PUBLISHED: Safety in the skies
I will be posting the original text of my news feature ‘Safety in the skies’, published in the Sunday Essays column of Sun.Star Davao on August 2, 2014. Click here for the Sun.Star article.
Safety in the skies
By Karlo Alexie C. Puerto; July 23, 2014
With the loss of both Malaysia Airlines flights MH370 in March, MH17 four months after, Taiwan-based TransAsia Airlines flight GE222 and Air Algerie flight AH5022, people have expressed concern over Philippine airlines and the country’s aviation sector.
However, tracing back historical accounts of Philippine air accidents and hijacking incidents can somehow help skeptics gauge as to the level of safety the country is having now.
After World War II
Air travel picked up in the Philippines slowly after the World War II, after Philippine Airlines (stylized as Philippine Air Lines, Inc.) launched numerous flights using propeller-driven aircraft.
Notable accidents during the era of propeller aircraft include Philippine Air Lines flight S26 that crashed on Mount Baco, Occidental Mindoro on November 23, 1960 in which a case has been filed against the airline.
The airline however lost the case and they were ordered to pay a certain Natividad A. Vda. de Padilla, mother of Nicanor de Padilla, Php 417,000.00 as compensation for her son’s death.
Another notable air accident was the crash of a Douglas C-47 plane at Mount Manunggal in Balamban, Cebu Province on November 23, 1957 which carried Philippine government officials, including then-President Ramon Magsaysay.
The President came from Cebu City for speaking engagements, and was already bound for Nichols Field in Pasay (now the Ninoy Aquino International Airport) when it crashed 22 kilometers northwest of Lahug Airport in Cebu.
The aircraft was owned by the Philippine government, operated by the Philippine Air Force and was assigned as the Presidential Plane.
The turboprop age
The use of more efficient turboprop planes was also introduced to link up local destinations to Manila being the international airport that has significant international connectivity.
Notable accidents concerning turboprop aircraft include those involving two Hawker Siddely HS-748 aircraft owned by Philippine Air Lines.
On February 3, 1975, Philippine Air Lines flight from Manila to Iligan took off at 11:00pm and two minutes after take-off, engine number two went into flames, killing 32 passengers with one lone survivor.
Another instance involving the above mentioned aircraft was a Philippine Air Lines flight PR 206 bound for Baguio from Manila on June 26, 1987 that crashed in Benguet, killing all 50 passengers and crew on board.
The accident was due to zero visibility caused by a monsoon prevailing in the area.
The jet age
It was during the late 80s that airlines start maximizing the use jet airliners in local and international travel, offering more seats, quieter and faster travelling time.
The deregulation of the aviation industry by President Fidel Ramos in 1995 also paved way for the launch of more jet flights from carriers other than PAL.
Jet aircraft however are not spared from aircraft accidents.
On February 2, 1998, Cebu Pacific flight 5J 387 operated using McDonnell DC-9 aircraft departed Manila for Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City at 09:16am. The pilot decided to make a stop at Tacloban City 09:53am to deliver spare tires for a stalled Cebu Pacific DC-9 aircraft.
While en route to Cagayan de Oro City from Tacloban, the captain was passing through Mount Sumagaya in Claveria, Misamis Oriental on low visibility and when they are about to pass through the mountain range peak, the aircraft hit the peak and it crashed afterwards.
Crisis manager Jesus “Jess” Dureza ruled out that the aircraft was flying 5,000 feet above sea level when the mountain range was actually 6,000 feet above sea level. He also faulted out the map provided by the Air Transportation Office (now Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines) the altitude of the said area at 5,000 feet, misleading the pilot to believe that they are on a safe level.
The ATO however ruled out that the aircraft crashed due to unfamiliar terrain and bad weather, causing the death of 99 passengers and six crew.
Two years after, Air Philippines (now operating as PAL Express) flight 541 departed Manila 5:21am for Davao City on April 9.
Since another aircraft is occupying the runway, the pilot was forced to turn around and wait for the runway to be vacated, unfortunately hitting a coconut tree in Island Garden City of Samal with altitude of 500 feet above sea level. All 124 passengers and six crew members died.
Plane hijacking incidents
For the history of Philippine aviation, there were also numerous attempts of hijacking planes operated by Philippine Airlines, however only a few of them succeeded.
The first air hijack (also termed ‘skyjack’) recorded on Philippine history happened on December 30, 1952 when a Philippine Air Lines flight en route from Laoag City to Aparri, Cagayan as part of the triangular route from Manila to Laoag City, was hijacked by a certain Ang Chio Ko, 23, and commanded the pilot to fly him to Amoy in China.
