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Philippine Air Force (PAF)


But the United States' paranoia over communist insurgencies - particularly in light of developments in China, Korea and Eastern Europe - would keep the Philippine Air Force fairly well equipped at the height of the Cold War. At one point, the Air Force had more P-51 Mustang fighter planes than it had pilots. In fact, the PAF would lead the way among air forces in the Southeast Asian region for nearly three decades.

The Air Force began its transition to the use of jet aircraft in 1954. That year, Brig. Gen. Pelagio Cruz went on an observation tour o US Air Force installations in the United States. During that trip, he proposed the modernization of the PAF to US Air Force officials, who promised to present the plan to the US Congress for aid appropriations. The proposed program was approved, the following year, Col. Godofredo Juliano (one of the war heroes from the 6th Pursuit Squadron), Major Pestana, Maj. Jose Rancudo and Capt. Jose Gil - flew in an initial batch of T-33 jet trainer planes from Japan. The gleaming jets first landed at Clark Air Base, as nearby Basa Air Base could only be reconfigured to accommodate the new aircraft with additional American funds.

Two years later, the PAF enhanced its firepower by acquiring several squadrons of Korean War-vintage F-86F Sabrejets which quickly became "combat-ready" after a few proficiency flights and joint aerial exercises with the US 13th Air Force at Clark Air Base.

The 1960s saw the PAF take major strides: activating an extensive radar system to monitor the air space over the archipelago and boosting its arsenal with a fleet of supersonic F-5A/B "Freedom Fighters" armed with AIM-9B missiles.

The quality of the hardware was matched by the superb flying skills of the Air Force pilots, as epitomized by the Blue Diamonds. Formed in 1953 by 1st Lt. Jose Gonzalez and other ace pilots from the Basa-based 6th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 5th Fighter Wing, the Blue Diamonds excelled in precision aerobatic flying.

Maj. Gen. Pedro Q. Molina, a hero of the Bataan resistance who became PAF Commander in 1958, described the Blue Diamonds as the team that "symbolizes the degree of professional competence, air discipline, teamwork and proficiency which are essential requirements of a potent and effective combat-ready air arm. The precision of the Filipino airman's capacity to adapt himself with the rapid change in modern aerial warfare."

Shifting from P-51s to F-86s to F-5s with consummate and deceptive ease, the Blue Diamonds were deemed Asia's answer to the renowned Thunderbirds of the US Air Force by the 1960s. At one point, the team consisted of an astonishing 16-plane formation with the same facility for turns, rolls, loops, "bomb bursts" and mid-air re-groupings as the conventional four-plane diamond formation. That particular team was led by Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) Angel Mapua, whose equal facility with words showed the quality and well-rounded training of Filipino airmen in those years.

Indeed, the Philippine Air Force then was probably the best in the region; the only question was whether the nation could truly claim the PAF as its own.

Its top-flight reputation made the PAF a welcome volunteer to a number of United Nations (UN) missions. In 1962, for instance, UN Secretary Dag Hammerskjold asked for support from the Philippine government in the form of an air tactical squadron to help neutralize airborne secessionists in the troubled Congo. Early in 1963, crack Filipino pilots flying Sabrejets, in tandem with Swedish and Iranian fighter units, ably secured the air space over the African rebel province - earning the UN Service Medal for every member of the "Limbas Squadron."

That same year, the PAF distinguished itself in a mercy mission to the remote town of Tjulik in Bali, Indonesia following the eruption of Mt. Gunung Agung. Air Force paramedics joined a team of doctors and nurses from the Department of Health in treating and vaccinating thousands of evacuees at a makeshift field hospital. Seven PAF C-47s ferried the team, along with medical supplies and relief goods, to Tjulik, earning the admiration and gratitude of the Indonesian government and people.

By the 1970s, the PAF had a full complement of bases and airfields, including landing strips in the archipelago's outermost fringes, including Sulu and the Kalayaan Islands.

The decline of the Huk movement and the suppression of the Kamlon-led Muslim uprising in the 1950s afforded the PAF - and the rest of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) - the opportunity to develop a true external defense orientation and to use international benchmarks as its guide for further modernization.

However, the basic issues of social inequity and uneven development raised by the dissidents remained largely unresolved despite the land reform initiative of President Diosdado Macapagal. This led to the rise of twin insurgencies - one led by the Maoist New People's Army (NPA), the other, by Muslim secessionists in Mindanao. This, plus the convenient presence at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay of US troops armed to the teeth for Vietnam War action, pulled the Philippine Air Force further inward.

In the mid-Sixties, the PAF activated civic action centers as a component of the fight against insurgency. These centers were set up to help civilian communities near Air Force facilities in running and benefiting from community development projects ranging from food production to adult literacy classes. In addition, all PAF tactical units - realizing that victory did not lie solely in the battlefield - took part in social amelioration projects in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the masses.

At the same time, the PAF's material acquisition increasingly took on a counter-insurgency bias. In 1969, the Air Force acquired a fleet of Vietnam War-vintage UH-1H(Huey) helicopters which would be instrumental in taking ground troops to and from mountain and jungle battlefields.

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