To Busuanga and Back

“Are we going to crash?” I heard the little boy seated behind me ask.

The question made me laugh, but I was careful not to laugh too loud because at that point, it really did seem like there was a chance that we might crash.

I was on Cebu Pacific’s flight 5J 529 bound for Busuanga, on the island of Coron in the province of Palawan. The trip was spur-of-the-moment. I had planned to spend the rest of the week writing but the opportunity to travel came and since I have always wanted to see Coron, there really was no other answer but yes.

The plane had left the airport just a few minutes after the supposed departure time, a miracle in a county where half hour delays seem to be the norm. Takeoff was smooth. It was a 35 minute trip, and since I lacked sleep from staying up to work the night before, I immediately fell into a light sleep.

I was awoken by the kid behind me kicking my seat. I told him to stop it, and was about to go back to nap when, and I don’t know how else to describe it, the airplane, a small two propeller that held about 80 people, fell about half a foot in the sky. I’m sure it didn’t actually fall, that the movement was the effect of the pilot trying to keep the plane steady, but that’s what it felt like.

You know when you go on a carnival ride and it dips all of a sudden? That’s what it felt like. It was a feeling that we were going to be familiar with for part of the trip.

The captain came on the loudspeaker, explaining that the weather was bad in Busuanga and that we had been advised to circle to the north for 20 minutes before doubling back to land, which is what we did.

Those 20 minutes were spent in silence, the adults by speaking as the plane lurched again and again. The only noise were made by the children; babies crying because they were bored, the kid behind me, asking his sister again if we were going to crash. He sounded quite hopeful.

I looked out the window. There was nothing but clouds. At one point, the white fluff parted to reveal deep blue ocean dotted by lush green islands. My first thought was, I don’t mind dying here. The view was quickly covered by more clouds, something that would not change until we reached Manila.

I believed that we were going to be okay, but part of me didn’t deny that there was a chance that we wouldn’t make it. Granted, it wasn’t the worst turbulence I’ve encountered in my life, but it was the worst I’ve experienced as an adult, when the thought of crashing isn’t so abstract. I worried that my family wouldn’t be contacted, that they would find out when they heard my name being read on the news as part o the passenger manifest. I wondered who would come to my funeral. I also prayed. I looked out the window. It was wet with rain.

To pass time, I played peek a boo with the antsy baby seated on his father’s lap across me. He was amused at first, but the novelty of it wore off and he started getting antsy again.

The captain’s voice came on again. The weather hadn’t let up yet, so we were flying back to Manila. The cabin was still silent as we changed course, the clouds an wind seeming as if it was following us, chasing us back to Luzon. A stewardess explained that there was zero visibility in Busuanga, that the pilot could not see the airport at all, that it was all clouds. The crew, I have to say, were calm and professional and a little bit badass, the flight attendants walking the aisle, smiling as if things like this happened every day. Maybe it did. Maybe there was really no danger at all, that it was Mother Nature’s version of a carnival ride. But even carnival rides have accidents, and Mother Nature is more fickle than Uncle Engineering.

Clouds gave way to greenery, which gave way to fields, then roads and structures. The plane seemed to be gaining speed, gunning for the airport, unsteady but unwavering. Structures became the city, which became The Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Our landing wasn’t smooth, but nobody seemed to care. We were back on land, slowing to a complete stop. This is he only time I have seem passengers follow disembarkation rules to the letter. No one turned their cellphones on while the plane was still moving. No one unbuckled their seatbelt while the Fasten Seatbelt sign was on, and no one stood up to he their luggage until it was sure that the plane had truly, finally come to a complete stop.

Some people seemed to have recovered by the time it was time to leave the plane, and by the time we were on the shuttle being ferried back to the airport, the whole adventure had become a minor inconvenience. I say mint because the alternative could have been much worse. People called friend’s and loved ones joking that they had just gone on a joyride. I was telling friends that they could have been the last people I had spoken to. Nobody raised their voices, nobody complained, though everyone did ask what the airline was going to do about it. To the airline’s credit, it handled everything professionally, which I think a lot of people didn’t expect, given its reputation for spotty service.

The ending may have been anticlimactic, a bunch of passengers lining up to rebook their flights, but sometimes, boring is good. You’d think that what could very well have been a horrible accident would deter us, but most of us are flying out again tomorrow. Hopefully, we get there this time. And hopefully, I don’t get seated in front of a kid who kicks the seat, no matter how charming his questions are.


Yvette Natalie U. Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and the Agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin.

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