Older Than You Thought!
2 February 2017
A story in last week’s MetroPost issue about the installation of runway lights at the Dumaguete-Sibulan airport has brought a retired military pilot to recall the first night landing at that airport.
It was an event over four decades ago when Dumaguetenos responded to a call for help to light up the runway with their car headlights to help the pilot make an emergency landing.
It was March 29, 1975. “I was a 1st lieutenant with the 220th Airlift Wing based at Mactan Air Base in Cebu,” Eugene Malahay, now a retired Air Force colonel living in Dumaguete, recounted after checking his flight logbook.
He had just completed a flight to Mactan Air Base from Manila, when a call for help came from the Philippine Constabulary in Siquijor. The PC in Siquijor was seeking reinforcement from their regional office to ward off a band of pirates.
“The Air Force knew I was from Dumaguete so they asked me if I was willing to fly one platoon (about 40 personnel) of constables to Dumaguete,” he said.
There was no airport in Siquijor that could accommodate the C123K Provider aircraft so they would have to fly to Dumaguete, from where the soldiers would cross over to Siquijor by sea.
Dumaguete had an airport but had no runway lights. “I agreed to fly because it was a moonlit night,” Malahay recounted.
The Fairchild C123K Provider transport aircraft, with body number AF 632, was the aircraft of choice for that flight. With two reciprocating engines and two auxiliary J-85 jet engines, it was so designed to land and stop in short airfields, and was the initial workhorse of the 220th Airlift Wing. Malahay explained that the Philippine Air Force had 17 of these Vietnam-vintage planes, only half of which were functional. None of these planes are flying today as the C123k Provider transport aircraft has been withdrawn from the Air Force since 1982 for lack of spare parts.
After making their flight plan, Malahay and his co-pilot, Maj. Antonio Paulin, were soon airborne with the platoon of Constabulary troops. The 36-minute flight to Dumaguete was mainly uneventful until they reached the dark airport. “We couldn’t see the runway but I was familiar with the terrain so we made a few approaches,” Malahay said.
The noisy drone of the plane’s engines as it made low passes above the City at a time when most Dumaguetenos were sleeping, worried many. What could be wrong?
The answer came when they turned on their radio sets to hear an announcement from the Provincial PC Headquarters over Radio DySR asking car owners to go to the airport, and light up the runway with their headlights to help a military plane land. Various car owners responded to the call.
Billy Yrad, who just graduated from 6th grade then, was one of those who showed up. Now a businessman based in Ohio, USA, Yrad said he was not old enough to drive at that time so he just accompanied his father Boni and brother Boyd. They were among the first ones to respond, as they were living near the end of the airport runway, where they operated a Ford dealership business.
“Papa helped organize the parking of the vehicles to line the airstrip,” he said. Billy noted the people who came out to help were actually risking their lives. “Everyone seemed to be thinking more of helping the beleaguered airplane and its passengers than their own safety,” he said.
By the time the plane made its fourth approach, Malahay and Paulin could already see the runway, and proceeded to land the plane safely, earning their place in history as the first pilots to make a night landing at the Dumaguete airport.
The platoon of PC constables then proceeded to Siquijor by sea, as planned.
Asked if the thought of meeting an accident in attempting to land a plane on a dark runway ever entered his mind, Malahay said he was confident as he was doing everything by the book. “If we were unable to land on the fourth attempt, I would have simply flown back to Cebu,” he said.
Today, nearly 42 years after that first night landing, planes can take off as late as 7 p.m. at the Dumaguete-Sibulan airport, thanks to the newly-installed runway lights.
The unparalleled show of cooperation and selflessness of the locals on that night of March 29, 1975 may already be a blur in the minds of many old time Dumaguetenos. But the events continue to remain fresh in Colonel Malahay’s memory.
His logbook of mostly-uneventful flights had an additional entry for that March 29 flight: “Thank the people of Dumaguete and radio station DYSR.”(ARVP)