Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The ‘Mustangs’ of the Philippine Air Force

On Wednesday, July 1, the Philippine Air Force led by Lt. Gen. Oscar H. Rabena, marks its 62nd founding anniversary. It was in July 1947 that the Philippine Army Air Corps was renamed the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and elevated to the status of a separate major command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Col. Pelagio A. Cruz, at age 37, became the youngest Filipino Air Force officer to rise to one-star rank as commanding general of the PAF.

Although the PAF is officially 62 years old, its seeds were sown way back in March 1917 when Governor General Francis Burton Harrison approved the creation of the Philippine National Guard. The legislation provided for an air unit composed initially of 15 officers and 135 enlisted personnel. The group included Lt. Leoncio Malinao of Cebu. He would become the first Filipino military pilot flying solo for the first time in a Jenny N-4 biplane in April 1920.

One of the early priorities of Colonel Cruz as PAF chief was the establishment of a fighter base for the new command. When the US government turned over Floridablanca Army Air Base to the Philippine government, Cruz immediately set in motion the development of what today is Basa Air Base. Built by the US Army Air Corps before World War II, it was improved and used by the Japanese during their occupation and later lengthened by the US Air Force as a bomber base in 1945. Floridablanca Air Base would be renamed Basa Air Base in honor of Lt. Cesar Basa, the first Filipino pilot to die in aerial combat against Japanese fighter aircraft. Basa Air Base would serve as the home of the fighter units of the PAF.

The Sixth Fighter Squadron was organized under Lt. Lucio Java, followed a few days later by the activation of the Seventh Fighter Squadron led by Capt. Fidel T. Reyes. Both units came under the Fifth Fighter Group commanded by Maj. Benito Ebuen.

The Air Force by then had a fighter base and a fighter group, and in the autumn of 1947, the first three P-51s (Mustangs) arrived from Clark, ferried by Lieutenants Jesus Singson, Eulalio Nierva and Constantino Completo. US Air Force (USAF) records indicate that at least 31 P-51s were transferred to the PAF, but the actual total may be higher. Philippine sources claim that only 18 Mustangs were on hand with possibly the balance stored in reserve at Clark. But with so few pilots then available, there were enough planes for everyone. Incidentally, “Mustang” comes from the Spanish “Mesteño,” a wild horse of the American western plains, directly descended from horses brought to the United States by the Spaniards, possibly in the 16th century.

Throughout the Mustang’s career in the PAF, it would be used primarily as a fighter-bomber. Air-to-air combat training was also part of its role but this was not one that was taken seriously, for three reasons: first, there was a lack of potential enemies; second, the PAF had no effective fighter control organization (there was no aircraft control through radar equipment); and third, the USAF at Clark in effect took care of air defense for the Philippines. Nevertheless, the PAF Mustangs at times trained with USAF units as well as those from Thailand and Taiwan.

The increasing number of available pilots led to the creation of a third fighter squadron, and the Eighth Fighter Squadron was activated under Capt. Julian Yutuc. The Fifth Fighter Group became the Fifth Fighter Wing.

The original batch of Mustangs dwindled due to accidents and there was need for additional aircraft. In 1950, a delivery of 50 P-51s was made, bringing up the units to full strength with 12 to 15 pilots assigned to each squadron. Each pilot had a “personal” aircraft assigned to him, with others held in reserve. Their planes were marked with names like “Shark of Zambales,” “Chinita,” “Red Knight,” and “Cannonball.”

The Mustangs participated in anti-Huk operations, particularly in the Sierra Madre ranges. In 1952, Operation Four Roses was launched, with the Mustangs flying 68 sorties against Huk camps. In 1954, the Sulu Air Task Group (or SATAG) was formed to assist Army units operating in Sulu against Haji Kamlon. The main armaments of the Mustang, in addition to six .50-caliber machineguns, were 250-lb fragmentation bombs and 300-lb GP (general purpose) bombs. Napalm was also used at certain times, but only with permission from headquarters in each specific case.*

With the end of the Korean War, the USAF resumed the delivery of Mustangs to the PAF and in 1955, the last 24 planes were turned over to the Philippine government. This was the high point in the Mustang’s career in the PAF. Aircraft and pilots were plentiful and in 1956, the Fifth Fighter Wing was able to put up 74 Mustangs for the Independence Day flypast.

The Blue Diamonds acrobatic team of the PAF started out with Mustangs. The team leader was Lt. Jose Gonzales, with members Lieutenants Isidro Agunod, Ricardo Singson, Pascual Servida and Cesar Raval. The team’s last appearance using Mustangs was at the Philippine Aviation Week celebration in December 1954.

In 1959, after a crash in which the pilot was killed, PAF headquarters retired the Mustang. The number of fatal crashes involving Mustangs was most likely about 30. “Two squadrons’ worth of pilots killed” was how Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Casabar expressed it. A final flypast with four aircraft was hastily arranged. Lt. Romeo Reinoso, Class 1958, had the privilege of making the last Mustang landing in the PAF.

Just to add a personal note to this column—the Mustang fighter pilot will continue to remain close to my heart. The first pilot who showed me the world from an upside down position was then-Lt. Juan Estoesta, fresh from a stint with the fighter unit in Basa. A number of fighter pilots were transferred to Fernando Air Base to serve as instructor pilots in the flying school. In a PT-13 open cockpit biplane, Estoesta allowed me to break away from the bonds of the earth and soar into the wild blue yonder on my own.

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’ll 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.”

There are so many other names that should have been included in this article—all Mustang fighter pilots who gave the PAF much to be proud of. On the occasion of the PAF anniversary, we salute them with assurances of our respect and affection.


  1. Browsing sites with info on PAF - good to know a bit of PAF history through this - thanks!

  2. You might know my dad, Fred Pinpin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dpinpin/4240294206/in/pool-mustangfighters/

    My dad recounted how Barbero (if he's the same one), died in the cockpit trapped in a flaming plane.