5th Tactical Fighter Group
5th Fighter Wing
The 5th Tactical Fighter Group is the Philippine Air Force's only dedicated, all-fighter air defense unit. It is assigned to the PAF's Air Defense Wing. It traces its lineage to the creation of the 5th Fighter Group and the establishment of Base Air Base, the home of the PAF's fighter units.
After then end of the Second World War and the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation by the United States, the US government turned over Floridablanca Field, a US Army Air Force installation dating back before the beginning of the conflict, to the Philippines. On 22 August 1947, 3 trucks ferried in the 2nd Tactical Fighter Squadron led by Capt Felix T Pestana to lay the groundwork for a fighter base.
On 9 September 1947, the Headquarters Composite Group, with a subordinate unit known as the Floridablanca Base Service Detachment, was organized to continue the pioneering venture. In spite of the lack of materials and equipment, they proceeded with the construction of more office buildings, barracks, and vital installations. On 20 April 1948, Floridablanca Airfield was renamed Basa Air Base after Lieutenant Cesar Basa, a Filipino fighter pilot who had been killed during a dogfight against invading Japanese forces in December 1941.
The 6th and 7th Fighter squadrons were activated on 24 October 1947 and were both equipped with F-51D Mustang aircaft. Commanded by then Major Benito Ebuen, what had become known as the 5th Fighter Group originally had 9 L-5s, one C-47 and 18 F-51 aircraft. By 1950, 50 more F-51s, and 22 T-6s were added, the latter to bolster the training of fighter pilots. Starting in 1947 and ending in 1955, these 2 squadrons extensively conducted a pacification campaign against Huk rebels in Central Luzon and the forces of Kamlon in Southern Mindanao. During combat, small bombs and napalm and .50 cal machine guns mounted on the planes were typically used to strafe rebel positions.
The increasing awareness of the important role of air defense and the gradual expansion of this fighter base led to the activation of other support units. These included the Basic Flying School Squadron and the Advance Flying School Squadron, which were later transferred to Fernando Air Base.
To complete the tactical set-up of 3 fighter squadrons, the 8th Fighter Squadron was activated on 1 August 1951, following the redesignation of Headquarters, 5th Fighter Group as Headquarters, Basa Air Base on 15 January 1949. Later, Headquarters Basa Air Base was redesignated as the Headquarters 5th Fighter Wing, Philippine Air Force, pursuant to General Orders No. 381, General Headquarters, Armed Forces of the Philippines, dated 30 September 1952, and Headquarters, Philippine Air Force, dated 7 October 1952. Under the reorganized wing set-up, the position of the Base Commander was eventually changed to Wing Commander.
In early 1953 permission was obtained to form an aerobatic squadron. Originally composed of 4 pilots from the 6th Fighter Squadron, the unit wowed crowds with performances during a Philippine air show in November 1953. In 1954 the squadron was officially named the Blue Diamonds, in reference to the blue skies in which the PAF operates, and to the tight flying diamond formation the 4 plane unit typically executed during routines. The team added a fifth plane by the end of 1954. The unit was considered a sub-squadron of the 6th Fighter Squadron, and their planes bore the markings of the latter.
The 5th Fighter Wing ushered in the jet age for the PAF when it traded in its propeller-driven F-51s for T-33s jet trainer aircraft and the Korean war-tested F-86F Sabre jet fighters in 1957. Three years later, the operational capability of the 5th Fighter Wing was boosted again when the PAF further acquired 18 F-86D all-weather interceptors.
By 14 December 1962, the 5th Fighter Wing formed the 9th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Limbas, as the PAF contingent deployed as part of United Nations operations in the Congo. Philippine fighter pilots within the 5th Fighter Squadron volunteered for the assignment, and the 9th Squadron won the UN Service medal for their actions in Africa. The unit was subsequently inactivated.
The PAF finally entered into the supersonic jet age when the 5th Fighter Wing acquired F-5A and F-5B Freedom Fighters. The F-5 aircraft were superior to the previous F-86s and capable of delivering heavy bombs, rockets, and gunfire on ground targets. As a result the 5th Fighter Wing became the spearhead of defense, mainly responsible for air reconnaissance, interdiction and ground support.
