‘Volcano of interest’

While the Philippine government has thrown in the best investigators to probe Thursday’s shock crash of the PNP chief’s brand-new chopper, the possible role of Taal volcano’s ashfall in the downing is emerging, a rude reminder that nature cannot be forgotten.
A security guard covers his face as dust rises while a helicopter takes off beside the site where another crashed in San Pedro, Laguna, March 5, 2020.

THE Philippine National Police (PNP) has sought the help of all possible government agencies to investigate the crash of its Bell 429 helicopter in San Pedro, Laguna, on Thursday, injuring eight people, including PNP chief Archie Gamboa and three other generals.

P/LtGen. Guillermo Eleazar, who was tasked as Chief Special Investigation Task Group Bell 429, said this will involve the cooperation of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap), the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and the aviation experts from the PNP “to know what happened that brought the chopper down.”

By Friday, most of the initial investigations had focused on ensuring the integrity of the crash site evidence, interviewing witnesses and seeking all possible documentation of the accident, especially video footage by the public.

The initial details ferreted out in the interviews that were publicly shared point to the very high possibility that Taal Volcano, which erupted on January 12, had left a deadly legacy that may have been taken for granted as other serious concerns, like the coronavirus disease, consumed both the authorities and the public.

The Bell 429 chopper, bought just before then PNP chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa quit to run for the Senate, is generally seen to be in tiptop shape still, as Dela Rosa himself indicated in his first radio interview after the crash. In fact, the senator took pains to point out, it was Gamboa who headed the PNP bidding panel when the chopper was bought, and, Dela Rosa added, Gamboa was very strict and meticulous in his job.

That leaves the volcanic dust and ashfall factor—cited for the zero visibility kicked up by the Bell chopper’s ascent from a dusty “helipad”—as the biggest suspect in the investigation. Taal is a “volcano of interest,” in police parlance.

Policemen and firemen crowd the crashed helicopter in Barangay San Antonio, San Pedro, Laguna, on Thursday.

Quiet on Caap front

The BusinessMirror tried for the last two days to get in touch by telephone with Caap officials, including their check pilots. However, all their numbers repeat the same refrain: “The number you dialed is not in service.”

This state of affairs has actually been going on for years. The Caap Director General, Jim Sydiongco, cannot be reached by telephone. Anybody who wishes to interview any of its officials has to first write or get an appointment with its spokesman, Eric Apolonio.

Airport insiders understand the reason behind this rare access to Caap officials. The Department of Transportation (DOTr) Secretary, Arthur Tugade, has strict instructions not to say anything related to any investigation that is not first referred to them. Otherwise, the same official refrain is given: “Let us wait for the investigation.”

However, the Caap does not actually release any official findings, long after the investigation is over.

One example is the crash of Air Xiamen Air flight MF 8667, from Xiamen to Manila, which crashed on the runway in August of 2018. The Boeing 737-800 B-5498 took several days to be removed from where it slid off Runway 24, causing flight cancellations.

Until now, there is no Caap statement to pinpoint what caused the accident or whether the pilot or air-traffic controller was at fault, so that those mistakes would not be repeated.

While awaiting the results of Eleazar’s inquiry, the BusinessMirror interviewed former Caap air-traffic controllers, who are themselves private pilots, or academic flight instructors, to professionally help determine the initial cause of the accident—based on their review and analysis of the video that made the rounds of social media last Thursday and from their previous assignment and experience with the Rescue Coordinating Center (RCC).

A policemen looks at the damaged rotor of the helicopter that crashed in San Pedro, Laguna, March 5, 2020.

Veteran aviators

Capt. Alger Ramo, a private pilot and often the source of our interviews, has never been rebuked or corrected by the Caap for giving his informed observation related to local incidents. That also goes for Perry Casapao, a retired Caap air-traffic controller (ATC) and private pilot. Included in this interview is retired ATC Antonio Paglinawan, a ground instructor of 20 years with the Caap Aviation Training Center.

