Investigation of the fatal Cebu Pacific Air McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 crash in the southern Philippines on 2 February is focusing on the possibility of a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). The aircraft hit a mountain during descent for its approach into Cagayan de Oro Airport.

Philippine president Fidel Ramos has instructed the country's Air Transportation Office to ground Cebu's remaining fleet of six DC-9s pending the outcome of the investigation.

Cloud was reported to be forming on the mountains, but scattered over the low ground. It took 24h for an air force search-and-rescue helicopter to locate the wreckage at the 2,058m (6,750ft) level of a mountain 45km (25nm) north-east of the airport. According to observers, the aircraft hit a steep, heavily forested, mountainside some 50m beneath the peak. The 31-year-old DC-9 (RP-C1507) broke into small pieces and there were no survivors among the aircraft's 99 passengers and five crew.

The crew was flying a domestic schedule from Manila to Cagayan de Oro, 780km to the south on the island of Mindanao. This flight, however, made an en route stop at Tacloban to deliver an airline mechanic and spare nosewheel.

At the time of the crash, the crew had departed the main southbound airway from Tacloban and was heading for Cagayan de Oro. The airport, some 186m above sea level, is not equipped with radar and, in instrument meteorological conditions, the crew would have headed for the airport's VOR (VHF navigation beacon) to arrive overhead at a minimum 5,000ft altitude.

Normally, if a crew were to see the airport before reaching the VOR, they would convert the approach to a visual one, but, if not, the correct procedure would be to carry out a procedural let-down using the VOR as guidance (see diagram). The mountains to the south, east and north-east typically range between 2,400m and 2,900m high.

The aircraft was captained by an ex-air force officer, with 1,000h on DC-9s. The co-pilot had about 600h on the type. The three-year old domestic airline has modelled its operation on the no-frills approach of US budget carrier ValuJet, now re-named AirTran.

Source: Flight International