Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Pilots refuse to fly over Baguio after 2pm

Clouds, unpredictable weather pose risk
By Vincent Cabreza
Inquirer Northern Luzon
ith a report from Elmer Kristian Dauigoy

BAGUIO CITY -- There's a reason pilots refuse lifting off the runway of Baguio's Loakan Airport once the clock strikes 2 p.m.

Afternoon clouds almost always envelope the summer capital daily, according to 30-year-old data compiled by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration.

Commercial airlines schedule Baguio trips in the mornings because of the unpredictable weather, although the practice is usually at the pilot's discretion, officials of the Air Transportation Office and the Department of Transportation and Communication said.

But there is no policy controlling the schedule of flights to Baguio because no expert to date can say whether the weather alone automatically makes every flight through the mountain region risky, said weather specialist Salvador Olinares.

"Statistics indicate that any day in the last 30 years in Baguio was cloudy. Anytime of the day, it's cloudy," he said.

Baguio is 1,500 meters above sea level and because of the relatively cool climate (running from an average of 12 degrees Celsius in December to as high as 24 degrees Celsius during summer), the city generates mist and clouds and receives the highest recorded rainfall than any area in the country, according to Pagasa records.

"You cannot beat nature. All we can do is to be prepared," Olinares said.

A cold front has been affecting Northern Luzon since April 6, and this has brought intermittent rains in Baguio and the rest of the Cordillera, including Ifugao, when the presidential helicopter carrying Malacañang officials ventured to scenic Banaue town on Tuesday, Olinares said.

The officials were on the way to Banaue to prepare for President Macapagal-Arroyo's visit there on Wednesday. Ms Arroyo is in Baguio City for her annual Lenten break.

The Bell 412 helicopter was declared missing on Tuesday night and the last message sent by one of its passengers, Press Undersecretary Jose Capadocia Jr., indicated that they were flying blind.

Olinares said a cold front could account for the deceptive calm of Baguio's weather on Tuesday afternoon, and the strong rains along Halsema Highway in interior Cordillera which leads to Banaue, Olinares said.

A cold front is the atmospheric condition where cold air replaces warm air. The transition increases the formation of clouds, which are masses of condensed cool air.

Based on the weather patterns of Tuesday, cumulus clouds had formed when the helicopter left the Loakan Airport at 4:20 p.m.

"Distant fog had already crept in and based on what the Baguio weather station had observed, there was no more visibility for 10 kilometers" at the runup to 5 p.m. when the weather condition was officially recorded, Olinares said.

Pilots have always been aware of the risks of Baguio flights.

Air Force Lt. Isagani Quiming, pilot of one of the rescue helicopters searching for the Malacañang officials' chopper, said a typical Huey helicopter has a cruising speed of 80 to 90 miles per hour.

Flying below that speed means the helicopter is vulnerable to the strong air currents generated from mountain walls.

"Flying in low air speed makes it more dangerous, kasi madaling tangayin ng gustiness ng hangin (because the chopper can be pulled by the gustiness of the wind)," Quiming said as he piloted a rescue chopper over Kabayan, Benguet on Wednesday.

"Mahirap din kasi kung puro bundok. Mataas ang elevation, malakas ang hangin at makapal ang clouds (It's also difficult to fly helicopters here because the mountains are high. The higher the elevation, the stronger the wind speed and the thicker the clouds)," he said.

The war diary of the late Capt. Demetriou Luis documented how Japanese pilots refused to fly to Baguio after 10 a.m. during World War II because of the terrain and erratic weather, said lawyer Concepcion Luis, Luis' daughter.

In 2005, a government plane crashed at the Atok Trail, near the Baguio City Economic Zone, as it approached the Loakan Airport, according to the Office of Civil Defense here.


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