May Holidays 2009 - Mabuhay!
In less than four days, I am taking the family to our first voyage together in the Philippines. We will likely fly to Calapan airport in Oriental Mindoro Island and spend a night at the Puerto Galera resort. Depending on the weather (rainy season is starting), we will visit a few more Islands. Stay Tuned as I bring you the exciting news of this adventure.
Some Basic Flying Tips in the Philippines
The Philippines is a magnificent archipelago consisting of many Islands and some of the most stunning natural beauty anywhere in the world. It also has a host of small and medium-sized airports scattered virtually everywhere and a nearly complete free airspace system that make it an ideal place to fly. Checkout my "License Conversion Projects" to see how you can do it. You must really want it as it is not without trouble, but once you do it, you can enjoy flying in beautiful weather from October to May (dry season) at reasonable cost.
Flying is DAY VFR - and Back to VERY Basics
First thing you'll notice is that most clubs will let you only fly VFR and in the Philippines, VFR means DAY time VFR. And all for good reason. It is exceeding difficult to navigate the many Islands in IFR conditions and once you get there, most Island's airports are nothing more than a gravel runway with runway markings at each end. There are no ILS or NDB approaches and often you'll find it difficult to spot the airport in bad weather. Night flying is not allowed and I appreciate why for all the reasons above and the fact that most airports are not equipped for it either, except the top 5-10 big airports.
Of course, you can fly IFR in the Philippines, but that is to very limited number of airports and with much better equipped and higher performance planes than most clubs have to offer.
Charts - Hope you can draw well
Philippines Sectional Charts
The VFR charts you get from your club (Omni in my case) are nice and detailed and are fairly accurate. However, they fall miserably short of being complete if you are used to US sectionals. The airports are marked, but that's just about it. No frequencies, no VORs, no NDBs, no NAVAIDs at all. There are no airspace markings, no control zones, etc. The exceptions are the restricted areas and there are very few of them.
Well folks, you do need the assistance of those VORs and NDBs if you are flying in unfamiliar territory and if you have to divert or fly low. For that, I modified my chart and drew my own Compass Rose VOR's on all the charts. Since the Philippines is in the "1-2 W" degrees of variation zone, I did not bother with magnetic variation.
As you can see in the above chart, I've done quite a few plans and flights in and around Manila and Clark. In the coming weekend, I will be going to "Calapan" from Clark (due south, south-east around 130NM) to a resort in Puerto Galera. On Thursday, I will likely go to Baguio which is at a high elevation of 4,251'.
Note that there are plenty of mountain ranges, volcanoes, hills, valleys, swamplands and rivers in the Philippines. They are, at the same time, beautiful, dangerous and very helpful with VFR navigation.
There are good airport reference guides, but the guide is absolutely huge and you have to photocopy many pages from an old booklet that is falling apart. I highly recommend you carry the airport guide for the top 10 airports in the country, but also the following trick is very useful. I've created my own "Airport Quick Checklist" which has everything you need for the top 10 airports on one sheet.
Here's the airport quick check-list in xls. Use it. It's very handy.
We finally did it
Last weekend, we finally fulfilled a long-standing dream and went to the Philippines with the family to fly around together. This was a completely covert operation by Aria and I to lure the 'ladies' into our passion of flying by cloaking the whole experience as 'vacation'! And it worked! We went flying and we had a great time as a family vacation ... at least that's what the boys think!
Joking aside, we did enjoy 3 days of great flying and relaxation at Clark and Puerto Galera. I'll share some of the flying highlights with you.
I did manage to go a day earlier to ensure all is well and my license, the airplane, etc are all in good condition. My Philippines license has arrived and so has my radio license. It is valid till next February, but I am not complaining. As I understand, it is a 'validation' of my Canadian PPL and would carry all the privileges and restrictions of my Canadian license. Ironically, it does not indicate VFR or IFR, but it does say that it is restricted to 'C-172' type aircraft!
Flying to Baguio and Lingayan
On Thursday (30 Apr), I flew to Baguio with Rey. What a fabulous experience. The clouds were everywhere form around 5500' and the tip of the mountains were also buried in them. Baguio, which is a northern city in Luzon, is at an elevation of 4,250'. We set out to fly directly north to the airport, but ended up having to divert left and track the coast line toward San Fernando. From there, we contacted Baguio tower and were told that most of the Western and Northern approaches were blocked by clouds. The tower guided us to approach from the South. So we did and we veered around the clouds and made a big circle and entered through the South. Even after the city was fully in sight, it was not possible to see the runway as it is hidden completely behind a hill from the southern approach. I was thankful that Rey had flown this route many times before and trusted his instinct on avoiding mountain peaks under the clouds and on lowering our speed to approach minimums without spotting the runway. As we entered base on the pattern, the runway became visible. It was a magical approach to the high elevation. We landed on runway 27 amidst the mist and clouds with winds slightly behind us. The airport is nothing to write home about, so after just 15 minutes, we got ready and took off from Runway 9 and took off into the heart of the mountains and on our way toward Lingayan for lunch.
The flight to Lingayan was beautiful as we flew over the mountains and had to descend quickly to sea level for the approach into a cozy airport with sheep on resting by the runway side.
To Calapan and Beyond ...
The family arrived in Manila late Thursday night and I arranged for them to stay near the Manila airport and the plan was for me to fly to Manila, pick them up and then fly together to Calapan. Well, that did not pan out exactly as planned.... We ended up having them drive up to Clark and started our journey together from Clark.
