Friday, October 29, 2021

The Tragic Plane Crash in Mt. Ugo in Benguet That Took 50 Lives (Cordillera History)

Mt. Ugo is a well-known hiking destination in Benguet. It's long and winding trails will quench your thirst for outdoor adventure. However, the beauty of the place hides something dark, something tragic that happened there more than three decades ago. An incident that is now largely forgotten. In 1987, a plane carrying 50 people crashed on the mountain. Those onboard were composed of 46 passengers and 4 crew members. Witnesses say that the plane burst into flames when it hit the slope. All 50 people onboard lost their lives. Rescuers who reached the scene said their bodies were burned beyond recognition. For a couple of days, the accident was the talk of the world, with headlining stories from the New York Times to the Sun Sentinel.

Before the great pandemic of 2020, hundreds of hikers climb Mt. Ugo every year. Most of them are unaware of the mountain's tragic past. But most of them will hear of the plane crash story once they are at the summit. There's a marker installed at the summit in memory of those who perished during the crash.

Theirs is a story that needs to be told.

On the morning of June 26, 1987, Philippine Airlines Flight 206 (PR206) took off at the Manila Domestic Airport and headed for the Loakan Airport in Baguio City. The aircraft, a twin-engine Hawker Siddeley HS 748, was scheduled to land in Baguio City before noon. However, as the plane neared the city, the pilot reported poor visibility because of thick clouds and heavy fog. Ten minutes before it was scheduled to land at the Loakan Airport, the plane disappeared from radar screens.

A search and rescue operation was immediately put together. Five hours after the plane was reported missing, the smoldering wreckage was discovered on the slopes of Mt. Ugo. This is a high-altitude mountain on the border between Itogon, Benguet and Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya. The plane crashed just 180 meters below the mountain's main summit. The crash site was inaccessible to vehicles. To get there, rescuers sought the help of the Americans. Three American helicopters were dispatched to the scene from Clark Air Base.

So that the helicopters can land on the mountain, engineers had to immediately build a landing zone near the wreckage. A path is then cut from the helipad to the crash site. Around 80 people were involved in the recovery operation. They were composed of rescue teams, doctors, nurses PAL employees, locals, and volunteers. Some of the search parties had to hike for hours from Baguio City to get to the crash site.

An unintended consequence of this disaster was Mt. Ugo's establishment as a hiking destination in Benguet. Mountaineers were among the rescue teams involved in the recovery operation in 1987. They saw the beauty of the place and word immediately got out. Climbers started visiting the place. Mt. Ugo is now one of the most climbed mountains in Benguet.

This is a Hawker Siddeley HS 748 plane that was similar to the plane that crashed into Mt. Ugo. Photo source: Wikipedia