Another piece of sad story from INQ7
F-5 takes last flight; RP external air defense down and out
First posted 01:21am (Mla time) Oct 02, 2005
By Tonette Orejas, Fe B. Zamora
Inquirer News Service
BASA AIR BASE, Pampanga – As music from the soundtrack of the movie "Top Gun" blared, the fighter jet taxied toward a hangar in this air base to mark the retirement of the country's 37 F-5s, once dubbed the kings of Philippine skies.
Shortly after, retired Brig. Gen. Angel Okol Jr., who was the first to fly the twin-engine supersonic plane for the Air Force in 1965, and Maj. Carlos Evangelista, the last to steer it in 2002, stood beside the aircraft, giving it a last look and posing for posterity.
Called "Freedom Fighter," the 46-foot-long F-5s arrived in October 1965, launching the Philippines into the supersonic age. It was the first Asian country to acquire the planes and, until the '70s, the Philippine Air Force would be the envy of its neighbors.
With the sun glimmering on the plane's wings, Okol (known by his call sign "Cobra 30") and Evangelista ("Cobra 389") lingered and exchanged memories of combat missions.
But their memories were tinged with sadness for their poorly equipped Air Force.
"I feel very lucky to have flown it because to me it played a key role in defending the country's sovereignty," Okol said.
F-5s, he recalled, saw action against secessionists in Mindanao, where he was chief of the then Regional Air Command.
"The F-5s saw big combat operations. They carried all kinds of armaments, except napalm bombs. They carried more weapons like 20-mm cannons," Okol said.
"I feel sad that this major fleet is retired but [economy-wise], it is a correct move because I learned that the imported parts are very difficult to obtain now," he said.
They defended Cory
It was an F-5 piloted by Maj. Danilo Atienza that on Dec. 1, 1989, defended the administration of then President Corazon Aquino against a coup attempt, by bombing and strafing a Sikorsky helicopter, seven T-28s and a fuel depot in Sangley Point to deprive rebel soldiers of air power.
Atienza died in the assault.
The F-5s, too, turned the tide of battle against Abu Sayyaf bandits in 2001.
Brig. Gen. Manuel Natividad, who made the final flight as chief of the Air Defense Wing, said the decommissioning rites for the F-5s-attended by other retired pilots-also symbolized uncertainty for Basa Air Base and the PAF in general.
Fightertown without fighters
Without the F-5s, Natividad said, "Fightertown" – the label airmen had given the base – was now without its mighty wings.
"Comparatively, we are really down as far as air defense is concerned," Natividad said.
The air strength and role of Fightertown in external defense would have to be addressed, he said.
"If not, [it] will affect the air force significantly," he said.
Natividad also expressed concern over the transfer of skills and knowledge from one generation of pilots to another.
He said he was envious of other Southeast Asian countries that were not cutting defense spending and were maintaining air defense superiority amid the economic crisis.
Decision makers, he said, should realize the "need to keep a fighter force."
His voice cracked as he talked of the F-5s: "From Basa it first flew. To Basa it flew last."
End of an era
The meaning of the occasion was not lost on Lt. Gen. Jose Reyes, PAF commander.
"We have just witnessed the end of an era in the Air Force," he said, adding this was "met with a heavy heart at Fightertown."
The arrival of the F-5s ended the bi-winged, fabric-covered, hand-cranked airplanes in the PAF.
From 1965 to 1998, the government received 37 F-5 jets from the United States.
The five S-211 Augusta, which the 5th Tactical Fighter Group operates, are a poor match to the F-5s, Natividad said.
Okol, 75, and his five fellow pilots [he identified them only as Maj. De Leon, Major Franco, Capt. Alegarbes, Capt. Andrews and Capt. Laquindanum] helped the PAF achieve mastery in flying F-5s.
Together with a 50-member maintenance crew, Okol's team trained as combat pilots and instructors at Williams Air Force Base in Texas in 1965.
Pining for F-5
Natividad said the lifespan of an F-5 was 15 years but the PAF was able to lengthen it by diligent maintenance and repair.
The 36 fighter planes needed to replace the F-5s cost $35 million (P1.96 billion) each, Reyes said.
Okol retired in 1982 and moved to Philippine Airlines where he worked until 1995. All those years, he said, he yearned to fly the F-5 again.
His son, Miguel Ernesto, a PAF captain, also flew the aircraft.
Evangelista, 39, said that although the F-5s were old, they flew fast and high during good weather.
His last flight was in May 2002. His wingman, the late Capt. Daniel Policarpio, lost control of the machine and crashed into a school in Mabalacat, Pampanga, while on a training maneuver in the Balikatan exercises.
All the 10 F-5s at that time had since been grounded.
'Older than me'
Their gray paint fading and chipping off, nine F-5s stood solemnly side by side at the air base. Tin foil covered their cockpit canopies, protecting them from scratches.
Save for an occasional visit from a mechanic, who would "cannibalize" them for parts to be used to keep other F-5s flying, these planes here had been left untouched since 2002.
"I have no orders what to do with these. We are just here to guard them," Lt. Elesio Asistol, maintenance officer, told the Inquirer.
Lack of funds and a shift from external to internal security have been cited as reasons for finally removing the F-5s from the PAF's inventory of air assets.
"Yes," Evangelista smiled sheepishly, "the plane is actually older [than me]."