My mentors, my heroes
Ever since the end of the Philippine-American War more than a century ago, no sitting Philippine president has ever visited Balangiga in what is now the province of Eastern Samar. I also do not recall any of our presidents or vice presidents joining commemorative activities to mark the Battle of Balangiga that took place on Sept. 28, 1901.
Why should we remember Balangiga?
In no other engagement during the Philippine-American War did Filipino revolutionaries inflict so many casualties on the enemy — 48 American officers and men slain in the attack — in a battle of bolos versus Krags. One American newspaper headlined Balangiga as a “Terrible defeat at hands of Filipinos.”
We spend so much time and treasure marking the Fall of Bataan and Corregidor in a war not of our own making while we ignore one of our few victories in the fight for freedom against a foreign power.
We may criticize President Duterte on many issues but on Balangiga, there can be no doubt that he has done the right thing. Last Thursday, he was in Balangiga to commemorate the 116th anniversary of the battle. The President laid a wreath at the monument of one of the leaders of the attack on the American garrison, paying tribute to the memory of Filipino freedom fighters.
We may never see the bells returned but this does not mean that we should forget such a glorious moment in our nation’s history.
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Next Thursday, Oct. 5, is National Teachers’ Day, a day set aside to honor the men and women who have influenced our lives and contributed to what we are today. In my case, two such individuals come to mind as I look back on a career in the armed forces.
Early on, as a senior cadet at the Philippine Military Academy, I had chosen the Air Force as my branch of service. But on graduation day, President Ramon Magsaysay ordered all new PMA graduates to be sent to the Battalion Combat Teams of the Philippine Army. The Hukbalahap insurgency in the Southern Luzon region had taken a turn for the worse and the main focus of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was to bring the situation under control.
After a few months with the Army, those who signified their intention to join the Air Force, the Navy or the Constabulary were allowed to report to their new assignments. A dozen of us headed for Fernando Air Base in Lipa City, home of the PAF Flying School, and here for the first time, we met our flight instructors.
My mentor was Lt. Juan Estoesta, a hotshot fighter pilot fresh from a stint with the 5th Fighter Wing at Basa Air Base in
Pampanga. In those days, the Mustang or P-51 was the primary fighter-bomber aircraft of the PAF.
Estoesta was a man of few words and after brief remarks, introduced me to the PT-13, the primary trainer of the Air Force. The PT-13 was an open cockpit biplane used by the US Army Air Corps during the late 1930s. It had a maximum speed of 125 mph, a fabric-covered fuselage with fixed landing gear. A crank was used for starting the engine. While flying, pilots used cloth helmets and goggles for protection from the open cockpit
slipstream. The airplane had a rear view mirror for instructor-student communications using hand signals.
On my first flight, actually an orientation flight, Estoesta took me up to about 5,000 feet and without any warning rolled the plane over and for the very first time, I saw the world from an upside-down position. Then he took me up higher and gave me a taste of a spinning aircraft that seemed to be out of control, recovering just in time and leveling off.
It was during the post-flight briefing that I learned more about Estoesta. He was a patient man but demanded strict attention as he dwelt on some of his observations. He stressed the importance of maintaining one’s composure in the face of unusual positions of the aircraft, revealing that I had my eyes closed when the plane was upside down or spinning toward the ground. He said this was not unusual for a first-timer, but it was not to be repeated.
Each day before every flight, he would go through the whole gamut of flight maneuvers to be performed. First, on the ground, explanations were made and questions clarified prior to take-off. Then in the air, demonstrations were carried out by the instructor followed by the student doing the same exercises. It was a classroom in the sky, with clouds rolling by your side as close to you as never before.
Few people realize that the job of a flight instructor is one of the riskiest in the field of education and learning. Each time he goes up with a student, the instructor is putting his life in the hands of the student. This is so because for the student to learn his lessons, the instructor must give him control of the aircraft and allow him to make mistakes but at the same time, react fast enough to correct those mistakes before the situation gets out of hand.
The standard for flying solo was “seven hours solo or bust,” meaning after flying with your instructor for seven hours, you should be ready for your first solo flight. Johnny Estoesta prepared me thoroughly for the test and seven flying hours later, released me for my first solo flight. Let me say something about flying in one of those dinosaurs of the Air Age. Nothing but nothing beats the feel of the wind rushing against your face as you soar into the heavens with the world beneath your wings. And nothing you will ever experience can compare with that first solo flight as you break the bonds of Mother Earth with only your own skills and abilities to ensure a safe return.
Another Mustang fighter pilot, Lt. Marcelo “Lito” Barbero, would check me out in the T-6 Advanced Trainer. The T-6 was one of the most widely-used aircraft in aviation history. Over 15,000 of these planes were built by North American between 1938 and 1945. The all-metal T-6 had a cruising speed of 145 mph and a maximum speed of 210 mph. It had a retractable landing gear and was a lot faster than the PT-13.
Normally Barbero would be shouting at me, “Sanamagan, Mr. Farolan, you will get us both killed with your stupidity!” Then one morning, after a series of takeoffs and landings, he signaled me to pull over to the side of the runway. He stepped out of the cockpit with his parachute and above the roar of the engine, he shouted, “Sanamagan, Mon, take this goddamn plane up. You’re on your own. Report to me at the stage house after landing.”
I remember both mentors with affection and gratitude.
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