Friends of mine will know by now that I am an aficionado of anything aeronautical. Having worked at three airports, as well as in a defence company which sold fighter jets, I find an inherent beauty in machines that appear to defy the laws of gravity while displaying an artistry that combines practicality with purity of design.
And so almost every time I have flown into Manila I have looked out of the taxicab window with longing as the driver meandered round the construction work that seems to be a permanent feature of the Villamor Air Base, slap bang next to Terminal 3.
Designated Nichols Air Base after Philippine independence, Villamor (named after WWII Filipino pilot Col. Jesus A. Villamor) was the Philippine Air Force’s first headquarters when it became independent of the Philippine Army on July 1, 1947. It was built in the 1930s by the United States during the so-called Philippine Commonwealth period and in 1941 was used as a USAAF airfield in the South West Pacific Theatre. In 1997 the base was reduced to make way for the construction of NAIA Terminal 3.
The Air Base is still the official home of the PAF and now shares runways with the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Nowadays it is mainly used as a PAF transport/helicopter airbase, though it is also the military installation that the Philippine president uses when departing for foreign or domestic trips, though foreign departures are more usually done at the NAIA.
It’s the airbase museum, of course, that is what has attracted me most. I’ve visited other air museums, not least in the UK and Saudi Arabia; so what delights would this Philippine museum have, I wondered…
Firstly, don’t believe what Lonely Planet’s web site tells you. It is not open from 8am till 5pm; it is only open in the mornings. The site is right, however, about the P20 entrance fee – but that’s assuming you can find anyone to actually accept your money. Other web reports confirm I was not the only person to find the place totally deserted, and if I hadn’t stopped someone to ask where I could pay, I could have gone round the whole museum and airpark behind it without being stopped by anyone. (Eventually a flunky appeared, but had to radio through to someone else to find out where the entrance tickets were kept, and how much to charge!) And as you can walk right through from the entrance of the museum into the airbase itself, this doesn’t say much about their level of security!
Across the wall facing the entrance is a mural depicting everything that the PAF has as part of its remit…
And immediately in front of it, you are greeted by 'the Shark of Zambales' – a P-51D Mustang. The Philippines used this plane and many other P-51Ds against the Japanese during WWII. The Mustang is seen by many as one of the most iconic American fighter aircraft in WWII; and after the war, the Philippines were able to get their hands on 103 units.
Strung up above it is a Cali Super Pinto – named after a Philippine eagle. This was a jet trainer with a two-place tandem seating layout.
Naturally there are plenty of bits and pieces of memorabilia – such as this souvenir of the handover of Clark Air Base from the US military. Clark was once the oldest and largest overseas base they had – 130,000 acres, of which 9,155 were used by the US. It employed 20,000 US military personnel and another 15,000 Filipinos. Newspaper reports tell of how within an hour of the solemn handover ceremony, dozens of looters were reported climbing over fences around a base housing complex and ripping out electric cables. Other military-issued items, from boxes of field rations to kitchen sinks, were already on sale in nearby black market shops!
There is also a number of old black and white photos strung up somewhat haphazardly around the galleries … such as this C123
… and pictures of men in action. But there appears little rhyme or reason as to what is shown where, and the visitor is left to work out any meaningful messages for himself.
Likewise, if like me you are woefully ignorant about the history of the Philippines, I feel it is simply not enough to be shown a photograph of General MacArthur during the Leyte landing without any explanation of what Leyte was all about. This is surely a museum designed purely for Filipinos with little regard as to who else might be tempted through the (unmanned) entrance!
It is only later that I can look up Wikipedia and learn that “the Battle of Leyte in the Pacific campaign of World War II was the amphibious invasion of the Gulf of Leyte in the Philippines by American forces and Filipino guerrillas under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who fought against the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippines led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita from 17 October - 26 December 1944. The operation code named King Two launched the Philippines campaign of 1944–45 for the recapture and liberation of the entire Philippine Archipelago and to end almost three years of Japanese occupation.”
Worse still is the condition of some of the explanatory notices – both inside and out. Here for instance, the name of the aircraft on display has totally faded away – presumably from the effects of sunlight; so if you don’t recognise the plane as being a Mustang, that is simply your hard luck!
