Airborne to disaster
The finding by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) that pilot error was behind the plane crash that killed Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo should remind everyone that in the era of easy and readily available air transport, safety remains a key concern and a nagging challenge.
According to the 14-page report of the special body that investigated the crash, Capt. Jessup Bahinting, the pilot and owner of the six-seater Piper Seneca aircraft that sank in waters off Masbate last Aug. 18 lacked the ability to handle the plane in bad weather. Bahinting and his Nepalese student-pilot died along with Robredo.
The report said Bahinting erred when he did not turn the plane back to Cebu at the first sign of engine trouble. The plane had only one engine operating and Bahinting had no training in what the report called a “one-engine inoperative emergency.” He could have turned back to Mactan airport where he had taken off but he pressed on toward Naga City—a decision that proved fatal. Had he turned back, the accident might not have happened, or it would have been mitigated, because Mactan has the longest runway and widest air strip, the most modern navigation and communication equipment, and the most advanced and trained crash, fire and rescue equipment and personnel. Bahinting simply ignored dire warnings and wiser options and brought Robredo—tragically—to his death.
Moreover, Bahinting ignored orders by air safety authorities to remain at 2,500 feet given the abnormal circumstances of the weather, the report said. Data from the air traffic control center in Manila showed that the plane climbed to 4,000 feet before the crash. The report also cited the testimony of Jun Abrazado, Robredo’s police aide and the lone survivor of the crash, that the plane veered to the left in its final approach to the runway, but the pilot appeared to have miscalculated and maneuvered the plane too late so that it shot off and crashed into the sea.
A number of plane crashes in the last five years have been mostly attributed to pilot error. The worst took place in December 2011, when a cargo plane crashed into a neighborhood in Parañaque City, killing 14 people, including the pilot; 11 of those killed were on the ground. Like Bahinting, the pilot was considered relatively proficient but was unable to safely maneuver and land the plane. Both incidents involved engine trouble, which probers admitted would require the pilots to apply their skills of maneuvering so as not to aggravate an already bad situation. In both cases, the pilots fell short of the skills required.
Similarly, a 2008 incident in which a C-130 cargo plane crashed in Davao Gulf involved a pilot of the Philippine Air Force much respected by his peers for smooth takeoffs and landings. The crash of the Air Force workhorse killed nine, mostly PAF men. While PAF officialdom at first discounted pilot error, later findings pointed to its likelihood.
It is ironic that Robredo, who was in charge of public safety and order, should die because of safety infractions. It is even more ironic that even PAF pilots have perished due to factors that may include pilot error. In the case of the Robredo crash, the report blamed not only engine trouble and pilot error, but also the alleged connivance between Bahinting and CAAP personnel in the issuance of a certificate of airworthiness for his aircraft even without the necessary tests. The last finding is particularly worrisome, as readily admitted by President Aquino, who said he had read the report with “a mixture of sadness and disappointment.”
“The pieces of evidence point to one thing,” the President was reported as saying. “If some people did their job, if the rules of the industry were followed, if those involved were only faithful to their obligations, the tragedy could have been avoided.”
Even Robredo’s widow, lawyer Maria Leonor Robredo, while saying that “the crash report will not make me any sadder,” urged reforms in air safety regulation. She said she hoped that the results of the inquiry would lead to reforms to ensure the safety of air transport and prevent mishaps, such as the one that killed her husband, from taking place. Hers is an urgent, if plaintive, appeal. Going by recent air crashes traceable to pilot error and violations of air safety measures, with some connivance by regulators themselves, there appears a history of impunity in the breach of safety rules. This has got to stop—or the much-admired Robredo would have died in vain.