Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

LadyPilots

Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

IN MY line of work, I get to edit a wide range of books, from institutional histories and biographies to annual reports and technical manuals. They’re all important to my clients, of course, and I accord them all the same seriousness and diligence they should expect from a professional editor.

But now and then a project comes along that’s not only significant but truly interesting, and one of them was the book I recently edited for Philippine Airlines—Stories from the Heart: Buong Pusong Alaga (PAL, 2017)—that the company launched to celebrate its 76th anniversary. The book is a collection of vignettes about PAL’s people, from the ground crews to the pilots and flight attendants to the president and CEO himself, and tells all kinds of stories from delivering babies in mid-flight to having the Pope as a passenger.

But some of the stories I found most fascinating had to do with PAL’s women—especially those who keep the planes up in the air. As a belated salute to National Women’s Month, let me share a few of those stories:

Since Capt. Aimee Carandang-Gloria became the first female to take the helm of a PAL plane in 1993, the number of lady pilots in the airline has continued to grow in recent years—from 20 in late 2012 to 54 (39 from PAL and 15 from PAL Express) in 2016.

“Yes, we’re still a minority, but a growing one. We just recently added a provision in our Operations Manual regarding female pilots. It’s a giant step for us,” says A320 pilot Capt. Emi Inciong-Ragasa.

A lady pilot on the flight deck is not something passengers see every day. But when they do, a magical moment always happens, attended by much curiosity and awe. “I remember a few times when some parents, upon seeing me, would exclaim, ‘Look, she’s a lady pilot!’ and would ask if I could have my picture taken with their daughter,” says A320 pilot Kelloggs Tioseco.

Aside from the occasional picture-taking on the side, these ladies get no special treatment—and they don’t expect it. They go through the same training, read the same manuals, and soar and slog through the same skies as the men.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. I remember being in awe of this big machine that graced the blue skies,” says Capt. Ragasa. Emi comes from a family of pilots. Her husband is B777 First Officer Terrence Ragasa, and her father-in-law is former Air Force General Ramon Ragasa.

Having been with PAL for 11 years, she aspires to be a hands-on mother while enjoying her flying career. She doesn’t mind being on long layovers but she makes sure that she regularly sees her two-year old son. “I have only one chance to raise my son well. I arrange my schedule to spend more time with him,” she says.

AVP for Pilot Affairs and A320 pilot Lilybeth Tan Ng says that taking red-eye flights were much easier to handle than waking up in the wee hours of the morning to attend to her motherly duties. “Flying a plane is easier than being a mother. Flying comes with a manual while motherhood doesn’t. So you had to learn by instinct as the answers were not always easy to find.”

A330 pilot Cherryl Flores crossed over from military to commercial flying. She had been a registered nurse in a military hospital in Zamboanga City before joining the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an instructor pilot for four years. Cherryl was a bemedaled UH-IH helicopter combat utility pilot in the PAF. She was also the first and only female PAF pilot to be certified as Pilot-in-Command of UH-IH in Night Vision Goggles by the US Air Force.

Cherryl’s husband, a ship crew member, gave up his job to take care of their first-born. “When I was pregnant with my first-born, we decided that one of us had to stop working to attend to our child. My husband selflessly gave way to me so I could chase my dream of flying planes.”

That same tenacity can be found in the seven female mechanics checking cables and wirings, overhauling systems, and replacing parts among the platoons of men working at PAL Express’ maintenance and engineering.

Avionics mechanic Maridel David wanted to work in an airline since her youth. “In Bicol, whenever we saw a helicopter flying overhead, we ran and followed it as far as we could,” she recalls. When she entered college, she chose to study BS Aviation Electronics Technology at the Philippine State College of Aeronautics.

LadyMechs

Before becoming an avionics or aircraft mechanic, one has to undergo a one-year Maintenance Training Program (MTP), which comprises six months of classroom training and six months’ field exposure. In school, the proportion of male to female students has always been high. “There have always been very few females in aviation and I find it a privilege to become one of them,” says another avionics mechanic, Mercedes Sabordo.

“My motto in life has always been, if they can do it, I can do it. We’re all equal when it comes to the job, because this is what I studied for. So whatever they can do, I can do as well,” says Elaine Saldivar, an aircraft engineer in PALEx for two years now.

More than the physical tasks, the job of an aircraft and avionics mechanic requires critical decision-making that can only be learned through time and experience.

“You have to be really smart if you enter the field of aviation. You have to be ready to go head to head with the men if you want to learn. It’s a long process of continuous learning, like getting a doctorate so you can really be an expert at what you do,” attests Engr. Rhona Abrera, an avionics mechanic. Rhona herself has overhauled and then rebuilt an airplane. From one task card to another, she finished the job after several attempts. “It’s most fulfilling when you can troubleshoot the problem right away. It’s ‘mission accomplished’ when you can watch the plane fly.”

Maridel adds that she treats a plane like her “baby” and would always talk to them. “At morning dispatch, I talk to the plane and say, ‘Baby, safe flight,” she quips.

So, go girls, and many thanks and congratulations to PAL’s Pinky Balagtas and Paeng Evangelista for piloting this project and for letting me use these excerpts!

 

 

Penman No. 174: What Women Remember

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Penman for Monday, 16 November 2015

 

 

I WAS very pleased and much relieved—and, as one of the convenors—immensely proud for the Philippines to have successfully hosted this year’s conference of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) late last month in Manila.

