Acts of heroism in the perseverance of Philippine Democracy come in many ways within the ranks of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. One woman's uncommon gallantry however, stands out among the best.
In the Philippines, she was the first,“the Medal of Valor, awarded for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty is awarded to First Lieutenant Mary Grace Pango Baloyo, Philippine Air Force “ . . . says the citation.
To a soldier, next to giving his life for his country and people, there is no greater honor bestowed upon him or her when the highest award for heroism is given.
During the award ceremonies, the celebration is always unique and rare. But this day’s event will have a different scene. When the medal was presented, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo hung the medal around Mr. Romeo Baloyo’s neck. For the honoree, his daughter, Mary Grace herself was no where to be found.
On March 26, 2001 1LT. Mary Grace Baloyo was sitting in her front office. The cockpit of the venerable OV-10 Bronco close air support aircraft. Together with her copilot, Air Force Captain Ben Nasayao , they were part of the a 3 Bronco plane formation flying over Pampanga Province returning to base after a proficiency checkride over Crow Valley gunnery range. The planes laden with inert bombs used for training was part of the Philippine Air Force 15th Strike Wing based in Atienza Air Base in Sangley Point, Cavite Province.
Bound for home, Lt. Baloyo and Captain Nasayao started experiencing a left engine trouble within their plane. Coupled with bad weather they figured that they may not make it back to Atienza Air Base. They then decided to radio Clark International Airport, the nearest airfield within their reach and declared an emergency. Clark tower personnel vectored the troubled Bronco to land at runway 20. However on final approach, the plane crashed near Barangay Mabiga in the town of Mabalacat at 3:48 PM and the young lieutenant Baloyo went down with it.
At 26, Baloyo is the eldest of four children born to Romeo and Annie Baloyo, both meat store owners and vendors at the Bacolod City’s Libertad Market in the Philippine Sugarland of Negros Occidental Province, down in the Visayan peninsula. At a young tender age, aviation must have been her dream, perhaps a flight attendant or a pilot. After graduating from St. Scholastica Academy in 1991 under the supervision of Catholic nuns, she attended college and earned a Bachelor’s Science degree in Airline Management from the Technical Institute of Cebu. Armed with that diploma, a stir determination and an abundance of prayers and hard work, she took and passed the rigorous entrance examination of the Philippine Air force Flying School in Lipa City. The Air Force Academy of the country.
As an aviation cadet, she was assigned to Bravo Company of the Class of 1997. There at Fernando Air Base, her new “campus,” she learned the arts of soldiering and the science of aviation - military aviation that is. Training out from T-41’s and SF.260’s she earned her much coveted pilots’ wing after two years and received a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Philippine Air Force.
After graduation, she reported for her first duty assignment to the elite 15th Strike Wing based in Atienza Air Base in Sangley Point, whose inventory, the gunships of the PAF, the Bronco’s and the MG-520 Defenders are the ones that provide the counter insurgency close air support (COIN/CAS) missions to the Philippine military during combat.
There she became one of the 32 active duty women pilots of the unit and later on would climb to be one of the only six qualified woman combat pilots in the entire air force. Earning that reputation, she was assigned to the 16th Strike Squadron, the unit that flies the twin propellered OV-10 Bronco, a dual purpose forward air control (FAC) and close air support (CAS) aircraft. Fifteen out of the 24 delivered remain to be operational and Baloyo earned a hot seat in one of them. As a combat pilot, she was sent to provide air support to ground troopers strafing Communist and Muslim rebels with cannons, air to ground rockets and dropping general purpose bombs. During the Camp Abu Bakar campaign in Maguindanao Province the year before, she was part of a Bronco flight that supported the military operation which decimated the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels and earned her the Aviation Cross Medal for her bravery. Eight Gold cross, three Military Merit and two Distinguished Aviation Cross medals earned earlier in her colorful military career added to the sparkling ribbons already shining pinned in her chest - the most bemedalled female pilot in the Philippine Air Force.
Engaged also at 26, she decided to walk the church aisle and marry her fiancee Air Force 1Lt. Ditto Nestor Dinopol on December 2002. A fellow classmate from Flight School and a helicopter pilot also belonging to the 15th Strike Wing. A colorful military career and a sentimental life was becoming a dream come true.
But on that rainy Monday afternoon of March 26, 2001, just two days before her and Dinopol’s fourth anniversary, 1st Lt. Mary Grace Baloyo decided her dreams will have to come second . . . that others may live.
”EJECT, EJECT, EJECT. . .”
