Philippines - Cutting it Fine, by David Hogg (1970)

Crash! The clatter from the galley only added to the tension in the Fokker F27’s small cabin. Everyone was firmly strapped in – and gripping their seats with white knuckles. There was no conversation, as everyone waited for the aircraft’s next sudden drop or leap upward. Occasionally there was a sideways lurch as the pilot tried to lose height or alter course. Nothing to be seen outside, only black cloud and torrential rain lashing the windows. Would we get down? This was a totally unexpected crisis. We had taken off from Iloilo an hour or two before in cloudy and windy weather, with no inkling that we might not reach Manila. In fact, we had met this local airline’s station manager socially the night before, and when asked, he had said, “What storm?”

We had encountered increasing turbulence during the flight; ten minutes before, the captain had announced that a typhoon was approaching Manila, that he would try to land, and that he would be circling the airport, letting down as and when he found breaks in the cloud. The thought of an imminent typhoon was no comfort, as we endured another ten minutes of going down this crazy staircase in the sky. Then, suddenly, we were out of the cloud, and just as suddenly, there was a thump as one wheel hit the runway. After a pause, which seemed endless, a second thump – both main wheels were down. There was a spontaneous burst of applause from the passengers. However, the experience was not over yet. Taxiing to the terminal was, if anything, more frightening. We could see the airport now – rain driven horizontally, palm trees bent double and loose pieces of equipment scudding around in the wind. As we taxied, we could feel the wind grabbing at the aircraft, lifting first one wing and then the other, threatening to overturn us at any moment. We passed one small private plane, which had already been upended.

We crept slowly along the taxiways, stopping occasionally, being jolted and lifted by the gusts. We could hear the wind rushing and howling outside the cabin. Eventually the aircraft reached the lee of a terminal building and we were able to disembark. After a dash across the tarmac we were in the terminal building. There, the tension subsided somewhat, but not completely – the wind was still rattling the terminal’s corrugated iron roof and threatening to remove it altogether. However, at least the flight – which I now remember as my most frightening flying experience – was over. We learned afterwards that our flight had been the last to land before Manila Airport closed and the full typhoon struck.

After a quick drive home through emptying streets, we reached the walled residential village where I lived. Throughout the rest of that day and into the night we huddled in a closed house as the typhoon roared outside and shook the building. There was an eerie silence as the eye of the storm passed over and then the typhoon came back in all its shrieking fury. Next day the village was quiet, recovering from the battering of the storm. Palm fronds littered the streets and some trees were completely blown down. Corrugated iron sheets lay here and there and in the little park opposite our house a whole roof had been deposited. Flying corrugated iron is one of the chief hazards to personal safety, especially in Manila, a city of corrugated iron roofs. A flying sheet, blown like a leaf in the wind, could cut a person in half.

We had come through the typhoon relatively well – no damage to the house, no electricity or water, but telephone still working. The office was closed, but I went out to see the aftermath. It was impressive. At the airport, more small aircraft had been dumped like children’s toys around the field and the roof of one of the buildings had been peeled back like the lid of a sardine tin. In the bay, a freighter had been driven high up on the shore. And of course, corrugated iron everywhere.

The next day I went to the office. There was little prospect of any business being done. It was a question of re-establishing contacts. I phoned Geoff, my opposite number in QANTAS. Was he all right? How were his family? What about his house – had he still got a roof? “Got a roof, Dave? I’ve got TWO roofs, mate!” The roof from his neighbour’s house had been lifted by the wind and deposited on top of Geoff’s roof. That is one of my abiding memories of Manila – my Australian friend’s typically ironic reaction to what had been a most stressful event for us all.

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