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On The Move

Toys for the big boys

I still remember how the brash Ninoy Aquino used the helicopter to tremendous advantage when he first ran for senator in 1967. The Nacionalista Senate slate was holding a rally at the Tarlac Plazuela, which was already packed with people. Ninoy’s helicopter made a few low circling passes over the plaza, and after getting the frenzied attention of the townsfolk — while incidentally drowning out the Nacionalista proceedings — the helicopter went on to land at the Urquico Memorial Track and Field Stadium some 500 meters away. The townsfolk excitedly rushed to the helicopter landing site. You guessed it — the exuberant Ninoy emerged from the helicopter, the characteristic white towel around his neck. The townspeople pushed and shoved to surround him, ready to be mesmerized by the wonder boy.

The helicopter has tremendous social and political significance in the Philippines. It is the mark that the big boys in the Philippines — in politics, in the bureaucracy, in business, in religion, in entertainment, and in sports — have arrived at the pinnacle of their careers. Rodrigo Duterte himself savors this status, for himself and his worshipful diehard flock, each time he takes his regular helicopter trip to Davao.

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But there are other big boys. And no career pathway provides the ultimate toys for the big boys more than the military and the police organizations which have access to the most modern and expensive equipment and intelligence funds, secured in the name of “national security.”

This itch for toys begins at the bottom of the ladder. For many sons and daughters of poor farmers, fishermen, and laborers, joining the military and the police is a sure pathway out of poverty and out of the rural area. Getting accepted in a modern organization gives a poor person a shot at transformative change. One shares and basks in its prestige and strength. One learns new skills like driving a vehicle, operating field and office equipment like drones, two-way radios, and computers, and most important, acquiring and possessing a weapon.

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But as one goes up the ranks and attains higher positions of authority and responsibility, so does the access to more sophisticated and expensive equipment and vehicles. In the Philippines, a helicopter is power. It is also the ultimate toy for the big boys. It makes the usual convoy of vehicles with “wang-wang” (sirens) blaring to part heavy traffic look so pedestrian. For a Philippine National Police chief, the routine use of a helicopter is an irresistible signal to all and sundry that he has arrived at the pinnacle of his career. By extension, the geopolitics of power demands that close associates would want to also have their seat at the table — or in a helicopter.

The outing of the PNP chief last Thursday morning on the PNP Bell 429 helicopter would not have caused a stir except for one thing — the helicopter crashed, totally wrecking a P400-million piece of equipment and injuring its passengers. Apart from being a “joyride” as the irrepressible Facebook warrior, Wilfredo Garrido, calls it, the ill-fated trip gives a peek into the quality of professional competence, leadership, and decision-making in one of the government’s largest bureaucracies.

No matter how widely the investigative net is cast, the facts are clear to me. Here’s what happened based on eyewitness accounts: 1) before takeoff, the Bell 429 generated a tremendous dust-storm that blinded the pilots and onlookers alike as it strained to lift off with its full load of eight passengers; (2) upon takeoff, the Bell 429, at only an altitude of about 30 feet, begun to rotate horizontally; (3) the rear-end of the Bell 429’s right side snagged and snapped a high-tension cable and an electric wire, causing the helicopter to drop to the ground on its left side. My theory: pilot error in miscalculating the attributes of the helicopter (e.g., center of gravity) in relation to the operating environment (e.g., density altitude). Here’s the rub: the pilots likely suspected the helicopter was overloaded and imbalanced but were afraid to say so as this would have led to a general or two from being bumped off from the ride.

A comprehensive and straightforward investigation is welcome. But there are already too many open investigations into PNP irregularities. If the truth and culpability fizzle out in this one, the PNP will remain, with so many big boys, hopelessly scalawag-infested and, accident-prone.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino Jr., helicopters, Ninoy Aquino, On The Move, PNP helicopter crash, Segundo Eclar Romero, status symbols
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