According to Ramo, the helicopter pilot, PLTCol. Zalatar, should have aborted the takeoff when his visibility turned zero from the dust and ashfall created by his rotors and blocking his view. Ramo said that Zalatar should have told his boss, Gen. Archie Gamboa, that the thick dust is obstructing his view “and there is a need to slow down or cut off the engines and ask the PNP personnel on the compound to spray water on the ground to mitigate the dust storm created by the downward wash of the rotors.”

It was learned from the news that prior to landing, the area was sprayed with water to prevent the dust that would be raised by the rotors’ downward draft. One report said the ground was indeed sprayed, but because of the heat, it had already dried up by the time the Gamboa party was set to fly out.

One notable aspect of the area is that it is an exposed, open ground, without any grass cover to mitigate the spread of dust and ashfall.

Additional information gathered by the BusinessMirror was that the landing area is not an officially sanctioned landing site for helicopters. “Otherwise, it should have been marked with a huge white circular marker with a capital letter H on the center,” Ramo said.

He added that designated chopper landing sites or “helipads” are inspected by Caap experts and, after studying the proper landing and takeoff parameters, are given the official seal of approval. The official pads would indicate the locations of obstacles to be avoided.

Gamboa’s chosen landing site, an impounding area for seized vehicles in San Pedro, Laguna, was used for the first time. He was there to inspect the seized luxury vehicles by the police.

Ramo said the usual procedure when a helipad is used for the first time “is to exit the place by using the same direction when the pilot comes in.” This way, he said, it would be assumed that the route was safe and clear of surrounding obstructions.

Casapao, meanwhile, sticks to his observation that the chopper’s engine had ingested huge amounts of dust and ashfall from Taal’s eruption in January, leading to engine flameout.

“The engine had already ingested dust and ash when it came in,” he said. He added that when the chopper took off, it was using its maximum power to attain vertical speed, go straight up in the air to a certain altitude, then exit the area. “That is why so much dust and ashfall have been disturbed and swirled around the chopper, reducing visibility to zero.”

Casapao explained that ashfall from Taal is considered abrasive and would immediately affect the engines, “and when the pilot took off in the midst of that dust storm, it was like flying through Taal’s plume of ash.”

Antonio Paglinawan Jr., who has spent nine years with the Area Control Center and the RCC, was academic or “ground pilot instructor for 20 years.”

He taught at the Caap Air Transport Academy.

He agreed with the observation of Casapao and Ramo and added that since the rotors had possibly partially “seized” due to engine flameout, the chopper’s rotors had not much power to cut the dangling electric wires “which would have created a huge spark, leading to an explosion.”

Paglinawan added, “My observation is simple. The pilot should have taken off and gained some altitude way clear of all obstructions before he exits the area.”

The site of the helicopter crash is cordoned off in San Pedro, Laguna, March 5, 2020.

The nature of volcanic dust

“The chopper is almost brand new so the condition may not be suspect. Even if the landing pad had been doused with water, the water cannot penetrate deep into the fine dust if it were Taal ashfall,” he added.

“The high-power revolutions of the rotors will still blow the wet ash away and the dry ash would still be swirling. I agree with the observation that less power was needed during the landing but greater power is required for the takeoff.”

Though the three experts were interviewed separately, they had a similar observation: that purported eyewitnesses may be either confused with the timing of the chopper’s fall, or exaggerated the story that they actually witnessed the chopper going up and hitting the electric wires.

“With the powerful blast of the rotors raising so much dust and ash, the reaction of any observer near the chopper would have been to cover their face with their hands, turn away from the chopper and seek cover.”

“It would have been a fool who would open his eyes in that dust storm to observe a chopper taking off, with the dust and tiny pebbles being flung around like missiles and possibly rendering them blind,” Paglinawan explained.

It was initially thought that the chopper struck a guy wire in the area, where there are lifting cranes, stacks of steel beams and heavy construction materials.

However, there was a brownout in the area in the aftermath of the crash—which was probably when the chopper weighed heavily on the wires after falling from the sky, cutting some of them.

However the inquiry on the downing of the chief’s brand-new chopper may go, for now, it may be good for all those affected by Taal’s January eruption to heed a chilling reminder: the detritus of nature’s tantrums remains very much around.

Image credits: AP/Aaron Favila, Nonie Reyes


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