Castelo Melhor, Vila Nova de Foz Côa

“With the plane full, at the point of leaving from filling in Quinta do Crasto, it hit the first terrace of a vineyard, and then hit two more before coming down. The plane fell into the property, next to the EN222. A small fire resulted from the crash which was quickly extinguished by firefighting means that were close by. The body was found carbonised, but only a autopsy will reveal the cause of death”.

Adding to the tragedy, André Serra’s widow, nurse Catarina Branco only two days ago shared a post on her Facebook page featuring a firefighting plane discharging water over the landscape, with words from another aviator, who wrote: “On days like today it is impossible not to think of the brave firefighters who fight forest fires and the pilots who support them. In the world of aviation, I don’t know a more difficult or dangerous activity. Here I leave the testimony of my immense admiration and respect. Well done”.

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com