Until this week, we had never flown in a helicopter. Last year Steve was given a small-plane ride over Corregidor, but until now, Marcia had never seen “The Rock” from the air. We got the chance, thanks to two acquaintances who wanted us to show them local World War II sites, and who preferred flying to the usual boat ride. Eagerly anticipating this new experience, we proceeded to the Manila Domestic Airport, where we met Captain Harry Lero, our pilot and the President/CEO of Airgurus. The company provides air travel anywhere in the Philippines, as well as having a branch, Assist Pilipinas Corporation, offering emergency medical evacuation and services with EMTs in attendance.
Because of the combined weight of passengers and crew, Harry had to take off much like an airplane, something we had not expected. As we lifted off, we hovered only feet above the ground, in essence taxiing to a place from which we could take off. The helicopter then reversed direction and accelerated. All of a sudden, we rose higher into the air, climbing over Metro Manila, and soon we were over Manila Bay. Although it seemed that we were no more than 100 feet above the water, Harry told us we were cruising at 300 feet. Apparently, flying over open water can cause you to think you are much lower than you really are. This became obvious once we passed over objects that we could identify, such as fishing platforms and boats.
Harry told us that he occasionally takes clients to El Fraile Island, Fort Drum, aka “The Concrete Battleship.” Our companions decided that it would be fun to stop there first. Marcia had never been on the old fort, and was surprised that it felt considerably smaller than she had expected, having seen many pre-war photos of the fort as well as viewing it from bancas. We spent a few minutes walking around on the “deck” and checking out the huge 14-inch guns at the “bow” of the fort. Then we were off to Corregidor. It was a little startling to take off from such a relatively small surface and then instantly be over its edge and looking down at the water.
Harry flew over the Rock’s major gun batteries before setting us down on Topside, with Steve identifying the batteries as they came into view. Marcia was impressed with the short distances between some of them – when we are hiking we follow trails which often wind back and forth to get from one location to the next because of the island’s extreme terrain. That can make it seem like two batteries are far apart, when in fact they are relatively near to each other “as the crow – or chopper – flies.”
Once on the ground, we accompanied our friends to the major gun and building sites on the island. We ate lunch at the Corregidor Inn, where we asked Harry how he became a helicopter pilot; he often flew with his father, also a pilot, and learned a lot by observation before beginning formal training. He flies planes as well, but enjoys the more demanding challenges of helicopters. Then we continued our sightseeing. Our friends were particularly interested in the locations that were important to Steve’s dad, Walter, such as Middleside Barracks, and Batteries Geary and Way. Then we returned to the copter and flew from Topside down the length and over the tail of the island, and then headed back to Manila.
Our friends decided that it was more time-efficient to fly to Mariveles, so on the next day our driver Alex took our bags on ahead and we took the 20-minute flight later in the day. He met us at the landing site, a business owned by Harry’s friend, and drove us along the first part of the Bataan Death March route, beginning at the Kilometer 0 Memorial. We spent the night at the unique Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar Resort in Bagac. The next morning we started out at Mt. Samat and then rode to Olongapo, stopped at the Hellships Memorial, and spent the afternoon and overnight at the new Lighthouse Marina hotel on beautiful Subic Bay.
Realizing the length of the drive scheduled for our last day together, our companions once again opted to send the driver ahead while going by chopper. Harry met us at the Subic International Airport, and then flew us to Camp O’Donnell, the POW camp that was the stopping point of the Death March. It is now the Capas National Shrine, located outside Capas, Tarlac. Our route took us through Luzon’s western mountain range. Harry wove his way between the mountain peaks, and we could see Mt. Pinatubo in the distance. Pinatubo ash lines the river valleys, and some of the high peaks are many feet thick with ash and have been strikingly sculpted by rainwater runoff. We could see homes, walking trails, and even some small roads at high elevations. Just before we reached Capas, the terrain switched to plains with rice fields as far as the eye could see. Then it was on to Cabanatuan City and its namesake former prison camp a few miles outside of the bustling city. As we approached Cabanatuan, we began to see hillsides with terraced pastures and fields, some for rice and some for other crops such as corn and sugar cane. Terracing enables the farmers to maximize the watering effect from rainfall and irrigation by slowing runoff.
The big advantage of a chopper over a small plane is maneuverability. Steve felt the ride was smoother, and Marcia found it much less scary than her one trip in a small plane. Not surprisingly, it was much noisier inside the copter. There were headsets with speakers, and you needed them to communicate with one another. We were one set short, but Marcia preferred not to wear one anyway. She sat opposite Steve, who rode facing backwards. Every time that Marcia wanted to say something, Steve had to uncover an ear, and we both had to do some lip-reading. At one point, Steve went to take a drink from his water bottle and found a microphone in his mouth instead. It gave us a good laugh.
Another thing we noticed; you constantly see the shadows of the two propellers as they pass overhead, essentially a constant strobe. You really wonder how those two relatively small blades can lift that big whirlybird and all of the people inside. (Steve always says to himself, while waiting for a loaded 747 to take off, “There’s no way this thing can get off the ground.”) Marcia tried to take a picture of the propeller, something Steve thought nearly impossible. On her fourth attempt, the timing worked and she got a blurred picture of one of the blades.
Who knows if we will ever get the opportunity to fly by chopper again? We thoroughly enjoyed these opportunities to see from the air areas we have come to know well, since it gave such a different perspective and added to our understanding and appreciation of the geography.
Steve and Marcia on the Rock