In 1971 another aerobatics team, the Red Aces, came into being. The team's romance with the awestruck audience, however, was short-lived. Due to economic setbacks and the heavy losses in the Mindanao campaign, the Red Aces Team was forced to retire in 1974. During this time, the government was already experiencing the heavy economic crunch brought about by the increase in oil prices and inflation.
The PAF experienced a minor rebound in 1978 when it received 25 F-8H Crusader fighters. Pilots and crew of the 5th Fighter Wing quickly realized that the planes were too expensive and difficult to maintain owing to their age and complexity. Moreover, a declining military budget and worsening problems with internal security led the Philippine government to view dedicated air-to-air fighters as a waste of funds. The planes were permanently grounded in 1988 and kept in storage at Basa AB. The fleet of F-8Hs were decommissioned in 1988, ostensibly because of high maintenance costs. At the same time the 7th Tactical Fighter Squadron had become temporarily unmanned. This was because of a difficulty in funding purchases of spare parts and otherwise maintaining the F-5 fleet, and by the end of the 1980s, only a handful of F-5 jets were left on operational status.
During the December 1989 coup attempt, Basa AB remained in the hands of pro-government forces. On the first day of fighting (December 1), a squadron of F-5A's from the 5th Fighter Wing took off from Basa and strafed the rebel-held Sangley Point AB, destroying several planes and seriously damaging the coup plotters' air capabilities. The leader of the F-5 squadron, Col. Danilo Atienza, crashed during the attack and was killed, and afterwards Sangley Point AB was renamed in his honor. The following day, F-5A's took off from Basa AB and struck rebel ground troops and vehicles at Camp Aguinaldo. The coup attempt dissolved on the third day.
The massive 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo caused considerable damage to Basa AB, burying most of the facility in ash. Many of the grounded F-8H's were damaged, and the final decision was quickly made to move them to Clark Air Base for open-air storage and to sell the whole fleet for scrap. After the facility was returned to operational status, the F-5's continued to operate there.
By 1994, with the acquisition of the S-211 jet trainers, the 7th Tactical Fighter Squadron was manned again and reorganized. The unit was equipped with an armed combat capable version of the S-211, called the AS-211 and locally referred to was the Warrior.
On 2 May 2002 an F-5 crashed during the annual Balikatan exercises with the United States and the decision was made to ground the entire fleet for safety and cost reasons. A further decision was made to permanently retire the fleet in 2005. The aircraft were believed to be being stored at either Basa AB or Clark AB. With the retirement of the F-5 fleet, the 6th Tactical Fighter Squadron was inactivated, leaving only the 7th Tactical Fighter Squadron in operation. The Wing had also been redesignated as the 5th Tactical Fighter Group, reflecting the continuing reduction in asssets. The Philippine Air Force's Air Defense Command itself had been redesignated as the Air Defense Wing.
The 5th Tactical Fighter Group continued to operate AS-211s, performing the air defense mission of the PAF, and often joining in annual exercises with the United States military such as Balikatan and local exercises such as Talon Vision. Under the Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Program the Philippine Air Force was expected to acquire dedicated fighter aircraft and be able to adequately perform the air defense mission by 2012. As of 2009 no contracts had been award for any such aircraft and PAF officials publicly stated their doubts about reaching the goal.
A number of projects to upgrade the AS-211 and otherwise integrate it into operations were initiated following the retirement of the F-5 fleet. Project Falcon Fire followed soon after the evaluation of the optical sights on the AS-211, which had started in October 2005 as Project Falcon. Falcon Fire was an interoperability exercise at Northern Luzon Command (NOLCOM) with the other tactical air assets of the PAF and the students from the Army. Here ground control procedures in Close Air Support, as well Joint Air Attack tactics, were synchronized. With speed, a stealthy signature, and proven accuracy, the AS-211 was seen as an employable asset for future tactical air operations. The exercise was also been a valuable training experience for the fighter pilots who learned immensely about the conduct of Close Air Support. Project Sea Falcon was another training exercise intented to improve one of 5th Tactical Fighter Group's core competencies, which was maritime air patrol and over the sea interceptions. The plan was to work with Western Command (WESCOM) to intergrate with ground and naval units in their AOR.
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