Friday, April 21, 2006


(Continuing with our travel theme this summer, below is a post about my ultra-light flying experience sometime
during the latter part of 2003.)

"You only live once. Make it count, learn to fly."

Fighting words indeed, I thought. It was a sunny Sunday morning, and I was standing inside the Angeles City Flying Club (ACFC) premises with my friends Theo and Heston, browsing through their brochure.

First, a bit of background. Theo, apparently finding his medical studies not taxing enough and pursuing his lifelong dream to be an aviator, had taken the Sports Pilot certification course offered by the ACFC, and had actually been a licensed pilot for the past few years.

The club claims to be the only full-service ultra-light aviation facility in the country. Tucked away in Sitio Talimundok, Sta. Maria, Magalang, Pampanga, our drive from Metro Manila this morning was a breeze, taking a mere 90 minutes.

This would be the first flight for Heston and I. As we waited for our plane to become available, we spent quite a bit of time roaming around the hangar, looking over the various plane models parked there as well as watching other aircraft take off or land. Truth be told, getting up the air seemed a daunting prospect, as I was a certified world-class acrophobe. My mind was working overtime concocting all sorts of nightmare scenarios. Like, what if a 747 runs us over? Or the gas tank springs a leak?

My initial apprehensions turned into a veritable tsunami of trepidation as I caught sight of our aircraft of choice. It was called the Quicksilver MXL II, and quite contrary to my expectation of a small aircraft wherein the pilot climbs into the cockpit in front and his passenger sits at the back seat, this was an OPEN cockpit two-seater. Essentially, the pilot and passenger sit side-by-side, equipped only with an instrument panel, joystick and pedals for steering and braking. Literally and figuratively, there is almost nothing between you and the great blue sky. Yikes!

Heston had volunteered to be Theo's first passenger. Theo and the ACFC personnel assiduously went through the routine pre-flight check-up to ensure everything was in top condition. Heston was securely buckled up onto his seat, and given goggles and helmet to wear. The pilot and passenger can communicate with each other up in the air, as their helmets have built-in radio transmission. (No barf bags though) In the very remote event that the engine fails and they need to bail out, pulling a lever releases a rocket-propelled parachute, enabling the plane to make a soft landing.

Theo further assured me that the mechanics make a complete disassembly and inspection of each aircraft every 25 hours of flying time. They are cleared for take-off, and disappear into the horizon. After what seems like ages, they re-appear and gradually loom larger and larger until touchdown.

I half-ran over to them. Heston looked a bit dazed, although none the worse for wear. "Not scary," he assured me, while giving a thumbs-up sign. "The flat fields make it hard to judge how high up you are, anyway." But then, Heston has never been one to be easily scared. I mean, he can watch Dracula or Nightmare on Elm St. movies with nary a flinch, while eating fried chicken.

Showtime. It was now my turn.

"Can't we just hover 50 feet above the ground?" I half-pleaded plaintively, as we went through pre-flight routine once more. Unfortunately, my brilliant suggestion was met with resounding indifference.

The control tower cleared us for take-off. Despite all the reassuring safety measures, I was sweating bullets as we gathered speed along the 450-meter grass runway. We were off! The ground below grows increasingly farther away as we steadily climb until reaching an altitude of about 500 feet. Rather disconcertingly, when you are up in the air, you feel as though you are hardly moving.

Top Gun this isn't. Not even Iron Eagle, for that matter.

But this is actually a positive thing. There is time to savor the hot sun and feel the rush of cold wind blowing at our faces and marvel at the verdant expanse of rice fields with an odd carabao or two grazing contentedly in the mud. We head towards the direction of Mt. Arayat, where thankfully some forest cover still remains.

Strong winds buffet the plane, but it remains surprisingly stable. The air is now quite chilly, and I wish I had anticipated the cold and worn a jacket. While my nerves are mostly calm now, I still maintain a vise-like grip on one of the support beams. Theo puts on his best bedside manner (the guy is, after all, a neurosurgeon) and provides droll commentary on the various points of interest we were flying over. Banking sharply away from Mt. Arayat, we fly over more rice fields and farms, and eventually follow the path of the Pampanga River.

At this point, it dawned on me that ultra-light flying is actually very safe. With maximum altitudes of 800 feet and top speeds at 55-60 kph, my wild fears earlier were all but unfounded.

Besides, once you are up in the air with such a great birds' eye-view of Philippine countryside, you just can't help but wonder at nature's grandeur all around you, and time seems to move unhurriedly. For an ephemeral period, I felt totally free of any cares.

Theo offered to let me try manning the controls for a second, but sadly, I reverted back to my usual acrophobic self and failed to rise to the occasion. Soon, it was time to go back to the airfield.

