(Author's note: The opinions written and expressed by the writer on this blog post are based on eyewitness accounts and facts related to the incident.)
Cecille (not her real name) was on her way back to Davao after a short vacation in Manila with her friends. All of the hundred and sixty-five passengers and crew of Cebu Pacific Air flight 5J 971 thought that it would be just a routine flight. Cecille is a certified jet-setter; she had traveled extensively not just in the Philippines but also in some parts of Asia, Europe, and America. Her flight was 35-minutes delayed but she didn't mind. She wasn't in a hurry.
Everything seemed peaceful until their final descent. The weather in Davao was not that good. Heavy downpour was reported over the field but it is still safe for planes to land and take-off at Davao International Airport. It was a truly busy night for the controllers of Davao Control Tower. A total of ten inbound flights arrive from 7-9PM in that period alone. Finally, Cebu Pacific Flight 5J 971 was given a clearance by Davao Aerodrome Tower to land at runway 23 of Davao International Airport.
Despite the rain, Cecille could see the lights of Sasa Port as the plane came closer to the runway. Suddenly, they were blinded by heavy downpour. There was a slight turbulence. Finally, the plane touched down but Cecille sensed something was wrong with the landing process. Within seconds, Cecille felt the plane swerved to the right and it suddenly stopped, as if it hit something hard. Suddenly, the lights went off.
Then, there was silence. An eerie silence.
Alex (not his real name) was waiting for his flight back to Manila. Flight 5J 974 will be delayed for 40 minutes due to air traffic congestion in Manila, as what the ground crew announced. "Well, what's new," he mumbled. At around 7:15 PM, there was a commotion. He heard something about an aircraft that needed ground assistance. He peered at the glass window, and saw a rather disturbing sight - a yellow Airbus A320-200 lying silently at the grassy area between the taxiways, with a collapsed nose gear.
|Damaged nose gear.|
Cecille can no longer handle the stress. It was dark and started to feel hot inside the cabin. But the cabin crew told them to remain calm. For the next 27 minutes, they did nothing but to wait for the next instructions of the crew. Finally, they were instructed to leave the plane at the front exit door, near row 1. There were only two ambulances waiting outside that will ferry the passengers from the plane to the terminal building. The remaining passengers, however, had no choice but to walk from the runway to the terminal barefoot, and that includes Cecille. Upon arrival at the terminal building, her blood pressure shot up and went to the clinic to seek medical assistance. Unfortunately, the doctor wasn't there.
Alex went down to assess the situation. Apparently, the check-in counter areas were filled with disgruntled passengers. The remaining nine scheduled outbound flights got cancelled due to the disabled aircraft on the runway. Worse, the ground crew of Cebu Pacific suddenly left without a trace. At the arrival hall, the passengers of flight 5J 971 waited for an hour before an official from the airline company spoke to them. They were tired, hungry, and wanted to go home. Some were given money for transportation (taxi), while others had to be accommodated because some had to travel to nearby provinces. As for Cecille, she started to feel better but remained scared because of that incident. Alex, however, has to wait for tomorrow. He will be accommodated to the next flight from General Santos, which is 3 hours away from Davao. The company gave him free snacks and free transportation to the Tuna Capital.
The Real Deal
The incident truly shook the Philippine aviation industry. Initial reports claimed that flight 5J 974 crash landed at the airport. There were also reports about an engine explosion while the plane was on its final approach to runway 23. According to my reliable sources, here's a gist of what really happened on that particular flight:
Heavy downpour was reported over the field. The plane was given a VOR/DME approach clearance (a type of instrument approach) by the approach controller. As the plane intercepted the final approach fix, the pilot reported that the runway lights are visible and the rain did not really hamper his view. As he neared runway 23, heavy rain started to pour again and this time, hampering his view to the runway. The pilot decided to continue the approach. When the view started to clear up again, the plane was just a few hundred feet from the runway. The pilot quickly realized that the plane wasn't aligned at the center of the runway. He did a few adjustments but it was too late. He tried to veer the plane to the left, but instead, it veered to the right, causing it to swerve towards the grassy area between the two taxiways. The nose gear collapsed and the left engine was severely damaged. And I have to clarify that it was the pilot who landed the plane, not the first officer, as what the local news initially claimed.
A lot of people complained about how Cebu Pacific handled the emergency situation. The news claimed that the crew of the airline company are not prepared to handle such situation. Moreover, there were claims that an inadequacy of equipment at the airport causing a delay to the operations.
First things first, the aerodrome control tower has local emergency procedures to handle this particular situation. I think it is really unfair to solely blame the inadequacy of the equipment or the lack of training of the airline crew. Should the airline needed more ground assistance, they should immediately inform the control tower. It's just about proper coordination between the two units. More so, despite the lousy evacuation process, the passengers should just follow the instructions of the crew. We have the right to complain but make sure it is completely rational. Here are some of the few irrational complaints of some irrational passengers:
- The passenger did not want to slide because she did not want her shorts to get wet;
- A passenger suggested that the plane should have stayed on the runway; and the worst is this:
- A passenger who waited for two hours to get some J.Co donuts complained that he wasn't able to take his donuts home. He blames the cabin crew for "taking" them.
Everyone was hoping that the flight would land and park safely at the tarmac. The pilots did not intend to do such. It is really disappointing to read some claims that the runway lights suddenly turned off while the plane was on its final approach; it is not true at all. It made me really sad because some people are sensationalizing and taking advantage of the news, leading to compromising the truth. I do hope that the incident report will come out soon thus clearing some issues.
And as of today, Davao International Airport is closed until further advised.
(All photos were taken by Oliver Dorado)