Sunday, April 9, 2017

*428. Sky’s No Limit: CAPT. BEN HUR D. GOMEZ

FINDING HIS CORNER OF THE SKY. The future aviation pilot, Ben Hur Gomez y de Leon of Mabalacat,  as a young high schooler at Letran. "Benny" was named after the main character of a Hollywood movie of the same title, "Ben Hur", starring Ramon Navarro. Courtesy of Capt. Gomez.

One of the leading names in modern Philippine aviation is a Kapampangan provinciano who didn’t even finish high school but rose to become an international pilot and founder of the premiere flying school in Pampanga. Capt. Ben Hur Angel D. Gomez (b. 15 Dec. 1931) was one of 6 children of Carlos Ramiro Gomez Sr. whose mestizo looks were courtesy of his ancestor, Fray Guillermo Masnou aka Nicanor Gomez. His mother, Paz Dionisia de Leon , was the daughter of Don Jose de Leon, who owned vast tracts of lands in Mabalacat, parts of which she inherited. With their consolidated wealth, the Gomezes built a large farmstead  in Tubigan at the boundary of Stotsenburg, where their children grew up.

To the manor born, Ben Hur and his siblings led comfortable lives, in a magnificent farmhouse with large rooms and bay windows, equipped with electricity powered by a windmill, and guarded by a tall, turbanned Indian Sikh. Ponies and other animals roamed the expansive yard which also had a playground. The young Ben Hur or Benny was doted on by his adoring aunts despite his “kuneho” (rabbit)  ears.

His Papang though, introduced him early to the value of hard work and responsibility. As young as 8, Benny  helped out in the family businesses which included not only the farm, but also a gas station, a bowling alley and a bazaar. He counted money, issued receipts, prepared vouchers and distributed wages to farm hands.

Benny finished his elementary years at the Holy Family Academy in Angeles, run by German nuns. He spent a year of high school at next-door Holy Angel Academy, but his schooling was interrupted by the war. The family moved to Manila, in their Pasay home, where they waited out the end of the war years.

In 1946, as the family was sending off their Papang to the U.S., the teenager Ben saw his first DC-4 at the Manila International Airport, complete with its smartly-dressed crew. That sight inspired him to become an international pilot.

In his last high school year at Letran, Ben applied to 3 flight schools in the U.S. He chose Embry Riddle Aeronautical School, not only because it was the biggest flight school in America, but also because the school had sent him a brochure with a pretty girl in bathing suit on the cover!! There, Ben immersed himself in his commercial pilot course, and in subjects like  instrument reading, and multi-engine rating, studying 16 hours each day. By so doing, Ben completed his flight course in 18 short months, instead of 33!

When he returned to Manila, he managed to land a his first paying job at the Philippine Aviation Development as a mechanic, earning a whopping  P350  daily. He also became a part-time pilot with an hourly fee of  P50 per hour. While the pay was good, his ultimate goal was to see the world and become an international pilot.  So, when Philippine Air Lines beckoned in 1953, he said yes to a new flying job, first, as a domestic pilot, then moving up to become an international pilot with the rank of a captain, flying the Viscount, BAC 111, DC-4, DC-8, DC-10 and the Boeing 727-200 in all parts of the globe.

His association with PAL would last 38 long years, accumulating over  33,000 flying hours without a single accident. During his stint with the nation’s flag carrier, Capt. Ben also served as president of the Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines (ALPAP) for 3 full terms. He initiated many landmark reforms like improving the salary structure for international pilots and their crew. He was also named vice president for Safety and Security and Asst. Vice President for Flight Operations.

Retirement for the captain meant returning to Mabalacat to resume his life as a gentleman-farmer. In the past, even as he flew planes, he was engaged in some profitable ventures here and there—from export-selling komiks and balut to Filipino communities in Hawaii, providing school bus services, to running a gravel-and-sand business . With his entrepreneurial acumen, he learned how to grow broilers and chickens--and soon, his OMNI Farms became a steady supplier of chickens to San Miguel Foods.

Then,  in 1994,  together with former colleagues,  he took over the old Clark Aero Club and transformed it into the country’s largest aviation training institute—OMNI Aviation Corporation. Capt. Ben would grow its fleet to 25 planes that includes Cessna 172s, and the flagship twin –engine plane, Piper Seneca.At its peak, OMNI Aviation attracted pilot-students from 28 countries and had over 300 enrollees, many of whom are ace pilots today.

It has been a great journey for the former pilot who continues to look for new fields to explore and conquer—even at age 81 . His latest project is his expansive museum home in Angeles that houses his varied collections that he accumulated from his trips abroad. On display are 135 crosses and crucifixes, various tableware from Asia ( netsukes, sake cups, chopstick rests, napkin rings), European crystal ware, Delft ware, brass sculptures, Buddhas, travel souvenirs and many more. He also enjoys occasional visits from any of his 5 kids, and grandchildren; there’s always a room reserved to accommodate them.

The still-sharp and healthy Capt. Ben has also been quietly giving back through his philanthropic works—from helping build the village chapel to extending financial help to indigents and handicapped people in need. Currently, he is even taking care of an old priest, who has helped him rediscover his Catholic faith.

It’s incredible, indeed,  how Capt. Ben could cram all these achievements in a single lifetime, fulfilling all his dreams that he relentlessy pursued.  Not bad for a provinciano and a high school dropout who describes himself as a graduate of the university of hard knocks! But then, he’s never known to set limits to what he can do---not even the skies which he once flew.

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