Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Genesis of Air Safari

Air Safari routes in Central Luzon
This summer (April and May 2014) has been a real treat. I'm on air safari most weekends, albeit staying overnight at one destination and returning to Rancho Caridad the following morning. Castillejos (Zambales) and Baler (Aurora), approximately 100 kilometers southwest and east of Nampicuan (Nueva Ecija), respectively, have become my favorite destinations to date. Both airstrips are off the beaten path with nary a visitor except the occasional and brief visits of student pilots from flying schools in Central Luzon. Neither have a control tower nor a transceiver, which simplifies landing and take-off. Yet, both have someone to watch over the airstrip in the few instances an aircraft does land. On most of my visits, I have these airstrips all to myself.

Castillejos is a private airstrip owned by the family of former Governor Magsaysay--cousins of former Senator Jun Magsaysay. The "caretaker" (I call him "Manong") appears to be an informal settler of nearly 20 years rather than an employee of the landowner. Nevertheless, Manong and his son, Omar, have been quite reliable in securing my aircraft during my visits and I am grateful for their services.

Baler is a government (Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines or CAAP) controlled airstrip. Until recently, I would have assigned a low probability of further development to the Baler airstrip, given its remote location and the limited tourist infrastructure in town. However, all that has changed with the recent opening of first class resort facilities in Sabang Beach, Baler. The town is abuzz with tourists and there is a palpable increase in economic activity. Hence, I am afraid I will eventually have to share the Baler airstrip with commercial planes ferrying tourists to and from Manila.

What makes my air safari trips to Castillejos and Baler exceptional is the landscape I fly over en route to my destination.

In the case of Castillejos, my favorite part of the flight starts as I approach the mountains north of Mount Pinatubo and segue above the New Asia Golf and Spa Resort along O'Donnell River. Thereafter, I am over Lake San Marcos and Lake Tambo, which appear to host indigenous Aeta communities. Just a few kilometers south is the Crow Valley Bombing and Gunnery Range (presently called the Tarlac Military Testing Ground), which was the main bombing range of the US Armed Forces in the Western Pacific. It was used for aerial combat training, which included bombing, strafing, ground unit maneuvers and live fire exercises. I cross-over to the northwest quadrant of Mount Pinatubo and float over topography that is stunningly out of this world. I see Mapanuepe Lake on my left as I cross the massive dry river bed of Santo Tomas River, leisurely loosing altitude towards my final approach to the Castillejos airstrip. My flight from Nampicuan to Castillejos takes about 1 hour due to the easterly tailwind; the return trip takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes due to the easterly headwind. The same trip (Nampicuan to Castillejos) by car via the TPLEX, the SCTEX and the national road would take at least 3 hours.

A peek at the peak of Mount Pinatubo (covered in clouds)
On the way to Castillejos, Zambales
This is the way to Iba, Zambales
Mang Lasong and his son, Omar. They secure my aircraft while it's parked at the Magsaysay Airstrip.
Crack of dawn at the Magsaysay Airstrip, just before take-off.
Sunrise at Mount Pinatubo on my return trip to Rancho Caridad

Lake Tambo

Lake San Marcos

Oops! Forgot to smile on my first in-flight selfie.

This time with a smile.
New Asia Golf and Spa Resort

Mount Arayat

A pretty lake along the way
My geographical references: Mount Balungao, Mount Cuyapo and Mount Bangkay.
Rancho Caridad is somewhere in the middle.

In my recent trip to Castillejos (May 9-10, 2014), I flew without the aid of a GPS, confident of my knowledge of the aerial route and its corresponding visual landmarks. All went well going to Castillejos; it was a clear morning. However, on the morning of my return trip, the sky could not have been muggier, blanketing the horizon with a thick screen of humidity. Hence, on the last leg of my flight above the plains of Central Luzon, I could not see any of the small mountains I would typically use as visual references. Heck, I couldn't even visually locate Mount Arayat, the most prominent mountain in Central Luzon. So, I meandered a bit using only the sunrise on the east as reference and eventually got a glimpse of the outline of Mount Bolinao. I was home free!

Mock airfield at Crow Valley
In the case of Baler, my flight from Nampicuan begins with the morning sun gradually rising above the mountains of the Sierra Madre. About halfway through the trip, shortly after flying over the City of San Jose, Nueva Ecija (which incidentally has an old and unused airstrip), I am above Pantabangan Dam and cruise along the southern edge of the Pantabangan Reservoir towards the Canili River Reservoir. Thereafter, I make a beeline for the Baler airstrip as the vast expanse of Baler Bay opens-up like a giant amphitheater with the Pacific Ocean as its stage. My flight from Nampicuan to Baler takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes due to the easterly headwind; the return trip takes about 1 hour due to the easterly tailwind. The same trip (Nampicuan to Baler) by car via national roads would take at least 4 hours.

Shortly after landing at my destination, the first order of business is to secure the aircraft and refill with gasoline--Petron's 95 Octane usually does the trick. The latter allows me to take-off at the crack of dawn the following morning. The remainder of the day calls for some good old-fashioned rest and recreation, along with sampling the local cuisine. After a good night's sleep and a very early wake-up alarm (usually around 4 a.m.), I am up in the air once again at first light.

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