Captain Roland Narciso proudly poses for a token photo at the cockpit of his aircraft. (Photo by PJ Enriquez/Inquirer Lifestyle)
Even well-experienced pilots would say that flying a plane during a storm is a daunting challenge. As a Scout Ranger, I have no idea. All the time, I was just an ordinary passenger. Oh no, there was a time that I became crazy. During our airborne training in 1995, I boarded an aircraft and jumped out, hoping that my parachute would open wide!
Let's go back to the main topic: Is it more challenging to fly in the middle of a storm if your distinguished passenger is a man named Pope Francis?
Let us hear from one of the pilots who was in the controls of PAL A320 flight PR 8010 which earned the call sign "Shepherd One".
By the way, when I heard his name, it rings a bell--------Captain Roland Narciso, 41, the Chief Pilot. We both belonged to CCAFP's 4th Battalion. Back in 1991, I was a one of the mighty yearlings of Hawk Hunters; and, he was kicking distance away as a dumbguard of the Golf Gallants.
One day, my mistah introduced me to his famous companymate as they passed by in front of our barracks. He told me to ask the profession of Fourthclassman Narciso's father.
With a tiger look which yearlings (2nd year cadets) were notoriously known for, I asked him the intriguing question.
"Mister You, what is the job of your erpats?"
He could not look at my eyes but he promptly answered: Driver sir!
I was not satisfied and pressed for more details. Thanks to the 'devilish' smile of my mistah, I got some clues that I need to ask more.
"Driver of what vehicle? Be specific!"
He was cornered. Cadets are supposed to give direct answers.
"Airplane sir," came the short reply.
Well, what can I say? I was a yearling then. "Sanamasita!"
Anyway, it was not his fault that his father was a Pilot!
But hey, that is not the main story. It is about the very brave pilot whom I first met as a confused plebe.
Let me continue, okay? If you're a plebe, say: "Sir, yes sir!"
Prior to their flight to Tacloban, everybody knew that tropical storm 'Amang' was already approaching the heavily-battered province of Leyte, the same place that was devastated by super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in November 2013.
Despite the storm warnings, the organizers of the Papal visit and even the pontiff himself made the decision to push through the planned meeting with the tens of thousands of people who patiently waited form him there. That is one of the main reasons why he visited the Philippines, right?
Perhaps, it was a twist of fate that PAL pilot Captain Roland Narciso, the son of a 'driver', was handpicked by his superiors for that mission.
Why was he selected? I can only guess that he is one of the best pilots around. For five years as a young officer, he had flown military aircrafts like the T41. In addition, he had been a commercial pilot for 14 years now, and was recently promoted as a Chief Pilot. Atin-atin lang, he was probably selected because he can stand straight like a plebe! Astig, di ba?
He said that government authorities selected the Airbus A320 because it was the most appropriate aircraft for the short and narrow runway of Daniel Z Romualdez Airport.
A devout Catholic, Narciso was excited of the close encounter with the revered Pope inside the aircraft. So, like a dumbguard, his answer to the challenge to drive the Pope was a thunderous reply: "Sir, yes sir!"
"I accepted the job because it was a blessing and an honor to serve the Holy Father," he said.
He did not know that the 'mission' would test his leadership and decision-making skills thereby thrusting him into the limelight.
Aware of the inclement weather brought by the approaching typhoon, he knew that the plane would experience a turbulent flight.
“The weather was still within the limits of the Airbus A320. This was our conclusion after thoroughly considering the cloud ceiling, wind condition, and visibility," he revealed.
The strong wind gusts brought by Typhoon 'Amang' caused the bumpy ride as they approached Eastern Visayas where Signal Nr 2 was already declared.
When the plane safely landed at DZR Airport at around 8:30am, everyone on board was applauding, including the tens of thousands of rain-soaked pilgrims who waited for long hours outside.
Narciso said that his cadet training in the Philippine Military Academy and in the PAF Flying School mattered most during that flight.
“I learned in PMA how to remain cool under pressure. I carried this trait when I began flying military aircrafts upon joining the Philippine Air Force and later, the Philippine Airlines," said Narciso, a member of PMA 'Marilag' Class of 1995 who had flown military aircrafts around the archipelago for about 5 years.
Later in the afternoon, he received advisories about the approaching typhoon which was about 80-100kms away by around 12:00nn.
As Chief Pilot, he has to calculate the risks and make decisions. He consulted his fellow pilots including his PMA upperclassman, Capt. George Alvarez, about a proposal to leave at 1:00pm, 4 hrs earlier than the scheduled departure. He was aware that some people might be frustrated by the shortened stay of the Pope but he needs to fly him out safely.
"We knew it was a painful decision but we do not want to endanger our passengers, especially the Pope. We could be stranded there or fly in the middle of the storm which was not advisable," he said.
He was very elated that the organizers and the Pope agreed to cut short his trip and granted their proposal to depart by 1:00 pm.
The plane carrying the call sign 'Shepherd One', made a smooth touch down in Manila at around 2:30pm, to the delight of the well-wishers who waited for Pope Francis at Villamor Air Base.
"I sighed in relief upon landing safely, seeing the crowds of people which awaited Pope Francis. I got another shock of my life seeing the Pope entering the cockpit to congratulate us," he said.
SUCCESS! Capt Roland Narciso smiles before a crowd of well-wishers who applauded the crew for safely transporting Pope Francis back to Manila. (Photo by PAO, AFP)
Learning that a 'mistah' (PMA classmate) piloted the plane that safely carried the Pope to Tacloban, Narciso received countless congratulatory messages from friends and classmates. Some of them proudly posted their messages of support on Facebook.
Captain Antonio Salgado, 42, the Class Baron of PMA 1995, said he was not surprised that Narciso was able to achieve his latest feat.
“Insong (Cpt Narciso) is responsible, dependable, and true. I know that the Pope was in good hands with him taking the flight controls," he said.
"As the Chief Pilot, Roland has displayed the qualities of a leader. The PMA, our beloved institution has not failed in developing good leaders who are now serving in different organizations, "said Lt. Col Marlowe Patria, another mistah from the Philippine Army.
Actually, Capt Narciso was not the only Peemayer on board of the Shepherd One during that daring flight.
He got reinforcements from upperclassmen Bugo-bugos (PMA graduates) like Capt. George Alvarez, his co-pilot and Capt. Manuel Antonio Tamayo.
Alvarez is a member of PMA 'Bigkis-Lahi' Class of 1990 and Capt Tamayo was reportedly a member of PMA Class of 1974.
Because of their feat, I will render my snappiest salute to these gentlemen if I get the chance to meet them, especially the Driver's son whom I met more than two decades ago.