On the fateful morning of January 17, 2015, a Philippine Airlines captain named Roland Narciso logged the most important and challenging flight of his career. As chief pilot of Airbus A-320, he was tasked to command a plane with an extra-special VIP on board, flying him from Manila to Tacloban and vice versa. A storm was brewing then, and that flight with none other than Pope Francis became one of the most significant moments in the pilot’s life.
Were you nervous during the flight?
Yes, I was. In anything—especially flying the Pope—may kaba. Then there was the thunderstorm that turned into a typhoon. But in all operations, you just have to be prepared for the worst scenario possible, so the team was prepared. A big factor too was drawing strength from the fact that the Pope was our passenger. That gave me comfort.
What was it like knowing that Pope Francis was your passenger?
I felt blessed. But the realization came after the flight when I discovered that there were tons of people waiting for hours just to see the Pope—and there I was, blessed, honored, and privileged to actually have him as my passenger and meet him in person. Parang “is this really happening to me?” ‘Di mo alam bakit ikaw… It really touches your life.
You made a tough call when you chose to cut the Pope’s trip short. What was going through your mind?
In the end, it was really the Vatican team’s choice. We just gave them the options because we were monitoring the typhoon. We said that if the strongest wind will be coming in at 2 pm, we’d better leave at 1. Or the earliest we could depart was at 8 in the evening.
What was the toughest call you’ve ever had to make in your career as a pilot?
As a pilot, you make decisions based on your knowledge and your experience. In terms of on-the-spot decision making, that moment in Tacloban was the hardest. I remember, we were communicating through the radio and inside the cockpit, and I told the team that if anyone was uncomfortable, they should shout or say “go around.” As a pilot, that was probably the most challenging flight for me.