Every Christmas, Carlo and I venture gingerly out of our Central Luzon backyard. We journey to Northern Luzon — 500-mile round trips, 4 or 5 days out-of-base, no maintenance facilities, no mechanics. In our Cessna 152.
This akin to going on a culinary tour to India without Diatabs. The psychological horror exceeds the actual peril. (Carl, standby for aggrieved comments from curry lovers… .) After all, if the airplane breaks down in the air, whether or not you have a mechanic at the destination is a rather moot point.
Still, we scheduled the airplane for its annual inspection and airworthiness certification in early December. And before the long trip, we flew the airplane hard, to unmask any defects.
We chose Baguio for our test flight last December.
On December 17, Carlo flew me to Baguio for a lunch with co-workers — 80 nautical miles, 50 minutes flying time. Back home same day. Or so we thought.
The sky above the haze layer was as pure as Genesis. But even in the mountain air, the haze layer was purple-gray with trapped pollutants. You all breathe this garbage on the ground.
That’s why Carlo and I age less the higher we fly.
Carlo is the second-clumsiest person on the ground, but in the air he is like the Rain Man. As a child he would turn the electric fan off and watch the blades come to a stop before walking away. Obsessive is good, in a pilot.
He was perfectly level at exactly 7,500 feet. And though the needle was slightly right in the CDI doughnut, the GPS shows his cross-track error was just 12 inches right of track.
San Roque dam, the biggest hydro-electric dam in Southeast Asia, is the gateway to the Agno River valley.
The dam is vital — it marks the correct route through the Cordilleras to Baguio. In 1987, a PAL HS748 followed the wrong river, which dead-ended in a mountainside. “Dead-end” pretty much describes the outcome.
Past San Roque dam, we sat up and paid serious attention to the view outside.
The Agno River valley quickly tightens into a deep gorge, with peaks looming above us on all sides.
I kept watch on 6,600-foot Mt. Ugo, ahead.
This forbidding peak is where the 1987 PAL flight ended, 20 years ago. No survivors.
The GPS terrain mode display painted the mountains as yellow and red patches. On the GPS, red depicts terrain within 100 feet of our altitude. Yellow is within 1,000 feet.
Beyond and even higher than Ugo lies the massive Mt. Pulog, the highest mountain in Luzon. The Garmin’s display mirrored the view out the windows.
Just 45 minutes after takeoff, we were almost there. I texted our friends,
“Landing Baguio 5 min 11 deg Celsius seatbelt sign on where are you??”
I was hoping for a ride into town from Loakan airport.
But our road-bound friends were still fighting traffic two provinces away, after 5 hours of driving. So much for lunch plans.
I was already talking to Baguio tower on 123.50. Carlo descended to 5,500 feet on downwind, barely skimming over Atok ridge just north of the runway.
If we sneezed here, the breakfast crowd at John Hay Manor, just below us, would have heard.
The 6,600-foot Mt. Kabuyao looms up on base leg. Just 2 miles from the runway, the terrain is higher than pattern altitude.
You must fly a short, tight visual pattern, the runway close aboard below you, mountains above you on nearly all sides.
It’s a test of nerves.
Leery of the terrain, you could end up high on final approach, then too fast as you correct and dive for the runway.
The accident report reads, “Unstabilized approach, pilot error… .”
Concentrating mightily, Carlo aces his third-ever arrival at Baguio. Two more will complete his self-imposed route-qual test.
Firm positive touchdown, but we like that at Baguio, since we must get it down to stop. There is no runway overrun.
The airplane was usable afterwards, so we logged it as a perfect landing!
The landlubbers didn”t arrive until after lunch, and we were persuaded to stay for dinner. We would have to “RON” — Remain Overnight in airline-speak. Moral: always bring clean underwear in flight bag.
We changed my flight plan at the control tower. Raffy, one of my associates, came up to the tower with us.
Raffy’s sister is an airline Captain at Cebu Pacific. She can be seen in a picture in one of our recent articles. Go hunt for it. Hint: Raffy is not nearly as pretty.
Dinner was festive Filipino food, high in cholesterol, irresistibly delicious, no need for Diatabs, lots of photo opps with great people…
… and great heroes.
The next day is when the trouble started.
Carlo had a hot lunch date. So we were up for the proverbial oh-dark-thirty flight briefing and breakfast beside the Manor’s gingerbread house.
(This is a good place to buy traditional Christmas bread like German kristollen and Italian panettone. But the Philippine ensaymada that is bigger than your face, loaded with cheese and sugar, tops the list.) Fortified, we sped off to the airport for an early departure.
And there we sat for hours.
We were grounded by weather! Oh, Loakan airport was severe clear, brilliant sunlight, not a cloud in the sky. The problem was our home base at Clark — closed to VFR due to haze.
Carlo began to burn up his phone, texting his date. Sensing his frustration, I called Clark Tower repeatedly by phone for weather updates. “Visibility 5,000 meters.” We needed 8 kilometers for a VFR arrival.
We waited. And waited. And waited.
This was a test of patience.
After three hours, Carlo was looking grim, so I asked for a special VFR arrival at Clark’s main runways (nearby Omni Aviation, our home base, does not have an instrument runway, and special VFR is an instrument procedure).
We would have to ferry the airplane later to Omni when the weather cleared up. No matter. This was a test of true love and paternal loyalty!
We began to button up the airplane for departure.
That’s when the kids showed up, on the ramp outside the airplane. Day-care field trip to see airplanes at Loakan.
Other than our Cessna, Loakan was totally devoid of aircraft. Asian Spirit used to fly here, but not anymore. We were the only show in town.
So we waved them over, and we were quickly surrounded by children scampering to have their picture taken with a REAL airplane, sitting in our cockpit with our headsets.
How can you refuse kids? Maybe one day some of them will be inspired to become pilots too.
They stayed even after we taxied out to the runway, and waved at us as we lifted off for home.
The good Lord works in mysterious ways. Ten miles from Clark, divine intervention and Clark Approach rewarded our mini good deed with the day-care field trip.
“1513, contact Tower 118.10, expect visual approach to runway Zero Two Omni.”
The weather had cleared.
Carlo made his date with Regina.
Our airplane passed its test flight in perfect shape.
And I met Angelina later that night. But that’s the next story.
Posted from Nashville, January 20, 2009.
Next: Angelina Jolie’s airplane