Memories of ‘Yolanda’ inspire female survivor to be PH Coast Guard rescue chopper pilot

Published March 28, 2021, 11:07 AM

by Richa Noriega

It was supposed to be a well-deserved break from work in November 2013 in her hometown in Palo, Leyte, until super-typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) spoiled a happy reunion with her family.

COAST GUARD RESCUE PILOT – Meet Commander Jay Sustento, the Philippine Coast Guard’s first female rescue chopper pilot and a “Yolanda” survivor.
(Photo courtesy of Commander Jay Sustento)

But that life and death situation when she and her family were almost swept by flash flood and strong winds spawned by one of the world’s strongest typhoon, and how it felt that the needed rescue came on time, somehow made her realize during that time what she really wanted to be.

Fast forward 2021, meet Commander Jay Sustento, the Philippine Coast Guard’s first female rescue helicopter pilot.

Being part of the aviation force, which provides aerial surveillance and rescue missions, Sustento found hope and inspiration in rescue missions during the onslaught of calamities, as she was also a survivor from those kind of situations.

“Kaya siguro malapit sa akin yung pagre-rescue, kasi naranasan ko na dumaan din sa ganung situwasyon na kelangan mo rin ma-rescue. So parang ngayon gustong gusto ko yung mga misyon na more on rescue (Maybe rescue missions are close to me because I experienced being rescued. I also went through such a situation that you also need to be rescued. Now, I like more missions on rescue),” Sustento shared.

“Kelangan mong makita yung situation para makapagbigay ka ng assessment, para malaman kung ano yung tulong na pwedeng maibigay ng national government [at] ng unit niyo. Isasantabi mo na lang yung fear mo para makatulong ka, para makapagbigay ka ng assistance sa kanila (You need to see the situation to get report assessment, to know what kind of help the national government and your unit should give to the affected communities. You just need to put your fears aside so you can help, so you can provide help from them),” she added.

Surviving ‘Yolanda’ havoc

COAST GUARD RESCUE PILOT– Meet Commander Jay Sustento, the Philippine Coast Guard’s first female rescue chopper pilot and a “Yolanda” survivor.
(Photo courtesy of  Commander Jay Sustento)

After an aerial surveillance mission from an earthquake that struck the country, Sustento decided to take a break and went home to her province in San Fernando, Palo, Leyte to spend time with her family.

The supposed to be a happy family reunion turned out to be the most challenging experience for Sustento.

Regarded as one of the most powerful typhoons to hit the country, Yolanda made its first landfall on November 8, 2013 at the municipality of Guiuan in Eastern Samar, Eastern Visayas.

“Noong sa Yolanda ano kami nun noong umaga, yung tubig umabot hanggang shoulder length sa bahay namin [buti] medyo elevated yung bahay namin pero sa labas ng bahay lubog na ‘yun (During that morning when Yolanda landfall, the water reached shoulder length in our house. Fortunately our house was a bit elevated but outside of the house it was already submerged in water),” Sustento said.

Together with her family, they braced the storm while staying on the second floor of their house after the rushing flood entered and the roof was washed-out.

“Andun yung nanay ko, tatay ko, tapos meron pa kaming two-months-old [boy] na pamangkin, nakasilong lang kami doon mabuti na lang may second floor kami kasi kung hindi, kung tumaas pa yung tubig aakyat na kami nun. Tapos yung bubong namin nawashout so medyo lalakasan mo lang yung loob mo kasi nung time na ‘yun ang lalaki lang sa amin yung tatay ko (My mother was there, my father, and my two-month-old nephew, we just took shelter there, it’s good that we have a second floor because if the water rise up we’ll climbed on our roof. However, our roof was already washed out, so you’ll just need to be a little more courageous because at that time, my father was the only man among us),” Sustento said.

With the help of her knowledge and experience during her Coast Guard training, Sustento was able to guide and protect her family to withstand the powerful typhoon.

“Puro kami babae eh syempre inisip ko rin na may training din ako ng Coast Guard, walang ibang makakatulong sa tatay ko kung hindi ako lang, so ginuguide ko din yung family ko yung nanay ko noon tumungtong kami sa lamesa. After nun okay naman buti naman ligtas kami pero may mga relatives kami na naano talaga sila (We are all women, I used my knowledge and experience during my Coast Guard training, no one else could help my father but me, so I also guided my family and my mother then we step on the table. After that, it’s okay, we’re safe, but we have relatives who really were hurt),” she added.

COAST GUARD RESCUE PILOT– Meet Commander Jay Sustento, the Philippine Coast Guard’s first female rescue chopper pilot and a “Yolanda” survivor.
(Photo courtesy of  Commander Jay Sustento)

Entering the Coast Guard and aviation force unexpectedly

With the encouragement of her mother, Sustento was supposed to enter the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) at first. However, in an unexpected situation the examiner handed to her the Coast Guard application, which eventually she accepted wholeheartedly.

“Sabi ng nanay ko magexam ako doon sa PPA sabi ko exam naman ako. Noong nagexam naman ako sabi nung examiner dapat sa Coast Guard kayo pumasok dapat marunong kayo magswimming, magjogging, pero okay lang naman athletic naman din kasi ako eh. Kaso lang hindi ko talaga inexpect, wala talaga sa isip ko pumasok ng Coast Guard noon kaso eh nandoon na eh mageexam na, eh nakapasa kaya tuloy tuloy na (My mother said I should take the exam at the PPA and I said I will take the exam. When I took the exam, the examiner said that you should join the Coast Guard, you should know how to swim and jog, but it’s okay because I’m also athletic. It was really unexpected, I didn’t really think about entering the Coast Guard that time, however, I’ve taken the exam and I passed),” Sustento said.

