Y-Speak: Safety in the skies

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By Karlo Alexie C. Puerto

Sunday Essays

Saturday, August 2, 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.

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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


(Sunday Essays are articles written by Ateneo de Davao University students for their journalism class.)

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