Remembering the Bombing of PAL Flight 434
Few of us are hopping on a flight these days, but even when we were all free to fly anytime, many of us still get anxious. From the moment the plane takes off to the minute it lands, many people can’t shake off that feeling of dread. Even though the chances of a plane going down is about one in 5.4 million, and the likelihood that you’ll die in a plane crash is even lower (about one in 11 million), there’s always that tiny voice inside our heads that something might go wrong.
Twenty-six years ago, something did go wrong. And it led to a harrowing experience for passengers onboard Philippine Airlines flight 434.
What happened to Flight 434
In 1994, PR 434 was a flight from Manila to Tokyo, with a stopover in Cebu. On December 11 of that year, the plane landed in Mactan International Airport at 6:50 a.m. One of the passengers from Manila was named Ramzi Yousef, who investigators later said was using a fake name.
The Boeing 747 aircraft
Based on the investigation, Yousef went to the lavatory while the plane, a Boeing 747, was airborne to assemble the bomb he managed to bring with him onboard. He used a modified Casio watch as a timer and took out the wiring, batteries, and spark source from his shoes, which passed through airport security because metal detectors at the time were unable to detect it. In his toiletry kit he also carried nitroglycerin that he hid inside a bottle of contact lens fluid.
Yousef then moved to seat 26K and stuffed the bomb underneath the seat, where the life vest was. He disembarked in Cebu after setting the bomb to explode in four hours.
The plane took off again from Cebu at 8:38 a.m. bound for Tokyo. The flight carried 273 passengers and 20 crew members.
The bombed detonated at 11:43 a.m. The passenger sitting on 26K, a 24-year-old Japanese man named Haruki Ikegami, was killed instantly, while at least 10 passengers in front and behind him were injured. In a retelling of the incident on the Canadian TV show Mayday, the blast punctured a hole in the floor toward the cargo hold underneath. Thankfully, the blast did not reach the aircraft’s fuel tank. If it did, investigators said it would have likely blown up the entire plane.
"It was as if a big rocket exploded right in the room," Captain Eduardo Reyes said during a terror trial two years after the incident.
According to a report in the Washington Post, the blast set part of the ceiling on fire, but passengers quickly put it out with blankets.
Panic and calm
Because the autopilot was engaged, the plane was able to correct the initial misalignment that the blast caused. In order to guide the plane to safety, the pilot needed to take control of the aircraft, but they were worried that disengaging the autopilot might cause the plane to bank to the right.
In a report on Cebu Daily News, Reyes calmly made an announcement to the passengers before disengaging the autopilot. “We’ll be landing at Naha soon, please remain in your seats and fasten your seat belts,” he said. The report said that some passengers were crying and that one Japanese passenger even began to write his will.
Aftermath of the bombing, photographed by the United States Diplomatic Security Service
The major problems were that the ailerons, or the part of the plane that enables turning maneuvers, were disabled, and that its elevators, or what controls the aircraft’s ability to ascend and descend, also failed.
But the flight crew, led by Captain Reyes and flight systems engineer Dexter Comendadaor, remained calm and were determined to land the plane safely. They requested for emergency landing at the closest airport, which was Naha Airport in Okinawa Island.
Passengers reportedly burst into applause for Captain Reyes and his team when the plane finally landed safely about an hour after the explosion.
Yousef was later identified as one of the masterminds of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. The bombing of PAL flight 434 was intended to be a test run of the so-called Bojinka plot, a series of terror attacks planned by Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that involved blowing up airplanes around the world, assassinating Pope John Paul II and crashing a plane into the headquarters of the CIA in Virginia, US.
The plot later failed after police discovered the suspects’ lair in an apartment in Manila in January 1995. Yousef was later arrested in Pakistan and was convicted for his role in the Bojinka plot. He was sentenced to life without parole.
According to Cebu Daily News, most of the crew of PAL flight 434 resigned and migrated to other countries after the bombing, but the pilots stayed and continued their careers in the Philippines. Captain Reyes moved to Cebu Pacific, retired in 2002 and passed away in 2007. Comendador meanwhile, also moved to Cebu Pacific and then later to AirAsia Philippines, where he now serves as CEO.