Among the highlights of the conference was a keynote talk given on the last day by none other than one of our foremost fictionists and critics, Dr. Cristina “Jing” Pantoja-Hidalgo, now the Director of UST’s Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, who spoke on a subject even her fellow Filipino writers like me know very little about or pay only minor attention to—the journals, memoirs, and autobiographies of Filipino women. I found her lecture (titled “The Subversive Memory: Women Tell What Happened”) so informative that I asked her permission to excerpt parts of it to share with my readers, so here:

Several generations are represented in the seven women who are the subject of my new book, which I called To Remember to Remember…. t today is referred to as multi- er, is available at the UST Publshing Housee so informative that I asked her permission to exce

The oldest, Paz Policarpio-Mendez, was born in a small town in the province of Nueva Ecija in 1903, and was among the first children to enter the American public school system, and one of the first women to go all the way to college in UP. But, to get there and to stay there, she had to fight her father – who did not hesitate to beat her when he objected to her behavior or her opinions. Always painfully aware of her father’s preference for his sons, she strove to win honors in school, to merit his approval. But he never gave it. Later, she married a journalist who eventually became a diplomat, and finally the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. But Paz went right on studying and teaching, while raising a family, and attending to the duties of a diplomat’s lady.

The youngest, Rica Bolipata-Santos, was born in Manila, and educated entirely in Catholic schools, until she decided to get a PhD in Creative Writing in UP. She is sister to the three famous Bolipata brothers, musical child prodigies. This doomed her to play second fiddle to them, to grow up feeling unimportant, untalented, even ugly. Kept back from developing her own musical talent (she could sing!), not deliberately or maliciously, but through neglect, she found her voice in writing and in teaching. Now she is also an academic administrator. But the biggest trial in her life has been her special child, and her memoir is the story of her struggle to cope with anger, sorrow, sometimes despair.

In between there is Solita Camara-Besa, a woman who describes herself as a battered child – this abuse by her father did not let up even after she was married, until her husband, demanded that she choose between himself and her parents. For all this, she became one of the country’s first women doctors—though again, she experienced appalling gender discrimination in the UP College of Medicine, of all places—and was part of the heroic little band of UP faculty members who kept UP and its teaching hospital, the Philippine General Hospital – running throughout World War II.

The remaining four writers who are part of the book took for granted their right to an education and to careers of their own. But they had their own battles to fight. For Gilda Cordero-Fernando (b. 1930), maker of baby bags, keeper of antique shop, fashion designer, publisher, and one of the country’s finest writers of fiction and nonfiction, the battle was against her mother and the convent school education that she felt trapped in; against her husband who resented her writing, her writer friends, and the many worlds that her numerous gifts opened up to her, but kept a mistress for most of their life together; and against conventional ideas about what constitutes accomplishment and success.

For the prize-winning poet and academic, Merlie Alunan (b. 1943), it was the battle to hold it all together when she became a single parent, seeing herself and her children through school, teaching in college, holding workshops for struggling young writers, and picking up poetry awards along the way.

Jennifer Ortuoste (b. 1968) trained as an apprentice racehorse jockey, married a professional jockey and raised her babies in the Santa Ana Racetrack. Hers is the story of a battered wife; and the story of the collapse of her marriage is told against the backdrop of the demise of the racetrack that she loved. When her marriage fell apart, she picked herself up, became a journalist, got an M.A., and is now writing prizewinning fiction and nonfiction.

Criselda Yabes (b. 1964) chose a profession, which until the generation before hers was not considered quite respectable for women—journalism. The most independent, unconventional and alienated of the seven, her story is focused on 16 months of her life, the period after she had been abandoned by her lover of seven years. And, to keep a hold on sanity, she went to Europe, first on a scholarship, then as a war correspondent in different countries, until, in a borrowed apartment in Athens, she began to write about the year she had just lived through, and so found her way home.

In life, these women broke from the mold. They would not settle for what was expected of and from them as women. They wanted different things. In writing their memoirs, they, again, transgressed. For in the Philippines, family matters are kept private, particularly matters which will make the family lose face; one’s personal memoirs inevitably include other members of the family. They may not have been flaming radicals, marching down streets, waving banners and chanting slogans, or being hauled off to jail, being tortured and even killed, as some of their sisters were. But, in their own quiet way, they were rebels….

I read the memoirs of the three older writers as variations on a theme, the theme being the education of the modern Filipino woman, and her transformation, from sheltered schoolgirl into formidable, professional woman without relinquishing the role of wife and mother. I do not claim for this narrative that it applies to all modern Filipino women, nor even all modern Filipino women of the middle class (to which all three belong). But I do believe that it is a pattern that many Filipinas aspire to, and can therefore identify with. And I suggest that in telling their own life stories, these writers are creating a different myth, to replace the older narratives about the Filipina and her role in society….

These are the narratives that we, the next generation of Filipino women writers inherited. Most of our mothers had college degrees and careers. After they married, those who lived in extended families, or could afford reliable yayas went on working, and became quite expert at juggling their several roles, what today is referred to as multitasking, and they trained their daughters to do the same.

The memoirs of the younger writers are, in a sense, their response to these narratives. I take them as signposts. They mark the latest paths taken by Filipinas and what they reveal is the distance they have travelled, but not a change of direction. Those pioneers, some of them already so bold for their time, but working in relative obscurity, had pointed the way….

What these women have done is take the personal narrative—either the full-length autobiography or the memoir—and use it to open doors previously kept firmly locked, and to explore their own thoughts and feelings about the monsters lurking in its shadowy corners. This they have done in language both precise and elegant. Thus have they contributed to the story of their country, and the place in it of Filipino women.

(Jing Hidalgo’s new book, To Remember to Remember, is available at the UST Publishing House for P400.)