Ordered Captain Nasayao to Lt. Baloyo as the disabled Bronco was plummeting beyond control towards the earth. Nasayao’s seat blasted skywards 300 feet from the ground and his parachute opened. Then Baloyo came next . . . or did she? a second passed by, then another, and another. In the end only one bailed out. Lt. Baloyo’s chute was never meant to open.
The young officer ignored the order to abandon ship. In aviation, she, like all other air force (and civilians pilots alike) were taught, that during an in-flight emergency the first rule is always . . . . to fly the airplane. The 26-year-old pilot remembered it well and did just that.
Below her amid heavy rains and near zero visibility, she saw that their plane was over a populated area. Indeed, it was the residential subdivision of Fil Homes, Green Meadows and Leman, home of more than 200 families. Bailing out, Baloyo knew, would send the crashing Bronco right at the heart of the area killing civilians in what could have been a greater disaster.
And so, El-tee Grace continues to amaze everyone.
In her front seat office, she decided to stay and held on the stick. She banked, she yawed and steered the plane away from innocent civilians as the plane plummeted to the ground and exploded in flames in a vacant lot. The nearest house was just 10 meters from it. Lt. Baloyo, the Amazing Grace made a decision so well - a sacrificial one. She refused to leave her plane and decided that she alone and no else will go down with it. Like a Captain going down with his ship.
There was no indication she made an effort to eject. During the recovery operations the next day due to hampering bad weather conditions, she was found in her “front office” still strapped in her seat. Burned beyond recognition. The plane was a total wreck. By miracle, the unknown quantity of inert bombs they were carrying never exploded. Captain Nasayao who bailed out earlier survived to tell the tale. He landed unconsciously at a concrete fence just 100 meters from the crash site and broke his right foot, his only injury. A civilian resident from Fil homes, Jack Tongol would come to his aid and would rush him to the Air Force station hospital at Clark.
Lt. Baloyo’s body was then taken out from the wreckage by PAF crash recovery personnel including Air Force Lt. Colonel Charles Hotchkiss, Commander of the 1st Tactical Air Force Wing based at Clark Airfield and Mabalacat Town Vice Mayor Dr. Prospero Lagman. It was later flown back to Atienza Air Base where a C-130 Hercules cargo plane would later fly it to the Bacolod City Regional Airport escorted by her father, her two brothers, Lt. Dinopol and an Air Force honor guard detail. Philippine Air Force Chief, Lt. General Benjamin Defensor then ordered all remaining Bronco’s grounded pending further investigation of the incident.
Laid to rest back in Bacolod City, Lt. Dinopol hugged her fiancee’s uniform tightly. As Baloyo’s family wept for their loss, so did the nation. The entire Bravo Company of the Philippine Air Force Flying School Class 1997 was there also to see their departed classmate for the last time. An Air Force Honor Guard sounded Taps after the 21 gun salute and a lone helicopter hovered in the sky showering red and white petals below. Everyone knew Mary Grace once more flew to the clouds. This time she wasn’t coming back. Like an angel bound to the sky recalled by God in Heaven.
And so, the story ended there. When the call of duty was sounded, she put her countrymen first, next to her life, next to her dreams, next to flying. Indeed, Heroes never returned.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines did not hesitate to recognized Lt. Baloyo’s Bravery. Her deputy commander at the 15th Strike Wing, Air Force Lt. Colonel Amador Alojado who also escorted the flag draped casket to Bacolod City recommended a posthumous Military Merit Medal award that will be upgraded to a Distinguished Service Star for her heroism that day instead of the Medal of Valor. After all, the MOV was a medal warranting a combat act and Baloyo, herself a combatant have been there and survived them all. But the sense of duty at the highest calling she gave that day deserved the highest honor. An honor that separated her from the rest. She was then conferred the Medal of Valor awarded posthumously and a promotion to the rank of Air Force Captain. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Commander in Chief personally handed the medal to Lt. Baloyo’s parents, Romeo and Annie. And with that, history was made. First Louie Grace became the first woman in the Philippines to received her country’s highest military award for heroism and joined the hall of the famed and the few.
I can see now a bunch of young teenage St. Scholastica girls going home from school passing by in front of an newly built Air Force Base named in her honor. One young girl perhaps an aspiring aviator herself wondered about Baloyo’s place in Philippine history, "Who is Captain Mary Grace Baloyo, Sir?" she asked the sentry out of her curiosity. The airman guarding the main gate replied "she was an air force pilot ma'am, . . . and you know what?" he humbly continued, "she was NUMBER ONE".