We steadily reduced altitude and started preparing for landing. I couldn't figure out where the airfield was, and wondered aloud to Theo how pilots of these ultra-light planes could tell direction. "I mean, North is what is in front of me, right?" He shot me a you're-bloody-useless-with-a-compass-look and concentrated on the task at hand. He expertly maneuvered the plane towards the runway at high speed and made a semi-steep dive towards it. Whew!

Back to the safe familiar confines of terra firma, I felt a mixture of relief and accomplishment. True, this plane ride ranked among the scariest and longest 30 minutes of my life, but it was definitely among the most exhilarating 30 minutes as well! I would like to think I faced my fears head-on and came out a winner.

As we were driving along North Expressway back to Manila, I vowed to myself that I should come back someday for another round of open cockpit flying. . .and perhaps take the controls next time? Hah!

For more information, contact:

Angeles City Flying Club

Note: Thanks to Theo Tan for the picture of the ultra-light plane (above).

Monday, April 10, 2006

(Conclusion, Dos Palmas)

At the ungodly hour of 5 am, we were jolted awake by the Dos Palmas' wake-up call. Either they were concerned we would miss our flight back to Manila, or they were all too eager to get rid of demanding guests like us. After a quick breakfast and some fond farewells to our fishy friends, we were hustled off to the banca.

I realized that for you guys who have been following this Dos Palmas series intently (meron ba?? ;-D), the Part 1 post might have given you the impression that we were a pack of malcontents who would rather have gone to Boracay. Well, truth is, we all enjoyed this trip quite immensely. Let me count the ways:

- the staff was unfailingly polite and accomodating with regards to our oddball requests (bread, bread and more bread for our fishy friends!!). Although i'm sure R.C. is still sore that they couldn't serve the chicken barbeque all the time.

- the breakfast/lunch/dinner buffets were consistently very good. I still salivate over the mango rice and leche flan up to this day

- their gumamela (hibiscus) welcome drink was a particular hit with us. We even ordered it during meals (at PHP70/glass, take note). Fortunately for us, a group of Aussies came over on Friday and some of them didn't drink their allocated glass of welcome drink. We were all too happy to swoop in and be re-welcomed to the resort!

- given the international incident which had happened at this resort a few years ago, Dos Palmas is quite diligent in ensuring their guests' safety. A group of 3 or so security men keep watch all night (which, incidentally, was another reason we couldn't catch any fish), and one of them told me they have this radar which would alert them of any strange vessels going towards the resort.

During our island-hopping tour, R.T. whispered to me that the sack our security guy was carrying contained a gun. At some point, my curiousity got the better of me, and i asked the guy if this was indeed so. He gave a half-embarrassed laugh, and assented. He even took out the M16 rifle and unclipped the ammo magazine and let me hold it.

So i guess here's where the story ends.


R.T. shared with us the superb photos he had taken, and is presently thinking of purchasing a waterproof casing for his digicam.

R.C. continues to bask in the glory of his prescient purchase of the rubber ducky. He can be seen prowling Rockwell and Greenbelt during weekends, looking for new buys in preparation for our upcoming trips to Bohol, Cebu, Baguio, Boracay and Hong Kong.

G.U.S. looks forward to testing more sunblock during the next beach outing.)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

(Part 5, Dos Palmas)

So you and your barkada are all on the beach, wearing your Billabong board shorts and ready to jump into the water. Then you realize, where do i put my cellphone ("you mean you didn't leave it in the room, you dimwit?"), wallet ("you moron, why didn't you leave it in the room?"), digicam ("ahh, ohh...[indecipherable mumble]), sunblock and other stuff?

Wrapping a towel around your possessions and placing it on top of your sandals might be a neat solution, but there is a much better one. Hail the rubber ducky!!

This waterproof bag proved to be a godsend during our trip, and it was all due to R.C.'s amazing insight and penchant for pump-priming the economy with retail therapy. In simple words, super hilig talaga niya bumili ng anu-ano (he will shop till the day after tomorrow).

Seriously though, this was a wise purchase on his part. The rubber ducky actually floats (just like a real duck, or am i belaboring the obvious?), so unless you put three kilos of cement along with your stuff (especially R.T.'s brand-new, not-yet-fully-paid-for-because-its-on-installment-due-to-credit-card-promo 5.0 megapixel Cypershot digicam) inside it, there's no fear of your possessions getting submerged underwater.

Believe me, we threw it into the pool, put it into the water while island-hopping, etc. and it kept right on floating and our stuff remained dry. Really waterproof, as advertised.

We plan to nominate it for next year's Consumer Choice awards. Hmm...what's a good category? Ahh, Best Product named after an Animal, perhaps?