No sign of foul play in Robredo plane crash, say probers
Engine failure angle to be pursuedBy Cathy C. Yamsuan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Civil aviation authorities have ruled out foul play in the plane crash that killed Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo and two others last month, dashing persistent speculation that the popular home affairs chief was the victim of a conspiracy.
Retired Capt. John Andrews, deputy director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), on Monday told a congressional joint committee reviewing his agency’s performance that he considered the crash “an accident that was waiting to happen.”
Andrews and his superior, CAAP Director General William Hotchkiss III, however, immediately asked members of the joint committee led by Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. for a closed-door session.
Revilla said the committee called the hearing to learn from civil aviation officials why the Philippines remains on the blacklist of several international aviation agencies and cannot send airplanes directly to Europe.
But the questioning somehow touched on the August 18 plane crash in Masbate Pass that cost Robredo and two pilots their lives.
The four-seat Piper Seneca owned by Aviatour Air was carrying Robredo to his hometown in Naga City from Cebu City in the afternoon of August 18 when it malfunctioned.
The pilot, Capt. Jessup Bahinting, and his copilot, Nepali flight student Kshitiz Chand, attempted an emergency landing at Masbate Airport, but the plane crashed into the sea 500 meters from the runway.
Only Robredo’s aide, Senior Insp. June Paolo Abrazado, survived.
Divers recovered Robredo’s body from the plane’s wreckage under the sea on August 22 and Bahinting’s body later that day. Chand’s body was found floating near the crash site the next day.
Hotchkiss, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, told the joint committee that the CAAP had formed a panel to investigate the crash. He assured the committee that the panel “can render an impartial and very thorough investigation.”
Once the investigation is complete, the agency can consider “punitive action” against those found responsible for the crash, Hotchkiss said.
But he added, “We cannot reveal right now what the [panel] has uncovered so far.”
Andrews immediately seconded Hotchkiss’ statement.
“It is established that there is no foul play. Maybe it was an accident that was waiting to happen,” Andrews said.
He then turned to Revilla and asked for a closed-door session so that he and other CAAP officials could “bring up the causes or reasons behind it all.”
Before reporters were asked to leave, Andrews said the Piper Seneca plane that carried Robredo was manufactured in 1972. That meant the plane was 40 years old.
Asked by Revilla whether Piper Seneca planes have a “time change function,” Andrews said the engine, for example, “has to be changed every 500 hours, depending on the manufacturer … and inspections every 25-, 50- and 100-hour use.”
“All of these are supposed to be done,” Andrews said, without confirming whether Aviatour Air Piper Seneca had gone through the maintenance procedures.
During emergency situations where a Piper Seneca loses one of its two engines, it can still fly with only one engine functioning over a distance of 1,110 to 1,140 meters at a speed of 128 kilometers per hour, according to Andrews.
Revilla agreed to be interviewed by reporters before the doors were closed.
“The important thing was that there was no foul play,” he said. “Secretary Robredo was also my friend and people need to know this.”
Revilla’s stress on the question of foul play was apparently prompted by speculation raised right after the crash that Robredo’s plane may have been sabotaged by people who would benefit from his death.
One report had it that the aviation fuel used on the plane may have been diluted with water, and that may have caused an engine malfunction.
Suspicion also fell on Abrazado, the lone survivor. Robredo’s family, however, refused to blame the police officer, who had told investigators that he groped around for Robredo but failed to find him just before the plane completely sank.
Malacañang confirmed last week that Robredo was investigating some sensitive matters when he died and that among these was a questionable deal for the purchase of M4 automatic carbines for the Philippine National Police, which was under the supervision of his undersecretary for peace and order, Rico Puno.
Puno was the last official with whom Robredo had talked to before leaving Mactan International Airport in Cebu on August18. He told reporters that he had cautioned Robredo about taking light planes and that he knew the pilot of a private plane that Robredo usually took.
On that day, however, Robredo was taking another private plane. Puno said he did not know the pilot.
Robredo was also investigating the persistence of “jueteng,” an illegal numbers racket, despite a nationwide police crackdown where the jobs of top police officials are at stake.
Emerging from the closed-door session at the Senate, Andrews told reporters that the CAAP intended to pursue the engine failure angle in the plane crash investigation.
But the CAAP panel is also looking into “mitigating factors” in efforts to determine the cause of the crash, he said.
Andrews said an examination of the flight manifest showed that the supposed copilot, Chand, was listed as a passenger. This meant that only Bahinting was at the controls when the plane went down.