My earliest Baguio memories are of annual vacations as a child.
Kiddie trikes and sailboats at Burnham. Real fog. Panicky asthma attacks from the cold. Star Cafe congee, Good Shepherd strawberries. Mario’s.
At night, My Dad parked his 1948 Chevy at the safest spot in town — City Hall police station. Then he stealthily pocketed the distributor rotor (remember those?) to immobilize the car. Walking back to the hotel, we bought balut.
Carlo and I now fly to Baguio in a fraction of the time it took my Dad to drive there.
I used to be nervous, flying to Baguio. Then I got comfortable. Now I’m nervous again.
Flying to Baguio is fraught with real hazards and imagined terrors.
There were infamous accidents. A Philippine Airlines DC-3 was lost on takeoff in 1952. A pilot who took me flying in 1984 died shortly after in a Gen Av crash at Baguio. Hmm.
In 1987, a PAL HS-748 flew into Mt. Ugu (6,600 feet). They were just 5 minutes from landing at Loakan. 100% fatal. Then a PAF Huey was lost during recovery operations of that crash.
A Philippine Air Force T-41 crashed right after takeoff in May, 2005. All four airmen died.
Loakan airport is 4,250 feet high, on a saddle between Baguio City and the Philippine Military Academy.
Cliffs drop vertically off both ends of the runway. High terrain flanks both sides – Camp John Hay to the north, and the PMA plateau to the south.
Three mountain peaks loom beside the airport – Mt Ugu and Mt. Kabuyao both at 6,600 feet, and Mt. Santo Tomas at 7,300 feet.
High terrain blocks the Tower’s view south, so that is uncontrolled airspace. The aerodrome control zone is just a semicircle to the north. Traffic patterns are to the north only.
You skim over the ridge on downwind, and the 6,600-foot peak of Mt. Kabuyao looms just 6 kilometers away as you turn left base for runway 09.
That’s not the scary part.
The really scary part is that 0.6 nautical miles from the threshold, the terrain is already higher than the airport.
And just 2 nautical miles away, the terrain is higher than pattern altitude.
You must fly a short, tight pattern.
The horizon is jagged — ravines and peaks. The terrain either slopes up or away. Below the runway, the steepest part of Kennon Road hairpins around the Lion’s Head.
All that preys on a pilot’s brain, forcing him higher out of sheer nervousness. So he ends up high and fast on final.
Just below the threshold, a cemetery is a final reminder of one’s mortality.
Runway 09 slopes up to the east. It looks like you are descending too steeply. Flaring is tricky. And takeoff runs are uphill.
Beyond the runway, the terrain drops over a thousand feet in one nautical mile.
All that is optical. Cliffs and mountains are scary, but “Scary” is mental.
Imagined terrors — you go to the bathroom at night and imagine someone standing behind you. You run out and slip on the tiles. That’s what kills you.
The real hazards of flying to Baguio have nothing to do with the terrors at Loakan airport. Instead, the real hazards are insidious, like vapor, creeping up on you like real ghosts. Actual gremlins. Flying spirits.
Next: Spirits Over Baguio
Posted from Bangkok, Sep 8, 2008.