Flying Not So High

Brand new Bell 412EP helicopters for the Philippine Air Force (PAF). Ptoto courtesy Allan Firmeza.
30 June 2015

By Ramon Farolan

I would have wanted to use another title, “Flying high,” for this article but the truth is we are still some distance away from the days when the Philippine Air Force was one of the best among Southeast Asia’s air organizations. The photo in the newspaper, showing a PAF Nomad parked alongside a P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft of Japan during recent joint naval exercises carried out by the two countries, tells us how far we have lagged behind in the development of our air assets.

On Wednesday, the Philippine Air Force celebrates its 68th founding anniversary, marking its elevation to major service command status in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It is the youngest and also the smallest in the family of our defense forces. Once its potential is fully realized, it will become the spearhead of our nation’s deterrence against foreign aggression.

This year, the Air Force expects delivery of additional medium-lift and surveillance aircraft along with a number of combat utility helicopters that will boost internal security requirements. Unfortunately, the programmed acquisition of 21 refurbished helicopters hit a snag with corruption charges flying all over the defense department, bringing the project to a complete halt. It is difficult to pinpoint who the real culprits are, although one cannot imagine Defense Secretary Voltz Gazmin getting involved in any shady deal. Sen. TG Guingona, chair of the Senate blue ribbon committee, has his work cut out. Until this is cleared up, it is likely that acquisitions of defense equipment may be subjected to microscopic scrutiny by government watchdogs. This translates into further delays over matters of great urgency.

By the end of the year, two F-50 lead-in fighter jets acquired from South Korea are due to arrive. PAF pilots and crew members are now in Seoul for training and will most likely fly the planes back home. A very modest beginning, but considering our other defense requirements, it represents a step forward.

Today, as part of its pre-anniversary activities, the Air Force will honor its retirees with a parade and review at Clark Air Base, Mabalacat City, Pampanga. Heading the long line of airmen who have served their country in the uniform of the PAF is Lt. Gen. William K. Hotchkiss III,its former commanding general and currently director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).

Willy Hotchkiss has done a yeoman’s job in getting Philippine aviation back to a position of respectability in the eyes of international aviation organizations.

Just to refresh our memories.

Seven years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States downgraded the Philippines from Category 1 to Category 2, after determining that the country “does not comply with the international safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization.” This meant there would be no increase allowed in the number of flights to the United States and there would also be no expansion of existing air routes. The actions of the FAA were also imposed on Philippine air carriers by the European Union.

In March 2013, less than a year after Hotchkiss was appointed director general of the CAAP, the Philippines, specifically Philippine Airlines (PAL), was put back to Category 1 status and removed from the blacklist.

Last week, the EU lifted the ban on all Philippine air carriers registered with the CAAP, giving them permission to operate in European air space. EU ChargĂ© d’Affaires Lubomir Frebort announced: “It was the first time all airlines registered in one country were removed from the ban. In other countries, a couple of airlines are removed but the majority of others remain on the blacklist.”

A word about Willy Hotchkiss.

Willy is the grandson of William Hotchkiss, an American public school teacher from New York. Looking for adventure, Hotchkiss took a boat trip to the Philippines at the turn of the century, fell in love with a Surigao lass named Hermenegilda Azarcon, and stayed on. Willy graduated from the PAF Flying School Class of 1964, and served as commanding general of the PAF in 1997, when the Air Force celebrated its golden anniversary. With his name, his blue eyes and light complexion, one could easily mistake him for an American, but his heart is completely Filipino.

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