Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Privilege Speech on the Presidential Chopper Crash and Secretary Cerge Remonde

Mr Speaker,

I am certain that I can speak in behalf of this House when I say that we mourn the lives that were lost during the crash of that ill-fated Presidential helicopter in the mountains of Ifugao.

The country lost public servants—two Undersecretaries, one general, one director, two pilots, two soldiers.

We speak their names with reverence and a prayer that the Almighty has taken them into His arms in everlasting peace :

1. Undersecretary Jose Capadocia
2. Undersecretary Marilou Frostrom
3. Brig. Gen. Carlos Clet (AFP)
4. Assistant Director Perlita Bandayanon
5. Major Rolando Sacatani
6. Captain Alvin Alegata
7. Quarter Master 3rd Class Demy Reyno
8. Sergeant Roegem Perez

There is no doubt that the Filipino people, no matter what dialect, no matter what faith, no matter what occupation, no matter what political leaning, are united in extending sympathies to the families of the departed.

Personally, I am one of those who were shocked at hearing the news of the aircraft’s crash because I knew one of those on board, Marilou Frostrom. My immediate reaction was to offer a silent prayer for each of those who perished.

But while the lives of the eight have ceased to exist, life on this earth goes on and we all have our responsibilities to perform. One of those is to make sure that their lives were not lost in vain, that their deaths will mean more than just a helicopter succumbing to the elements and nature.

We must make sure that their loss will not be repeated again.

It is in the performance of that responsibility that the Philippine Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board dutifully investigated the mishap. I must commend the Board for their immediate and swift action, which resulted in the determination of how the helicopter met its fate.

With the finding that the aircraft was in top airworthiness at the time of its loss, the investigation of the debris on site and the information gathered regarding the weather and flying conditions at that time, it was determined by the PAFAAIB that the Presidential helicopter, a Bell 412, fell to earth due to inclement weather and poor visibility.

I believe that the investigating board, with its technical knowledge, expertise and experience, came up with this conclusion with utmost reliable competence. There is no reason for us to doubt their results, which I am confident was arrived at with skill, diligence, and sincerity. I believe we can all accept the findings that the immediate cause of the crash was what was reported by the PAF Aircraft Accident Investigating Board.

To some, that closes the book on this tragedy. For others, including this representation it is not.

For this representation, stopping at the conclusion on the immediate cause of the crash will not help in preventing future accidents. Although it somehow sheds light on the sudden loss of lives, just knowing the immediate cause will not result in saving other lives.

It is for this reason that I dared ask a question that still lingered in my mind, at the risk of sounding insensitive since the people are still in mourning for the lives lost. But it bothered my conscience to think that this might all be forgotten after the period of mourning. The investigation will be wrapped up and we all go back to our normal lives.

For me, if that happens, then our eight countrymen, who lived for this country, would have died in vain.

I asked the question—who ordered or authorized the flight?

The question would not have been relevant except for one thing----there is an existing policy or practice that aircraft are not supposed to fly out of Loakan after 3:00 PM. In fact, the airport closes at 3:30 PM. In fact, there is even a trivia among aviators about Loakan Airport being the only airport in the world where pedestrians are allowed to promenade on the runway and sometimes people take their cars on speed test runs on the tarmac after the airport closes.

The reason for the airport closure in the afternoon is common knowledge. The weather becomes unfavorable for flying in the afternoon. As the sun goes down and cools the air, the clouds begin to embrace the surrounding mountains and cause visibility to deteriorate. Coupled with increased winds blowing around the mountain range, flying becomes dangerous.

Whether it is a fixed policy or just a practice, it needs to be clarified. But the fact is, it is there for a reason—to prevent what happened to the Presidential helicopter on April 7, 2009.

While the investigating board’s report explained the immediate cause of the crash of a perfectly airworthy aircraft, it did not explain why it was allowed to take off at a time when it is common knowledge that aircraft are not allowed to take off from Loakan at that time of the day, never mind whether it is a policy or a just a practice.

With that consideration, the question of who ordered or authorized the flight becomes relevant.

I raised that question with the sincere objective of finding out the entire circumstance behind the crash of the helicopter. It is with the desire to find out how we can prevent the occurrence of such accidents in the future and to save lives.

That’s why I was first appalled then insulted by the reaction of Press Undersecretary Cerge Remonde to the question that I raised. Coincidentally, without us even talking about it or coordinating with each other, it was the same question raised by Senator Rodolfo Biazon, Chairman of the Senate Committee on National Defense and a former AFP Chief of Staff.

Instead of simply offering a direct answer to a legitimate question, Secretary Remonde went on a tirade against this representation, labeling it as a query “below the belt”.

He said that it was a “senseless and baseless accusation” and that “insisting that the orders to take off came from someone from her family is the most callous, insensitive and senseless thing to do”. He went on to say that it was “adding insult to injury”.

He then accused me and the senator of allowing ourselves “to be used as a tool for dignifying these text rumors that were spread” about the crash.

I find the reaction of the Press Secretary off-tangent, out of line, missing its mark.

First off, this representation never made an accusation against anyone with the question that I raised. Being a former journalist, it should be clear to him that my question---“Who gave the order or authorized the flight?”---- is one of the basic questions that a journalist should ask to get information on a particular issue or event. “Who, What, When, Where, Why and How”. It is not an accusation but a query for facts.

