Even before the Huey helicopters took off from the military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo for Tuesday’s demonstration on its airworthiness, Air Force personnel already warned us to expect the ride to be matagtag (bumpy).
Reporters and photographers who were selected to join the test flight were divided into two groups. One group was to board a UH-1H helicopter gunship while the other was to take the UH-1D or the refurbished helicopter that was part of the controversial deal which my paper, The Manila Times, had extensively reported.
The UH-1H or the Hueys have served as the backbone of the Philippine Air Force.
According to deal whistleblower Rhodora Alvarez, who claimed she was privy to the deal between the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Rice Aircraft Services Inc., the original specification for the P1.2-billion combat utility helicopter acquisition project called for the supply of 21 UH-1H helicopters. The model specs were later changed to UH-1 to allegedly “tailor-fit” what the contractor could supply and enable it to dispose of its stock of UH-1Ds, which were said to be older than the UH-1H variant and already obsolete as its German manufacturer, Dornier, has long been out of business.
Defense Assistant Secretary Patrick Velez defended the specs change, saying it was meant to attract more aircraft suppliers who could also offer other variants of the UH-1. The project was eventually awarded to RASI by negotiated contract after the DND bids committee declared a failure of bidding.
Tuesday’s test flight took the media for a spin through the eastern part of Metro Manila where our flights landed on an open field in San Mateo (Rizal) where the two groups switched choppers.
Before we boarded the aircraft, the pilots briefed us about the features and differences and other technical gobbledygook of the two helicopter variants.
My group was assigned to first hop onto the UH-1H. I took the seat behind the pilot as it would afford me an unimpeded view as I snap away.
An airman helped me get strapped onto my seat. The UH-1H had worn out safety belts, its switches, knobs and buttons already worn out with some wirings exposed.
The pilots repeated what we were told during the initial briefing–that the ride would be matagtag–and it was indeed bumpy throughout the flight to San Mateo. We were also told to expect a rougher ride when the helicopter speed reaches 100 knots.
I don’t know if it was really that way or was it because the UH-1H had already seen its best. True enough, when we hit 100 knots, we felt like we were on board a 6×6 truck punching through a pock-marked dirt road.
The sudden jerks made it difficult for me to focus and take shots of the other helicopters that were part of the demo flight. The view of flying in formation with several other helicopters was reminiscent of the scene in the Vietnam War movie, ”Apocalypse Now,” with the “Ride of the Valkyries” playing in my internal sound box.
As we landed in San Mateo, an airman jumped ahead of us and instructed us to duck to avoid getting hit by the rotor blades.
My group was then ushered into the UH-1D. I took the seat near the gunner. The seats in the UH-1D were a bit “comfier” than the UH-1H. The safety belts held me from the shoulder to the waist. (The UH-1H belts only got me strapped from the waist).
In a few minutes, we were again airborne. We hovered then cruised along San Mateo River.
The UH-1D was less bumpy. As the helicopter’s speed reached 100 knots, there was less jarring. It was easier to take pictures. The engine produced less noise.
As I looked around, there were no worn out switches and exposed wires.
I was impressed with the look and feel of the UH-1D, but then suddenly I realized, these aircraft were newly refurbished compared to the worn out UH-1H.