The Philippines lost a pioneer last week with the horrific murder of Gisela Bendong Boniel. In her too-short life, the airline captain and small town mayor made an impact on the lives of countless Filipinos, among them our own Coconuts Manila editor Ryan Macasero. He remembers her here.
When I read the news last week that Captain Gisela Bendong Boniel, a commercial pilot and the mayor of Bien Unido Bohol was kidnapped and killed, I was hoping it was another case of fake news circulating on the Facebook feeds.
But the story is real and the commercial pilot who lived to fly is gone.
I’ve only met Captain Gisela twice in my life. But one time was all it took for her to stick in my memory. It was a summer day in 2014 and I was on my way back to Manila from visiting my grandmother in Cebu. I take these flights often. And I must’ve encountered hundreds of ground staff, cabin crew and even a few pilots by now. But I don’t remember any of them, neither their names nor their faces.
But I will never forget the day I met Captain Gisela.
Before we took off, I noticed the voice on the speaker was that of a female pilot. It was my first time hearing a woman’s voice from the cockpit of a local commercial airline, and she was speaking in Bisaya.
As a Cebuano, it’s always a pleasure to hear your language being spoken in places outside of the Visayas. That the pilot was a woman flying in a male-dominated profession and a Bisaya was enough to make me feel happy. I knew the plane was being guided by a trailblazer.
Our flight took off and landed on time, but when we landed at the congested Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), we were stuck for hours. Normally, pilots would announce updates here and there and we’d just have to wait it out until we could get down. These situations often cause passengers to become irritated or even irate.
Instead of sitting in the cockpit and making announcements over the loud speaker, Gisela handled it in a unique way and came out to face the passengers. She was articulate, charismatic and imparted a sense of calm and assurance that everything was going to be OK and the crew was doing its best to handle the situation.
After nearly two hours, we were still stuck on the tarmac. Captain Gisela stayed with us and the cabin crew began offering free drinks and snacks. I observed her walk around the cabin engaging in conversations in Bisaya with the passengers, who were mostly Cebuanos like me.
At about the 3rd hour, we were finally cleared to exit the aircraft and de-plane. But even after I left the plane, I couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing the pilot was (who I later learned was Gisela) at not only handling customers but taking command of a potential customer service nightmare.
It was a simple act, but it made the difference between a travel nightmare and a bearable inconvenience.
Three years had past and I never learned the pilot’s name nor flew with her again in the dozens of trips I took with the airline after that. But last November, at a local event for the airline in SM Cebu, I saw her again and immediately knew it had to be the captain from the 2014 tarmac incident.
I couldn’t let my chance to tell her how awesome she was go to waste. “Hi, Captain! I remember you from a flight almost 3 years ago and how you handled the passengers. You’re amazing!” I told her.
“How do you remember that? Did I come outside and talk to you guys?” she asked. “Yes! You did! Maayo jud kaayo ka uy (you’re awesome),” I told her.
Later that night. I joined Gisela and Captain Dexter Comendador, the flight engineer on the flight bombed by Ramzi Yusuf in 1994 for an interview.
Comendador is now CEO of AirAsia Philippines, the airline where Gisela was a pilot.
He told me that Gisela was the first female hire when the local franchise of the airline started up, revealing some amazing aviation experiences and how they handled deadly potentially deadly flights.
In 2016, Gisela was awarded for safely landing another aircraft in Manila with only one engine running.
I could hear the enthusiasm and passion in her voice and was captivated by her aviation stories.
While the number of female pilots have been increasing, globally, aviation is still largely a male-dominated field. And the stories of women pilots like Gisela’s need to be told so that other girls who want to be pilots know that there are women who are awesome at it.
This was a story I couldn’t miss, and I was so “kilig” (excited) when she accepted my friend request on Facebook.
But that’s one interview I will never get to do.
Despite the gruesome way she was murdered and the sensational headlines about her death, I can only hope she’s remembered for how she lived rather than the way that she died.
The Philippines not only lost a mayor, we lost a good person, an excellent pilot, a pioneer and a role model.
Rest in peace, captain. Fly high.