Friday, December 15, 2017
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A gathering of eagles

Fernando Air Base, located in Lipa City, Batangas, is the home of the PAF Flying School, one of several training facilities that make up the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) of the Philippine Air Force. The base is named after Lt. Col. Basilio Fernando who perished in an air crash in January 1946 while undergoing refresher pilot training at Enid Field, Oklahoma.

For many Filipino aviators, the base has served as the entry point toward a career of service in uniform or a lucrative profession in the world of commercial aviation. From this viewpoint, one could say that Fernando Air Base represents hallowed ground.

On a personal note, this is where a young boy’s dreams came true. After serving as a platoon leader with the 4th Battalion Combat Team of the Philippine Army, I reported to Fernando Air Base for flight training. And here, I was introduced to a wonderful machine, the PT-13, an open cockpit biplane now relegated to air museums in the United States.

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Let me say something about flying in one of these 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.

Last Saturday, the PAF Flying School Alumni Association (PAFFSAA) led by Capt. Rolando Arbis, chair, and Brig. Gen. Romeo Poquiz, president, hosted the annual gathering of airmen who have passed through this 60-year-old training installation, which has a golf course boasting of the only Par 6 Hole in the entire country. Gen. Jessie D. Dellosa, AFP chief of staff, was the guest of honor.

For the first time in many, many years, an Air Force activity was capped by a fly-by of aircraft—15 SF 260s and eight T-41 trainer planes—indicative of a growing number of air assets that have provided a glimmer of hope for an organization that has long been the butt of painful jokes, one of which is that of having much air and little force. We are a long way from where we used to be among Asian air forces. But the modest turnout represents some light at the end of a dark tunnel and the nation must be prepared for greater sacrifices if the needs of our Armed Forces are to be met. We cannot go to Uncle Sam with a begging bowl. It is time to put our wallets where our mouths are. We have purchased from Poland four combat utility helicopters—Sokols—with four more on the way. There are negotiations for long-range maritime patrol aircraft and a number of modified versions of the F-16 fighter jet (designated as F-50) from South Korea. Another C-130 will soon be added to our transport fleet.

One could almost feel a sigh of relief as well as a sense of pride from the audience at the sight of so many planes flying in formation. Some were saying, “Finally, we are back in business; back in the business of flying!” That is what the Air Force is all about.

For so many years, Air Force Day was celebrated with the traditional military parade, with air assets merely parked on the tarmac. While our airmen were applauded for their marching skills, the unspoken thought running through the minds of members of the Air Force family was the absence of a fly-by. After all, the fly-by is what differentiates us from the other major services of the AFP. It represents the very purpose and mission of the organization. (For those unfamiliar with the term, a fly-by is the Air Force equivalent of the pass-in review by ground troops.)

As though in response to this yearning, Lt. Gen. Lauro dela Cruz, PAF commanding general, announced that the anniversary celebrations this coming Air Force Day in July will be held at Fernando Air Base in order to provide ample opportunity to showcase the new aircraft arrivals flying in formation. The crowded airspace at Villamor Air Base has made it virtually impossible to carry out any flight activities during the anniversary program. In addition, the constant taxiing operations in the vicinity of the Villamor grandstand would represent an embarrassing distraction for any guest speaker.

Aside from the silver and golden jubilarians of the PAF Flying School, four guests were singled out for special recognition: Lieutenants Jose “Pepot” FL. Gonzalez, Ricardo Singson, Cesar Raval, and, in absentia, Pascual Servida.

The four airmen, all fighter pilots, were members of the original “Blue Diamond,” the PAF acrobatic team formed in 1953, which used P-51 Mustangs of World War II vintage. Gonzalez was the team leader, Isidro Agunod, left wing (deceased); Singson, right wing; Servida, slot; and Raval, airborne reserve.

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Pepot was not only the team leader. He is also the recognized founder of the “Blue Diamond” team, the vanguard of a golden age in Philippine aviation, when the PAF was among the best in Southeast Asia, demonstrating the professional competence and flying skills of our pilots.

Another personal note.

The Mustang fighter pilot will always remain close to my heart. The airman who first showed me the world from an upside down position was Lt. Johnny Estoesta, a hotshot pilot fresh from a stint with the fighter unit at Basa Air Base. He taught me the rudiments of flying and released me for my first solo flight. Lt. Marcelo “Lito” Barbero, another Mustang fighter pilot, would check me out in the T-6 advanced trainer. Normally, he would be shouting at me, “Sanamagan, Farolan, you will get us both killed with your stupidity!” Then one morning, after a series of takeoffs and landings, he stepped out of the cockpit with his parachute and above the roar of the engine he shouted, “Sanamagan, Mon, you’re on your own. Report to me after landing.”

Other “Blue Diamond” teams would be formed utilizing

F-86 Sabrejets and the F-5 Freedom Fighters. The largest “Diamond” was a 16-plane formation of F-86 Sabrejets led by Capt. Angel Mapua in 1960. The last was a flight of F-5 Freedom Fighters led by Lt. Col. Ricardo Faustino in 1986, after the Edsa Revolution.

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Other notes.

Today, the PAF Flying School is led by its first woman commandant, Lt. Col. Sharon G. Gernale of Bulan, Sorsogon, a member of Class 1993-A. She was one of the first two female pilot graduates of the PAF Flying School. She graduated from the AFP Command and General Staff College in 2007. Gernale also served as the first female secretary of airstaff.

The AETC is headed by Maj. Gen. Edgardo Rene Samonte, who served as my senior aide when I was chief of the Air Force. His wife Marilou is the youngest daughter of my flight instructor, Col. Juan Estoesta.

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TAGS: Air Education and Training Command, Aviation, Fernando Air Base, PAF Flying School, Philippine Air Force
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