Rey and Kevin (a fellow Canadian pilot who teaches at Omni and who flew the very same Piper Warrior C-GOZY that I flew in Brampton 15 years ago!) were kind enough to give me a full briefing on approach and exit procedures for Manila. Taxing after landing seemed to be the most complex part. I was confident and flew over to toward Manila on Friday morning. I turned on the ATIS. All seemed ok. Visibility 6KM and I could almost make out the outskirts of the city when I contacted the ATC. Here is what the conversation went like:
"Pilot: Manila Approach, Cessna RP-C 8844.
Manila: 8844, Manila Approach.
Pilot: 8844 is at 2000 over Malolos on a VFR flight plan to Calapan with a passenger pick up in Manila. Request landing instructions Manila.
Manila: 8844, roger. Runway 24 is in use for ILS approach today.
Pilot: 8844, I am on a VFR plan. Request VFR approach to runway 13 please.
Manila: Negative 8844. Please note that VFR operations is suspended due to visibility"
At this point, I was very surprised. Clearly the visibility conditions were not IFR as I could easily see the airport from 8-10 miles out. So, I made a gentle request:
"Pilot: Manila approach, 8844 requesting a special VFR to runway 13 to pick up 3 pax. Visibility to the aiport seems more than adequate.
Manila: VFR is suspended and not in operations now.
Pilot: Approach, understood. Is there a possiblity of a special VFR to runway 13. 8844 is less than 10 miles from the airport and has runway in sight.
Manila: VFR operations are suspended in Manila as of now."
Well, I had to do a 360 in disbelief and fly back to Clark. When I landed, I received a call from Ben Hur Gomez, CEO or Omni who tried to comfort me as he had heard what happened. Back at Omni, many of the pilots said how sad and lazy Manila ATC operators are and that it is not unusual for them to cancel VFR in perfectly legal VFR conditions.
So, here is my BIG advice on flying into Manila ... DON'T. I wasted several hours and lots of money doing it (or not doing it!).
Flying out of Clark
We took off around 11:30 when the family arrived in Clark. It was going to be around 1:40 minutes long and we were dead on with our positions and ETA all the way. We managed to climb up to 7,500' over broken clouds. VFR on top is legal in the Philippines and I recommend it as navigation is much easier and the ride much smoother. However, as we were getting close to the rainy season, I was concerned that we may not be able to get back down through an opening if the clouds were overcast over Calapan. I called Manila approach and asked for weather advisory over Calapan. NOTHING! The controller was not even remotely helpful or concerned to help. He gave me the weather over southern portions of Manila! How useful is that when Calapan is 80NM away!!!!
At this point, I decided to simultaneously declare the Manila ATC as the world's least friendly and also find a suitable 'hole' and descend below the clouds. I managed to do a couple of 360 turns and descend to around 2500 and remain below the clouds for the remainder of the trip. It proved to be a very good call as Calapan was completely overcast. We even encountered a mild rain on the way.
We flew over the Puerto Galera area where we were going to spend the night and headed straight to Calapan airport with intentions to land at runway 11.
Approach to Calapan
Our destination was Calapan (RPUK) on the north-east corner of the Oriental Mindoro Island. The airport is located on the tip of the protrusion and is hard to spot as it is largely a grass and gravel runway with approach markings at either end. It is an uncontrolled airport, so the procedure is to make regular announements on 121.9 from 10NM out. Last time I was here a studen pilot was on the runway and was backtracking without announcements! I had also spotted livestock on the runway before. So, I decided to enter mid-way crosswind at 1500' (500' above the pattern) and make regular traffic announcements and 'buzz' the animals away. It was a good way to inspect the runway, look for the wind socket (there are no ATIS or weather reports avialable for Calapan). Ceiling was at 2500 and visibility >6 miles. We entered downwind and settled at 1000' and 80 mph with 10 degrees of flaps. We had a slight cross wind. Turning base, I realized that we were a bit high (we had no altimeter settings for that time). I set the flaps to 20 degrees, pulled back on the throttle and set the approach speed to 75 mph. (the ASI is in MPH on this aircraft, so you have to be careful not to fly mentally in Knots or you may stall prematurely on final). On final, I set full flaps, speed at 70 mph and a slight side slip and voila, we were perfectly aligned and at the right speed and attitude to land on runway 11. The touch down with a tinge of power was very smooth and I heard a little girl's voice saying 'great job' on the intercom from the back seat. I knew we had a couple of anxious, but satisfied customers in the back.
We were greeted with cows and goats and soon announced a backtrack on runway 11 and parked beside the only lonely cessna at the airport. Closed our flight plan by SMS to Omni flight ops, tied down the airplane and took the 2 hour ride to Puerto Galera and our hotel -- Atlantis Resort.
Return back to Clark
The next day we flew back to Clark. Ceiling was around 2500', so we had to fly low all the way, but we managed to climb some parts of the way. It was risky to fly over the top of the clouds as Clark was most likely overcast. It proved to be a good call. We landed safely and then Aria and I went for some airworks in practice area C1 and a few touch and goes.
Later that evening we had dinner with our friends, Charles Harris and his wife and new baby -- Sir Michael Charles Harris II, George O'Keeffee and our very own Capt Ben Hur Gomez, CEO of Omni Aviation, and his wife. A great way to end a wondrous vacation.