Flying brotherhood, Class of 1957
The dodo is an extinct bird that used to inhabit the island of Mauritius near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It had short, clumsy legs that supported a body twice as large as an average turkey. Covered with thick plumes, it could not fly because its wings were too small and weak to support the body in flight.
In the Air Force, all candidates for flying training were considered dodos. Only after their first solo flight did they graduate from this derisive nickname.
Fernando Air Base in Lipa City, site of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) of the Philippine Air Force, is popularly known as the home of the dodo. It is here where flight training is given to student officers who aspire to become military pilots. It may also serve as a stepping stone on the way to a more lucrative career in commercial aviation.
Actually the base is home to several training units of the Air Force. The PAF Flying School is perhaps the best known, considering that it provides the pilots who man the air assets of the organization including the recently acquired fighter jets, the FA-50 from South Korea. There are other equally important units such as the Air Force Officers School, the PAF Officer Candidate School, the Non-Commissioned Officer School, the Basic Military Training School, and the PAF Technical and Specialization Training School. For many years, the PAF Flying School was the primary source of pilots not just for the military, but also for civil aviation. Today there are many civilian aviation institutions although the cost of training can be quite expensive.
Fernando Air Base is named after Maj. Basilio Fernando, one of the pioneers of Philippine aviation. After the end of
World War II, he was sent to the United States for refresher flying training in Texas. Unfortunately, just before completing a transport pilot course, he perished in a plane crash at Enid Field, Oklahoma. The current head of the AETC is Maj. Gen. Arnold Mancita. Incidentally, an assignment in Fernando can be a pleasant stop on the way up the military career ladder. The climate is perfect for raising a family, and with a golf course just outside your front door, it is a good opportunity for lowering one’s handicap.
Last Saturday, the Class of 1957 of the PAF Flying School marked their diamond anniversary at the Red Lantern restaurant of the beautiful Solaire Resort and Casino by the bay. The guest of honor at the luncheon, hosted by seven surviving members of the class, was Lt. Gen. Galileo Kintanar Jr., PAF commanding general. He was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Ramon Lim, chief of air staff, and Mrs. Lim. Special guest was the class sweetheart, Carmen Rodriguez, now Mrs. Carmen Garcia.
It was more than 60 years ago that several members of PMA Class of 1956 reported to Fernando Air Base after serving with the battalion combat teams of the Philippine Army. Along with 41 aviation cadets, they would go through training activities as dodos, dependent on their instructors and unable to fly on their own. By the end of their 17-month training program, four
student officers and 28 aviation cadets were eliminated, a wash-out rate of 61.5 percent.
On Dec. 2, 1957, 22 of the original trainees including five who finished in US Air Force facilities abroad, made up the graduating Class of 1957. The PAF commanding general at that time was Brig. Gen. Pedro Q. Molina, while the guest of honor and speaker was Maj. Gen. John Ackerman, the US 13th Air Force commander based at Clark Air Base in Pampanga. Incidentally, shortly after, Ackerman was meted out disciplinary punishment by the US Air Force for lavishly redecorating his quarters at Clark.
In our time, we the graduating members of the class, flew the planes that made up the aerial flyby. After landing, we quickly changed from our flight suits to dress white for the graduation rites. It was our last flight as students before receiving our wings, symbol of military aviation proficiency and it meant the realization of boyhood hopes and dreams shared by many young men all over the country.
Of the student officers in the class, one would end his military career as Air Force commanding general, “Boy” Paiso as vice commander, “Romy” David as 5th Fighter Wing commander, and “Tony” Lukban as deputy chief of staff for logistics (J-4) at GHQ, AFP.
Among the aviation cadet graduates, the most prominent was Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, head of the Aviation Security Command at the time of the Ninoy Aquino assassination. He was one of the defendants in the Aquino-Galman case. The others took early leave of military service to join commercial and private aviation organizations.
There is an old saying that the air, unlike the land and the sea, is so unforgiving of mistakes. Five of the brotherhood perished in a number of air mishaps: Alfonso Donesa Jr., Luis Gatmaitan, Gilberto Ledesma, Norberto de Guzman and Diosdado Rodriguez Jr. Senen Tumbaga was shot by unidentified gunmen in the provincial capital in Tarlac. The other fatalities in the class passed away from natural causes. They remain in our thoughts and prayers.
The seven dodos-turned-pilots who made it to the class reunion at Solaire and who look forward to their 70th-year gathering are: Rene Barrientos, Augusto Dario, Romeo David, Ramon Farolan, Antonio Lukban, Rogelio Narciso, and Augustus Paiso.
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