Air Force men pluck 39 from floodwaters
MANILA, Philippines—Daylight was fading as fast as floodwaters were rising Thursday afternoon in Tinajero, a barangay sitting between two levees in Bacolor, Pampanga.
Some of its residents were trapped in a chapel; others were slogging through lahar-heavy water inching past their knees.
Entire families were at least five kilometers away from safety. The current was strong, and it was equally risky to brave the waters on foot or use a rubber boat.
And then hope seemed to drop from the overcast sky—a 10-member team from the Philippine Air Force’s 505th Search and Rescue Group (PAF-SRG) flying from Villamor Air Base to Tinajero in response to a distress call.
“There were many children and elderly, and they were totally isolated … The isolated area was around 5 km away,” Maj. Marciano Jesus Guevara, a senior rescue pilot who led the operation, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a parent company of INQUIRER.net, hours after his team returned to base yesterday.
The seasoned SRG team flew to Bacolor at around 4 p.m. Thursday using the unit’s Huey 2, a modified UH-1H with a more powerful engine and stronger rotors fit to fly through inclement weather.
On board were two pilots, a two-man flight crew and six pararescue jumpers (PJs)—all highly trained in sea, air and land rescue.
The team had received a call from the Clark Air Base in Pampanga, which reported that flood was endangering whole families in Bacolor.
“If they were not able to cross and the water continued to rise, the flood would have reached them. It was already close to the roofs of some houses,” said Guevara.
Hover and haul
Rains triggered by Tropical Storm “Dodong” forced the rescuers to make a quick landing at a gas station on the North Luzon Expressway.
They managed to push on a little later, flying through calmer pockets at an altitude of 500 feet, and found a patch in the danger zone suitable for landing and drop-off.
“When the team arrived in the vicinity of [Tinajero], aerial reconnaissance confirmed that heavy flooding had submerged the whole area. Without delay, the aircrews spotted the concrete dike as a landing area where we can evacuate the victims,” the PAF-SRG post-mission report read in part.
Guevara and his team decided that the rescue would be best done through “hover and haul,” with PJs carrying those trapped onto the chopper and then flying them to the drop zone.
“We tried to do a hoist rescue but that would have been slower. We could load only two at a time and the turnaround would have taken too long. That’s why we decided to [use the hover strategy], where we were able to load 9-10 passengers at a time,” said Guevara, a rescue pilot for 15 years now.
Shuttling back and forth, the team made 10 sorties to complete the mission, flying seven minutes beyond the Huey 2’s ideal maximum flying time of an hour and 50 minutes.
‘So that others may live’
It was all worth the risk, with 39 toddlers, teens, young adults and elders taken to safety.
“It feels great to be able to rescue civilians in need. That’s the reason our motto is ‘So that others may live,’” Guevara said of his unit, a small squadron that was expanded into a group in the 1990s because of the sheer number of natural disasters in that decade.
For the copilot, Capt. Gerardo Gramata, being at risk was all in a day’s work.
“It’s an ordinary rescue for us. We do it without thinking of our own lives. We always consider the whole thing as part of our job. After each mission, I kneel down and thank God,” said Gramata, a 10-year veteran.
The men and women of PAF-SRG took part in search, rescue and retrieval missions in the Tarlac flash floods in 1991, the Quezon and Aurora landslides in December 2004, and the terror attack on board a SuperFerry in February 2004.
The 370-strong group, which has smaller squadrons in PAF bases in Cebu, Davao and Clark, has a fleet of eight rescue choppers and a modest inventory for land, sea and air rescue.