By FROILAN GALLARDO
THE Air Force sent more helicopters to bring food to isolated villages in North Cotabato but pilots encountered more difficulties to complete their mission.
Lt. Col. Florante Baterina, commander of the PAF Tactical Operations Group 11 based in Davao City, said it was not usual for the pilots and helicopters to encounter strong winds as they try to drop food supplies in low altitude.
Baterina said the mountainous terrain in North Cotabato makes it difficult for the rescue helicopters and pilots.
“Imagine Mt. Apo is the top of a pyramid. We are trying to land on its side,” Huey pilot Capt. Frankloyd Tabat said.
Tabat, a Cebuano, piloted one of the two helicopters who made a daring rescue on 15 residents in Sitio Kapatagan, Makilala town, North Cotabato on Nov. 3.
He piloted a Bell 412 helicopter, an aircraft assigned to President Duterte and is based in Davao City.
Duterte, who was in Bangkok, ordered Tabat to participate in the rescue and relief operations in the quake-hit North Cotabato.
Tabat said he was assigned as lead helicopter last Nov. 3 together with the Bell UH-1H “Super Huey” helicopter of the PAF 505th Search and Rescue Group.
“We prayed for good weather before the mission and God gave us everything,” Tabat said.
Before that, Baterina sent a small team of soldiers to hike up the mountains to sitio Kapatagan to scout for possible landing sites.
The rocky precipice at 3,000 feet above sea level that was about to collapse was the only good land site the soldiers found.
Tabat said they made the first attempt on Nov. 2 but was driven back by strong sudden gusts of winds.
They dropped some food supplies to the villagers instead.
On Nov. 3, Tabat believed, God answered their prayers.
“I made the first landing while the white helicopter hovered above looking for any danger,” Tabat recalled.
He immediately saw that the rock precipice was crumbling and nearby trees posed serious risks for their helicopter propeller blades.
Tabat said with the guidance of their door gunner, he slowly maneuvered his Bell 412 to land on the precipice.
“I was careful because the weight of my helicopter could collapse the landing site,” he said.
Tabat said he made a “light on skid” landing- a maneuver that helicopters hover with their landing gear barely touching the ground.
Successful on the maneuver, he pulled away from the precipice after dropping his passengers including Danilo Doquiles, the photographer and picking up eight residents.
Doquiles, a photographer from the Philippine Information Agency 12, documented the daring rescue in Sitio Kapatagan.
Tabat radioed Capt. Neil Jasper Layug who was piloting the second white helicopter to land following the maneuvers he made.
“If you asked was I scared, yes I was scared. I saw rocks and soil crumbling when the other helicopter landed and took off,” Layug said.
Layug landed safely and airlifted seven residents. Like Tabat before him, Layug took off before diving into the 3,000 feet above sea level space to gain speed.
Both helicopters were able to airlift a total of 15 residents from Sitio Kapatagan, a village located at 3,000 feet above sea level beside Mount Apo.
Layug said all the fear and risks they have disappeared the moment they landed safely at the North Cotabato provincial capitol in Amas, Kidapawan City.
He said three children among the 15 residents they rescued, came up to the pilots and offered to them the puppies they have carried in flight.
“The children told us they want us to have the puppies as gifts in exchange for saving their lives,” Layug narrated.
Layug said they were all teary-eyed by the gesture but they did not accept the gifts.
“We did not mind the danger. We will do it again so others may live,” Layug said.