Sustento entered the PCG in 2001 as an assistant personnel and graduated the officer’s course in 2006.

During that time, she grabbed the opportunity to be one of the two female trainees for the rescue chopper pilot position. However, her co-trainee left to pursue a different path, which made her the only female trainee left for the position.

In 2009, she trained to become the PCG’s first female rescue chopper pilot using the Coast Guard Aviation Force (CGAF) BO-105 (Bolkow) helicopter.

“Eventually dun ko na narealize na gusto ko rin pala, gusto ko rin pala magpalipad. Yun pala yung ano ko na pineprefer ko, narealize ko na mas masarap magpalipad pala like ngayon gusto ko magpalipad kesa maassign ako ng ibang unit sa Coast Guard parang  magconcentrate na lang ako dito mas naeenjoy ko siya magwork (Eventually I realized that I also wanted to become a pilot. That is what I prefer to do. I realized that I want to become a pilot and maneuver a helicopter rather than to be assigned to another unit in the Coast Guard, I want to concentrate here, I enjoy working here more),” she said.

Currently, Sustento is now the deputy commander of the helicopter division of the CGAF and one of the force’s trusted aircraft maintenance officers.

She is also assigned to be the pilot in command of one of the two H145 light twin-engine helicopters, which came from Germany, arrived in the country as part of the PCG’s modernization program.

 “Natutunan ko na kung hindi mo alam napagaaralan naman lahat eh, lahat naman natutunan kumbaga lahat tayo kung gusto mo talaga yung isang bagay pag-aaralan mo pagsusumikapan mo (I learned that if you don’t know what to do, you just need to study hard, if you really want achieve something, you need to study and work hard),” Sustento said.

COAST GUARD RESCUE PILOT– Meet Commander Jay Sustento, the Philippine Coast Guard’s first female rescue chopper pilot and a “Yolanda” survivor.
(Photo courtesy of  Commander Jay Sustento)

Fulfilling rescue operations

When it comes to calamities such as earthquakes and flashfloods, Sustento was among the first to conduct aerial surveillance and rescue operations for the affected communities.

“Usually yung mga relief operations ‘yun yung mga nakakatuwang experience, makikita mo sa tao na masaya sila na merong nakakarating sa kanila na tulong. ‘Yun yung parang gaganahan ka rin magtrabaho. Yun yung mga experience na fulfilling (Usually relief operations are memorable experiences, you can see in people that they are happy that someone is coming to help them. It’s like you are inspired to work. Those are fulfilling experiences),” Sustento said.

Asked if she still experience fear for her own personal safety, Sustento said, “Isasantabi mo na lang yung ganung fear mo para makatulong ka, para makapagbigay ka ng assistance sa kanila at saka bawat lipad din naman namin andun pa rin yung safety nung tao, safety namin, safety ng crew, [at] safety ng aircraft (You just put your fear aside so that you can help, so that you can provide assistance to them and then every flight we also considered the safety of the person, our safety, the safety of the crew, [and] the safety of the aircraft).”

During the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, they also transported personal protective equipment (PPEs) and medicines for the frontliners in some provinces of the country.

“Ngayon medyo challenging yung trabaho kasi marami kang iisipin eh. Dati kung lilipad ka lang lilipad ka lang, ngayon syempre yung health protocols lahat iisipin mo pero namamanage naman, naayos naman kaya nakakaya lang (Now the job is a bit challenging because you have a lot to think about. Before, if you just fly, you just fly, now of course you will think about all the health protocols but they are manageable),” she added.

COAST GUARD RESCUE PILOT– Meet Commander Jay Sustento, the Philippine Coast Guard’s first female rescue chopper pilot and a “Yolanda” survivor.
(Photo courtesy of  Commander Jay Sustento)

Women of courage

In celebration of Women’s Month, Sustento advised all women not to be discouraged to pursue their passion in life.

“Siguro huwag natin isipin na hindi natin kaya kasi kaya natin. Huwag nating sabihin na hindi natin kaya kasi kaya natin eh mas magaling pa nga tayo [kababaihan] kesa sa iba, mas magaling pa tayo kung pagsusumikapan (We should stop thinking that we cannot do things that we are capable of. Let’s stop saying that we cannot do it because we can. We, women, are even better than others, we are even better if we work hard,” she said.

Sustento underscored that women are more courageous and stronger, if they do not limit themselves to pursue their dreams.

“Mas malakas ang loob ng babae mas matapang tayo kumbaga sa kanila. Utak lang natin naglilimit sa atin kumbaga kung hindi natin lilimitahan yung utak natin kaya natin, magagawa natin (We all women are stronger and bolder. Our thoughts only make us feel that we have limits, we should stop putting limit to ourselves because we can do it),” the commander said.

“Sariling isip din natin yung kalaban natin pero kumbaga sabihin natin sa sarili natin na kaya natin, kaya natin, and all things will just follow yun lang (Our opponent is only our own mind. We should trust ourselves that we can do it and all things will just follow),” she added.