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In memoriam: Cebu Pacific flight 387

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Aviation Updates Philippines – Precisely 22 years after one of the Philippines' most fatal air crashes, the aviation community remembers the twisted fate of Cebu Pacific flight 387 from Manila to Cagayan de Oro.
THE SECOND WORST AVIATION CRASH IN THE PHILIPPINES. The crash is considered as one of the most fatal aviation disasters in the country with 104 passengers who figured in the crash. Photo from Erik Oxtorp - Aviation-Safety.net
On February 2, 1998, a DC-9-32 operated by Cebu Pacific departed Manila for Cagayan de Oro at 9:16 am local time. Aboard flight 5J-387 were five crew members and 99 passengers who were ignorant of what has to come for them.

RP-C1507 was an American-built aircraft that entered service with Air Canada in 1967. Cebu Pacific acquired the 31-year-old jet on March 17, 1997; it was reconfigured to an all-economy cabin with 110 seats all-in-all.

At 9:53 am, flight 387 made an unscheduled stop in Tacloban, Southern Leyte, to deliver spare tires for a stranded company airliner, RP-C1506. Approximately 9 minutes later, the aircraft then departed for Cagayan de Oro, however, under visual flight rules (VFR) after passing over Butuan VOR.

After the aircraft traversed airway W9 to Butuan, the pilots made a right turn heading straight to Cagayan de Oro. On the way there, there were mountains reported to be as high as 6,000 feet. At this time, the aircraft was flying under visual control from the pilots.

During the descent phase, the crew contacted Cagayan de Oro Tower and reportedly informed them about their descent from 11,500 feet. Twelve minutes before its arrival, 5J-387 transmitted its last radio communication. The DC-9 flight crashed at Mt. Sumagaya, Claveria, Misamis Oriental.

Officials reported that the flight had not given away distress signals nor mayday calls. It left the air traffic controller clueless of the flight's current situation. To give way to the supposedly arriving Cebu Pacific jet, a Philippine Airlines flight, per instruction from the tower, entered a hold. But none arrived.

Cagayan de Oro aerodrome reported no significant weather disturbances in the area. However, local officials believe the mountainous region on its flight path became foggy. It might have generated a severe downdraft—downing the jet and crippling it to ashes.





The rescue operations were a nightmare. Philippine military and national police authorities led the search and rescue operations around Mt. Sumagaya. While hoping to find any signs of life, the authorities failed.
CRASH SITE. Satellite image of the crash site centered in Mount Sumagaya. Photo from Google Maps.
In a feature story from MindaNews, former Presidential Assistant to Mindanao Jesus Dureza narrated that the Air Transportation Office (now operating as the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines) had mislabeled maps regarding the supposed altitude of Mt. Sumagaya.

The old map, which the pilots of 5J-387 used, displayed 5,000 feet above sea level (ASL) as the height of the mountain where the aircraft crashed. But the accurate and safe height reference would have been 6,000 feet ASL to avoid any disaster. It has been rectified several years later.

An audio recording from the plane's cockpit voice recorder (CVR) revealed the pilots were flying at 5,000 feet ASL just before hitting the mountain. The pilots allegedly tried to evade the terrain but failed, as evidenced by the shaved treetops in the area. A terrain warning was also recorded from the CVR.
VFR AIRSPACE BETWEEN BUTUAN AND CAGAYAN DE ORO. The lighter figures in the diagram signify a higher terrain. Photo from Skyvector.
“I could not say a word. That means the pilots flew into the side of the mountain without knowing it because the weather was bad,” Dureza said in a telephone interview from MindaNews' article in 2013.

The Philippine aviation agency ruled out that the cause of the crash was pilot error. It cited "poor operational control and lack of training of the pilots and dispatchers contributed to the accident." Still, the cause of the crash is a controversial topic up until now.

To date, the crash of flight 387 is the second most fatal aviation disaster in the Philippines. The crash of Air Philippines flight 541 is considered as the most fatal aviation crash in the country and the third most fatal Boeing 737-200 crash in history, killing 131 passengers in Davao in April 2000.

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