Never did I insinuate any person’s involvement and neither did I cite any text message or rumor as a basis of the question. In fact, I did not even know about the text message until the Press Secretary himself said that there’s one.

I am not the one who allowed myself to be used as a tool for dignifying the text message, it is he. The citation of the text message by the Press Secretary and Spokesperson of the President in a press conference and interviews is the act which dignified the text message.

Worst, it is the Press Secretary himself who has officially dragged the name of the President and the members of the First Family into the issue. I reiterate that a did not mention, insinuate the involvement of or made reference to the President or any member of her family.

What he called as hitting below the belt is actually an act in compliance to my oversight duties as a legislator and Vice Chairman of the Committee on National Defense and Security of this chamber. Historical records and common knowledge in the House of Representatives will show that from my first term in the 12th Congress, I consistently focus on issues involving national defense, public order, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and other related agendas.

What crashed is an air asset of the Philippine Air Force and the Presidential Security Group which are both units of the AFP and distinguished officers, one of them a general and two of our finest pilots, were lost. I believe I am perfectly within my field, area of focus and mandate to make queries on the matter.

The point I raised is not adding insult to injury but aimed at preventing injury and death in the future. The question of who authorized or ordered the flight is immediately followed by the query as to the basis of such order or authority in light of the no-fly-beyond-3:00 PM policy or practice, whatever it may be.

It is now imperative to determine whether it is indeed just a practice and not a policy. If it is a policy, then the flight is definitely and undeniably a violation of such policy. The one who authorized or ordered the flight should be held accountable.

If it is just a practice, then it is high time that we consider converting it to a policy, because the very reason why it is practiced just happened to the presidential helicopter.

As the country’s Legislature, it is therefore within our bounds, authority, and function to enact or cause the adoption of policy.

Contrary to the Secretary’s portrayal of this representation’s queries, it is he who is making baseless accusations and being callous and insensitive by desecrating the memory of those who died by dragging the whole matter into a political arena.

By accusing this representation of making baseless accusations against the President when he said “it is clear they’re trying to blame the President for it” when in fact I am not, he seems to have deliberately splashed political color to the issue. Using the unfortunate incident to portray those who raise legitimate questions as unduly hitting at the President is distasteful.

Perhaps the Secretary is being too overeager to earn brownie points by making a show of defending the President but sadly, at the expense of those who died and to the detriment of efforts to prevent future accidents.

It never crossed my mind that it was the President who ordered or authorized the flight. I have been exposed to and involved with the Armed Forces long enough to know that in the AFP organization, there is a Chain of Command where the principle is that officers and enlisted personnel only receive and obey orders from their immediate superiors.

I do not believe the President will break that Chain of Command and micro manage the flight of a particular Air Force chopper. When I asked for the identity of the source of flight orders or authorization, I was not expecting or suspecting the President because she is not the immediate superior of the pilots.

Furthermore, I am also aware that in the military organization, no movement, maneuver or operation involving military assets and personnel occurs without the corresponding necessary orders or authority. In the military organization, someone is always accountable for whatever happens.

Secretary Remonde’s explanation that the unit is autonomous, that they can fly whenever they want, wherever they want, to me is irregular and unacceptable. If that is a policy or a practice, it needs to be reviewed. While the Presidential Air Wing exists for the use and benefit of the President, they are still AFP assets and personnel and remain within the Chain of Command and therefore still covered by AFP rules and regulations.

His statement that the no-fly policy or practice only applies to civilian aircraft and not to military aircraft merits review. What makes civilian aircraft different from AFP aircraft which justifies the non-applicability of the rule? Are all our military aircraft all-weather capable? Is there a rule for military aircraft which carry civilian passengers? These are all well-meaning policy questions that are aimed at ensuring safe flying conditions.

The circumstances of the accident reveal that there is basis for the question I raised and more queries based on subsequent statements of Secretary Remonde. At first I thought that my simple question would be given a direct and simple answer which would have made matters more simple.

But Secretary Remonde’s tirade, which actually brought out more information that also bred more questions, has made it imperative for me to move that this House conduct an inquiry into the no-fly policy or practice in Loakan Airport, standard operating procedures for military aircraft, and command structure and relationship of the AFP and civilian government agencies that interact by reason of function.

I also move that this inquiry be conducted by the Committee on National Defense and Security based on the fact that the incident involves personnel and an air asset of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Finally, as a parting statement, I would like to give unsolicited advice to Secretary Remonde.

Do not put words into the mouths of other people, especially those who have not commissioned you as their spokesperson. I did not make an accusation against the president nor any other person. I raised a legitimate question in search of facts.

Do not be overeager to drag the name of the President into an issue on the pretext of defending her. Sometimes she is not even involved or she is not the target but in the eagerness to defend her, she is unwittingly cast into the limelight.

Do not think that everyone is out to simply politically harass the President. Your judgment on who is simply doing his job and who acts on political motivation seems to have been clouded by your own biases.

Hindi lahat ng tao ay gusto lang manggulo. Meron din namang iba na gusto lang na gawin yung tama sa tamang paraan.

To my distinguished colleagues and to the Speaker, thank you for the time.

House of Representatives
April 20, 2009

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