Fight or flight: How this pilot saved 342 passengers after plane engine catches fire

Dec 4, 2019

SHORTLY after takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport, passengers on Philippine Airlines Flight 113 watched in horror as the engine on the plane’s right wing began belching fire.

Flames flashed from underneath the wing. “Oh come on,” moaned one of the passengers in disbelief, filming a video that would later be posted on Twitter. “Something’s wrong.”

On that clear Thursday morning of November 21 (Friday morning in Manila time), the flames were visible even to spectators on the ground. “It almost looked like backfire flames from a motorcycle or car,” one of them told Reuters.

At the pilot’s cabin, looking at the flashing indicator lights, Captain Triston Simeon had to make a series of crucial decisions. “Unang-una, [we had to] manage the situation of the aircraft, and pangalawa, to go back and reland on Los Angeles airport,” he told SPIN Life.

Simeon grew up an Air Force kid in Basilio Fernando Air Base in Lipa, Batangas, where his father was a pilot. Simeon spent most of his childhood biking to the edge of the base hangar to watch the training aircraft take off from the tarmac, dreaming that one day he’d be piloting a plane of his own.

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As a commercial pilot for Philippine Airlines, he’d already been flying for 14 uneventful years before the Flight 113 emergency happened. Immediately, his training kicked in — and perhaps a little bit of that military discipline he’d seen as a child.

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“Yun pong pangyayaring ‘yon, may kaabikat na procedure,” Simeon explained in a matter-of-fact way. “We as a crew are trained for these kinds of situations to, first, be composed be goal-motivated. So the goal was to manage the situation, and to act [with] quick, timely, and correct decisions.”

The situation was critical. Simeon could not comment on the technical details of the incident, which was still being investigated, but he did explain the dangers to reporters at an event, sponsored by poultry giant Chooks-to-Go, where he was honored for his actions that day.

“It’s really hazardous since it happened during takeoff. And as you know, during takeoff, you’re really close to the ground — your position, your altitude.”

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342 passengers and 17 crew members were aboard that Boeing 777 with him. One wrong decision, he told SPIN Life, “would have been a disaster.”

There was no runway for indecision, much less panic. “Although nung una, na-startle kami, but we needed to focus, at dun sa focus namin na yon, dun lumabas ang lahat ng paraan para i-manage,” he explained. But as captain, he could empathize with the passengers. As soon as he felt the situation was on hand, “that was when I had the time to make an announcement to the passengers and the crew, sinabi ko sa kanila, ‘The aircraft is under control.’”

Reassuring words, which he made good on when he safely landed the plane at exactly 12 noon, local time. A PAL spokesman would later tell CNN Philippines, “[B]ased on the report of the captain, the passengers burst into applause upon landing.”

It was only then that Simeon let himself heave a sigh of relief. “After I arrived, andaming what ifs and maybes sa aking thoughts,” he admitted to SPIN Life. But thanks to the professionalism of his crew and their training, he had brought these passengers safely back to the ground.

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A week later, despite all the praise that had poured in from many quarters, Simeon stressed that he was only doing his job. “We are just doing our responsibility,” he said of himself and his crew. “I still feel di ko pa rin matanggap na I am a hero. I just go on, and I pray that I become a blessing and an inspiration to others who see me as someone who did an extraordinary thing.”

For his actions, Chooks-to-Go awarded him the "Manok ng Bayan" award. "Maraming mga professionals natin marurunong," company president Ronald Ronald R. Mascariña told him, "but may ilan diyan na magaling. Isa kayo sa magaling."

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