Panels for displaying old photographs are also poorly maintained; and many old pix have either fallen off their mounts, or perhaps been 'borrowed' by souvenir hunters!
As you would expect there is a 'rogues gallery' of past and present commanding generals of the PAF, all looking remarkably similar. Perhaps serving members of the PAF find this interesting, but I’m afraid it totally goes over the head of your favourite blogger!
There are also heraldic flags from 1947-2007 on display (I guess once the museum was established in 2007 they reckoned that was their job done… or perhaps there have been no more flags produced since then?)
And of course there are collections of badges too.
This display of model aircraft took me right back to my childhood when I used to get an “Airfix” model for a birthday present and then spend half the day getting covered in plastic glue while trying to work out the intricate instructions for assembly!
Although this is an aircraft museum, there is actually a car on display – viz, this Dodge WC-57 Command Car. This is a 1943 standard Dodge, which had a stretched middle section to carry more passengers. So what, I hear you ask? Well, the blurb tells us that this was remodelled by SARAO (a local jeepney company) in the 1970s and used by President Marcos during military parades and ceremonies of the PAF. Gosh! Wow!
But enough of the baubles. Surely what everyone comes for is the motley collection of vintage aircraft that are parked outside. At first glance it appears that the majority are left-overs from America’s disastrous war in Vietnam. Although most of the aircraft are labelled with Philippine air force markings, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they belonged to the USAAF and then had PAF markings painted onto them. But maybe that doesn’t actually matter. Let’s enjoy them for what they are, shall we?
Here, for instance, is a T-6 Texan basic trainer. Acquired in 1948 the T-6 served in the basic school squadron in Floridablanca Air Base (now Basa Air Base) as an advanced flying trainer. Used until 1958, it was then replaced by the T28.
And here is the T-28 Trojan. In 1960, 15 of these planes were delivered to the 100th training wing. It was commonly known as ToraTora because it resembled the Japanese Zero Fighter of WWII!
This elegant beast is a C-47 transporter. It was acquired in 1946 and converted to a fighter in 1973 with machineguns electronically operated and controlled by the pilot. It was also used by Weather Reconnaissance Squadron for rain making and by 303rd Aerial Recon Squadron for aerial surveillance.
This lovely plane is a YS-11A. It was assigned to the 700th Special Mission Wing, mainly for use by the President and his family between 1971-1993.
And who cannot possibly love this beautiful Grumman SA-16A Albatross – the 'sexiest plane' in the entire collection, I think!
This is an F-86D - all weather jet interceptor which could fly at night or during bad weather and engage the enemy with the use of radar. It was acquired in 1960 but phased out only eight years later in 1968. One wonders if the US saw the Philippines as a good dumping ground for its surplus worn out aircraft!
This needle nosed F-5A jet was popularly known as the Freedom Fighter. (I read somewhere that F5 Tiger fighter jets, which were used in Vietnam, were used as fake MIGs in the Top Gun movie!) It arrived in August 1965 and was assigned to 5th Fighter Wing, Basa Air Base, Pampanga. It was also used by the Blue Diamonds team for their aerial displays. The blurb tells us that “today it serves as the front line fighter of the PAF in securing the nation's air space against hostile intruders”! Golly, the Chinese must be quaking in their boots!
Opposite from the F5 is an F-86F – known as the ‘Magnificent Machine’, or ‘Sportscar of the Sky’ and also ‘MIG-Killer’. During the Korean War it had a kill ratio of 15:1 over the MIG-15. This was the PAF's first jet fighter, arriving in August 1957. It was also used by the Blue Diamond aerial display team from 1957-64 and was eventually phased out in 1979.
The acquisition of a Lockheed T-33 from the US in 1955 ushered the PAF into the jet age. Popularly known as the T-Bird, it was the world's most widely used jet-trainer.
Well, I could go on and on (yes, really I could!) but you get the idea by now. There are around 20 aircraft on display, some in a better state of repair than others.
Although not a patch on the aircraft museums I mentioned earlier on, it is still a good way to spend an hour – especially if you have time to kill while waiting for your flight out of Manila.
Oh, and when I finally walked out of the main entrance of the airbase, no one bothered even asking me where I had been or who I was. I must obviously look like a thoroughly trustworthy chap!