A week ago today, on July 7, Carlo and I flew to Plaridel airport.
Plaridel is roughly halfway between Clark Field and Manila. Just 3 years ago it was a quiet backwater with a one-man control tower. Today training airplanes crowd the ramp near the control tower. It has become an active, vibrant training airfield.
The radio was busy. The control zone, a 5-mile radius where Plaridel’s control tower provided air traffic control, was crowded. Seven airplanes were airborne in the rectangular traffic pattern around the airport, and the runway and taxiway below.
We overflew Apalit town, 6 miles from the airport. Everyone was flying under Visual Flight Rules — the tower was controlling traffic, but pilots were responsible for seeing and avoiding other airplanes.
Runway 35 was in use. I still remember most of the radio exchanges.
Carlo: Plaridel Tower, RP-C1513, good afternoon.
Tower: 1513 go ahead.
Carlo: RP-C1513 is at 1,000 feet over Apalit, request landing instructions for touch and go on runway 35.
The tower denied a touch and go — a landing and quick takeoff without exiting the runway. I told Carlo to go ahead and ask for a full-stop landing. We would land, exit the runway, and fall in line again for takeoff.
Carlo: Request landing instructions for full stop landing, 1513.
Tower: 1513 enter left downwind, monitor the pattern.
Everything next happened in less than 30 seconds.
In the diagram below, “RPUX” is Plaridel airport, with 3 airplanes on the ground. North is roughly towards the upper right hand corner.
Another pilot (5) called a position report, “Base turning final.”
I saw him at our 11 o’clock, pointed him out to Carlo.
Another pilot (4) called, “Airborne runway 35.” I saw him at 7 o’clock, pointed him out to Carlo.
A third pilot, a girl, radioed, “Turning downwind.” She must have been close to us — she was on the downwind leg too!
I couldn’t see her.
I squirmed around, looking. The radio chatter was heavy. An airplane was taking off, two others were waiting on the taxiway (3), the tower cleared our leading traffic to land. Yet more airplanes at Apalit joined the fray (2).
Carlo: 1513 has the traffic in sight.
I didn’t like this radio call. It didn’t tell the tower which airplanes we had in sight. Before I could correct Carlo, the tower made a chilling call.
Tower: 1513 follow the aircraft on downwind.
Carlo and I were both looking hard. We didn’t see any other airplane on the downwind leg.
Carlo: 1513 will follow the aircraft on final approach?
Tower: NEGATIVE, 1513 follow the Cessna BELOW you on downwind.
Below?? I looked out the right side.
I saw an airplane (6) no more than 200 feet underneath our right wheel, aligned with our path.
All I could think of was that Carlo was 200 feet above the traffic altitude and might descend at any time.
I told him, “Carlo, there’s an airplane right below us, maintain altitude!”
Carlo affirmed, just as the tower called again.
Tower: 1513 make a right three-sixty.
Carlo began to turn right in a full 360-degree circle — for spacing. The other airplane pulled ahead. I was already looking for the next airplane behind us.
All that happened in half a minute.
The controller was firmly in charge and unruffled. He was good.
We flew for an hour near the Sierra Madres, far from Plaridel. Then Carlo did touch and go’s at Omni, sharpening his landing skills. It was a great flying day, and it was with real regret that we shut the airplane down at Omni.
On the car ride home, I sent a text message to Kevin, a very good friend and Cebu-based pilot. I described the traffic at Plaridel and the good job the controller was doing.
The next day, I was at Manila’s international airport to catch my commercial flight back to Bangkok. A text message from Kevin came in.
U WERE LUCKY AT PLARIDEL
And he sent me details of a terrible accident. Two Cessna airplanes had collided in the traffic pattern at Plaridel. An instructor and two students were dead.
I passed the text message to Carlo. He was stunned.
I pointed out that if not for his being 200 feet high on Saturday….
He said he was trying not to think about it.
I’m still in Bangkok now, reading online news items about 2 broken airplanes and 3 downed pilots 😦