We waited to take off. It was December 21, the day the world would end. It was the second day of my 2-week home leave. I had vowed to turn my BlackBerry off and fly every day — therapy for a disturbingly intense year at work.
But it was raining. In one of the driest, coolest months of the year, a thunderstorm unloaded on Woodland Airfield. As we ran for our hangars, I quipped that maybe there was something to this Mayan end-of-the-world thing. The other pilots laughed nervously.
The world survived the brief thunderstorm. Two Cessnas departed on a mission. We would be honoring a debt to the tribal hamlet of Poon Bato.
Two years ago the president of our flying club made a forced landing, after his ultralight engine lost power. He was over rugged, remote terrain — the lava and lahar fields west of Mt. Pinatubo. He put the airplane down on a river bank in a perfect dead stick landing. Other ultralight pilots orbited overhead. Night was falling.
That was when the Aeta tribe people native to the Zambales mountains emerged from the darkening bush, to harbor and protect the downed pilot. They came to his airplane with pots of rice and their own meager supplies. He had started climbing a hill to get a cellphone signal. The Aetas quickly stopped him – the place was named ‘Cobra island’ for a reason.
An overland rescue expedition was organized by the Angeles City Flying Club, with the help of the police detachment at Botolan town, three hours away by truck. Airplane and pilot were recovered the following day after many challenges. All that time the Aetas never left the pilot’s side and kept him safe and secure.
Since then the Angeles City Flying Club has expressed its deep gratitude by sending care packages of food, clothes and other goodies to the remote hamlet.
Poon Bato is an Aeta hamlet on the Botolan river, which ebbs and floods repeatedly throughout the year. It’s not easy to spot from the air. The terrain changes constantly. But a pilot can remember every detail of where he had to put his airplane down. You don’t forget emergencies like that.
The Aetas live in small grass huts scattered sparsely on the flood plain. The huts shelter both people and animals. The plain is studded with what look like small Christmas trees.
Hills and trees pop up everywhere you turn. After you pass over the huts, you do a full power chandelle, climbing and turning back for another fly-by. Position reports by radio to the other airplane holding at high cover are vital.
Then it was the other airplane’s turn, short beeline for the hamlet, flashing over the lahar beds and the scrub. And we were done. RTB.
As we did one last pass, the Aetas were standing beside two carabao carts, waving at us.
The world didn’t end on December 21. Instead, we flew to a smaller world that has to be rebuilt after every typhoon, in the shadow of one of the most powerful volcanoes on earth. We acknowledged a gift given by people who had very little to give but themselves. Tribal people who came out of nowhere to shelter and protect a downed pilot in their grass huts, with their animals. The Aeta Wise Men of Poon Bato.
Posted from Manila, December 25, 2012.
Mouse over the photos for captions and credits.
Thanks to Terry for the video captures from his GoPro camera.