The co-pilot Captain Felix Gaston, who died June 6 this year at 91, recounted the story with The Philippine Star on 2002, telling that he maneuvered the plane after the hijacker shot Captain Pedro Perlas. He was able to land on Quemoy Island in China, with the assistance of the Nationalist Chinese air force and had the hijacker deported to the Philippines, only to be pardoned by President Carlos P. Garcia
Another incident happened 23 years later, on April 7, 1976. Three members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) hijacked a Philippine Air Lines BAC 1-11 aircraft bound to Manila from Zamboanga and demanded to be flown to Benghazi, Libya via Manila and be given a ransom of $300,000.
They first landed Manila, demanding that 72 passengers-hostages be replaced with 12 airline executives. Afterwards, they proceeded to Bangkok to refuel, and PAL sent the DC-8, a larger aircraft that can reach Benghazi, and exchanged the hostages for new flight crew. The government also helped them find a country that can accept the hijackers for political asylum.
When they reached Libya April 17, they demanded to be given political asylum or they will blow up the PAL plane. The airline executives later told that the hijackers were given political asylum resulting to the release of the flight crew and the start of their journey back to Manila, however Libya Revolutionary News Service said that Moammar Khadaffy denied giving asylum to the hijackers.
Other aircraft incidents
Aside from aircraft crashes and hijacking incidents, there were also minor aircraft accidents that caused inconvenience to the passengers and the flying public.
Cebu Pacific flight 5J 971 was about to land on the runway of Francisco Bangoy International Airport in Davao City on the evening of June 2, 2013 however it skidded off the runway due to bad weather.
The aircraft got substantial damage after skidding the runway, putting at risk lives of 165 passengers.
While there were no casualties, passengers felt that the airline crew were ‘incompetent’ and ‘unprofessional’ in dealing with the incident.
The airport also closed operations because the Cebu Pacific plane has been blocking the sole runway the airport has, diverting Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines and PAL Express flights to nearby General Santos City and cancelling Zest Air flights and AirAsia Philippines flights altogether.
The aircraft, with registration RP-C3266 was removed from the runway three days after the incident.
Renz Bulseco, an air traffic controller based in Tacloban City Airport, said that flying within the Philippine airspace is harmless.
“A lot of planes pass through the Manila Flight Information Region (FIR). For example, the flight path of a certain flight from Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia will pass through Manila, Mactan-Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, and Davao City at an altitude of, say… 36,000 feet above mean sea level,” Bulseco explained.
He also dismissed fears of a similar incident to Malaysia Airlines MH370 losing contact with the air traffic control center as the airspace is well-covered with necessary communication equipment.
“Beyond the Manila Area Control Center (with 200 nautical mile range), flights are monitored through flight progress strips. [Pilots] continuously report their distance, the reporting points they had passed, and that procedure continues until the flights are handed over to the adjacent FIR [leaving our airspace],” he added.
In a blog post, Bulseco detailed the process of a successful departure: first, the pilot requests a Clearance Delivery from the air traffic control (ATC) and ATC supplies pilots with flight path instructions, including flight levels and radar identification code, called ‘squawk’. Second, pilots are to switch radio frequency to the Ground Control for additional instructions pertaining to the assigned runway and taxi (on-ground navigation with own power) instructions. Third, pilots are to switch another frequency to the Tower, which shall give clearance for take-off (which they will also make sure that the assigned flight path is not prone to collision). Next, they are being guided by the Approach (with 60 nautical miles horizontal and 1,500 feet to 15,000 feet vertical range) to their assigned flight levels (based on its height). Lastly, the Area Control Center (ACC) keeps track of the flights that maintain their assigned flight level throughout the Philippine airspace.
Certain flight regions in the country, those near airports, may restrict or regulate flights depending on the situation on the ground, such as weather.
“There are some airports that are equipped with instruments that allows planes to land and take-off even at low visibility, or bad weather, like Manila, Mactan-Cebu, Davao, and other international airports of the country. There are some airports, like Caticlan (Boracay), and Busuanga that only operate from sunrise to sunset,” he elaborated.
Still the ‘safest’ way to travel
Bulseco, also being a frequent traveller himself, believes that flying is still the safest and the fastest way to travel not only around the country, but around the globe.
“I believe you’ll be more likely killed by road accidents than a plane crash,” he noted.
Manuel Nierra, a psychology student and an aviation enthusiast, also shares the same reaction.
“I for one would still patronize air travel because air travel has the most access to any corner of the globe,” he added.
Mass communication student Karl Fernan Licayan believes that air travel is the ‘way to go’.
“There might be other modes of transportation to go to places, but planes are the easiest and the cheapest with the right discount,” he noted.
While skeptics are still questioning the security and safety of the country’s aviation section, international agencies such as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) both certified Philippine aviation industry as safe, with FAA Category 1 status and ICAO Accreditation regained in 2014 after several years of being downgraded.
Whether or not similar tragedies may happen to Philippine carriers or on international carriers on Philippine soil remains a question yet to be answered in time.