DOTC orders Robredo airplane crash probe

By Rainier Allan Ronda, The Philippine Star

Posted at Aug 23 2012 01:35 AM | Updated as of Aug 23 2012 09:06 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Was it due to pilot error, or did diluted aviation fuel lead to the plane crash that killed Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo and two pilots?

These are some of the angles that will be explored in the probe to be conducted on the crash of the twin-engine Piper Seneca plane last Saturday.

Transportation and Communications Secretary Manuel Roxas II has ordered the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to conduct the investigation.

CAAP director general William Hotchkiss III yesterday said the CAAP also ordered the grounding of aircraft used by Aviatour Air, the operator of the light plane, pending the result of the investigation.

The CAAP has formed a composite team to serve as the Aircraft Accident Investigation and Inquiry Board.

Capt. Amado Soliman, an aviation industry expert in flight safety, heads the team, with Capt. Ramon Flores and Capt. Elmer Pea as members.

An insider at the CAAP said the use of substandard aviation fuel is being eyed in the crash of light planes.

The CAAP insider said Robredo was briefed about this and other alleged anomalies in the CAAP before he died.

Robredo as DILG secretary was an ex-officio board member of CAAP, and a report was submitted to his office three days before his death, a CAAP insider said.      

“Secretary Robredo promised to raise the issue during the CAAP board meetings to institute reforms in the agency,” the source told The STAR.    

The source said the standard fuel for twin-engine planes is Jet A1 aviation gas but some dilute it with motor gasoline fuels or “mogas” to save on cost.   

“The use of substandard gas can trigger fuel starvation that will result in engine trouble,” he said.   

He said this practice was blamed for the crash of a light plane on shanties in Barangay Don Bosco in Parañaque City last December, killing 12 people and causing injuries to 20 others.    

Hotchkiss said CAAP was among the government agencies that immediately sent its team to the site after the plane crashed.

Soliman led the team with Capt. Lorenzo Gumba and Reyner Bucalinao as members.

He said CAAP would keep the wreckage of the plane at Masbate airport under tight security.

He added it would be thoroughly examined by the CAAP probe team to determine the real cause of the plane crash.

Belly landing

The CAAP source said that based on the video showing the fuselage of the Piper Seneca, the pilot did not consider a belly landing.

He said belly landing “allows passengers to get out safely as the plane can float for a period of time.”

He also wants to know the seating arrangement of the pilot and co-pilot, saying the presence of a pilot trainee in a chartered flight is in violation of CAAP regulations.

The source added that it was not clear if the aircraft had an emergency location transporter, which emits signals if the plane crashes.

The source has promised to come out and testify in any investigation to expose other alleged irregularities in the agency.   

Probe belittled

But Cesar Lucero, vice president of the CAAP Employees Union, belittled the planned CAAP probe, saying such investigations tend to be lenient against erring aviation firms.

“These supposed thorough investigations were conducted so many times in the past but aviation firms still maintain a cavalier attitude in maintaining their light planes,” Lucero said.

Lucero said Aviatour Air, the operator of the Piper Seneca plane, was suspended early this year after its Cessna 172 crashed in Mambajao, Camiguin.

The plane was flying a family of tourists from Mactan in Cebu when it crashed one kilometer from the Camiguin airport. 

Pilot Christian Cebrecus and Norwegian passenger Raquel Strande were killed in the crash.

“There should be stiffer penalties against these aviation firms. They should look into the results and recommendations of past investigations into previous air crashes and check if CAAP accident investigators did not look the other way on unsafe practices of aviation firms to enable them to continue operating,” Lucero said. 

Difficult to maintain

Alger Ramo, an air traffic controller and former pilot, said piston-powered airplanes such as the Piper Seneca are difficult to maintain and prone to engine trouble.

“This kind of plane is not suitable for use by VIPs,” he said, adding that newer light planes have turboprop engines, which are faster and more reliable.

Ramo added that at 150 feet, the plane does not have enough altitude to glide safely toward the runway.

He said it is questionable that the pilot would be communicating with the control tower at 150 feet since VHF radios are operating on line-of-sight principle, and the pilot would be too low to receive and transmit radio signals.

Aviatour welcomes probe

Meanwhile, Aviatour Air has welcomed reports that the CAAP ordered the suspension of their operations.

Capt. Antonio Juredene, director for training of Aviatour Air, said they are ready to face any investigation into the incident.

Juredene said they voluntarily suspended their operations after the crash to show that they have nothing to hide.

Cebu City Rep. Tomas Osmeña has called on the DOTC to investigate Aviatour Air, saying it has a lot of explaining to do on the condition of its planes.

Meanwhile, former senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, who had flown with Aviatour Air president and chief executive officer Capt. Jessup Bahinting on the ill-fated six-seater Piper Seneca plane several times, said nothing seemed to be wrong with the plane then. 

He said based on experience, “Capt. Bahinting’s piloting skills are unquestionable.”

Zubiri said the last time he used the Piper Seneca was when he visited Siargao after his visit in Cebu last Aug. 10, 11 and 12.   – With Jose Sollano, Rudy Santos, Perseus Echeminada