February 13, 2019

Fernando Air Base and the 1989 Coup Attempt vs Cory Aquino’s Government

A T-28 Trojan aircraft at the gate of Fernando Air Base.
A T-28 Trojan aircraft at the gate of Fernando Air Base.
Although Corazon Aquino was swept to power by the hugely popular “People Power Revolution” in 1986, her presidency – which lasted until 1992 – was not without dissent, especially from certain sectors within the armed forces. These sectors ultimately boiled down to two: supporters of the deposed former President Ferdinand E. Marcos and – ironically because they were instrumental in the ascension of Aquino to the Presidency – the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM)1.

As early as 1986, there were already plots to overthrow Aquino’s government from within the armed forces, subsequently discovered and eventually quashed. There were six such plots in total from 1986 to 1987. Of these, however, only one was ever put into action, the August 1987 coup which left a total of 53 people dead2.

The most serious threat to Aquino’s government was executed by the RAM in what history remembers as the “Christmas Coup,” staged beginning 1 December 1989 and ended on the 9th of the same month. Rebellious soldiers led by Colonel Gregorio Honasan, General Edgardo Abenina and retired General Jose Ma. Zumel managed to take hold of Fort Bonifacio, parts of Camp Aguinaldo and Philippine Air Force (PAF) bases at Villamor, Sangley Point and Mactan in Cebu3.

It was from these bases that planes were launched with orders to attack Malacañang Palace. Although forces loyal to the Aquino administration quickly fought back to regain control, the crisis escalated to such an extent that Aquino herself had to seek “United States military assistance at the behest of her military commanders4.”

While action was fought mostly in Metro Manila, because the coup attempt was essentially divisive among soldiers, the situation was naturally tense elsewhere in the country but particularly so in places where there were military installations. For the city of Lipa in the Province of Batangas, because Air Force facilities in Villamor, Sangley and Mactan were already in rebel soldiers’ hands, things were decidedly awkward inside Fernando Air Base (FAB).

As early as the 30th of November, then PAF Commanding General Jose de Leon, acting on intelligence reports regarding the sabotage of an Air Force repeater station located in Tagaytay City5, declared red alert6 in all PAF units around the Philippines. These included, of course, FAB. Intelligence reports were also beginning to circulate in military circles about a coup being staged at dawn the following day, the 1st of December. Colonel Felipe Abaño Jr., Commander of the 100th Training Wing inside FAB, “ordered that base security be increased7.”



This move was particularly prudent in view of the fact that early in the morning of the following day, Marines from nearby Fort Bonifacio had smashed their way through the gates of Villamor Air Base and gained control within an hour8.

At FAB, Abaño faced a tricky situation because Colonel Hector Tarrazona, Director for Operations of the 100th Training Wing, had called him up after momentarily stepping out of a meeting with some junior pilots to bring to his attention that some of these pilots had “wanted to fly SF-260 aircraft9 and conduct persuasion flights10 over Manila in support of the coup11.

An SF-260 Marchetti trainer, which pilots wanted to fly in support of rebels in 1989.
This meeting was held at 8:30 in the morning of 1 December. Apart from Tarrazona, present in the meeting were 26 junior pilots, the Wing Chaplain, the Medical Officer, the Legal Officer, members of the Wing Staff and other junior officers. Abaño “instructed Colonel Tarranza to dissuade the officers from carrying out their plan and, instead, follow the chain of command12.

While Tarrazona and the pilots were meeting, Abaño had ordered the maintenance officer of the 443rd Field Depot and Maintenance Squadron “to place all the aircraft inside the hangar and remove from the planes all batteries and parts needed to make them operational, keep the planes in a secured place and otherwise prevent the planes at all costs from flying13.”

Fortuitously, after an hour and a half of candid discussions during which five of the junior officers, it was noted, were vocally sympathetic to the coup plotters, the group decided to remain loyal to the government. Tarranza had promised all confidentiality, and while only five of the junior officers were vocal, he also noted that “if we go by head count, most of the pilots were sympathetic to [the] rebels.” After deciding to stay on the side of the government, the same five vocal officers “assisted in the strengthening of the defenses of the base14.”

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Notes and references:
1Presidency of Corazon Aquino,” Wikipedia.
2 Presidency of Corazon Aquino, ibid.
31989 Philippine Coup Attempt,” Wikipedia.
4 1989 Philippine Coup Attempt, ibid.
5 A radio repeater repeats and retransmits two-way signals so that these can travel longer distances. “Radio Repeater,” Wikipedia.
6 Red alert pertains to the highest state of alertness or readiness of a military unit for action. “Alert state,” Wikipedia.
71990 Report of the Fact Finding Commission on the 1989 Philippine Coup Attempt,” p. 290, published by the Fact Finding Commission in 1990, online at the Internet Archive.
8 Fact Finding Commission, op. cit. p. 291.
9 The SF-260 popularly known in Lipa as “Marchetti” after its manufacturer was an “Italian light aircraft which has been commonly marketed as a military trainer and aerobatics aircraft.” “SIAI-Marchetti SF.260,” Wikipedia.
10 From context, a persuasion flight appears to be PAF slang meaning to fly an aircraft with purposes of intimidation but not really for combat purposes. “Military launches ‘persuasion flights’ vs. Ampatuan supporters,” by Andreo C. Calonzo, published 2009, online at GMA News.
11 Fact Finding Commission, op. cit. p. 231.
12 Fact Finding Commission, op. cit. p. 269
13 Fact Finding Commission, op. cit. p. 270.
14 Fact Finding Commission, op cit. ibid.

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