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Real Life Heroes : Bacolodnon Pilot Breaks Higher Ground

Historic 17-hour flight (2020) with routes Manila-Zamboanga-Tawi Tawi-Zamboanga-Cebu-Manila.  Transporting the much needed PPEs and medical supplies to the southernmost island ever reached by our Britten Norman Islander aircraft with first-ever all-female pilots.

When the best breaks higher ground
By Manny Tonogbanua

To many of us whose first reaction is to discriminate – men, especially those still living in the Dark Ages, who tend to discriminate between the sexes, placing theirs superior to that of the fairer sex. Or men and women who live in the big cities all their lives, many still, those who were fortunate enough, either through their families or connections, who had their pick of a lofty private learning institution all over, or abroad, will dismiss the story I am about to share as a fluke. A glitch in the system so-to-speak. When in fact, all there is to this story is an overwhelming desire to dream big and dream high. Plus of course, through sheer, back-breaking determination multiplied a thousand-fold by the desire to help others, was able to climb the vast expanse of the clouds and the sky, literally! There are no special effects, no parachutes, or a safety net down below in this story. The glue that holds this together as I have come to discover is a sincere form of passion and an unquenchable love of God.

She believed she can fly!

Thanks to this pandemic, I was unable to meet the hero, or should I now say, ‘my hero’ of this story as I would have otherwise insisted a meet up. But having read her story, I felt this connection to hers’ in some ways here and there, except that my feet haven’t left the ground on their own.

My hero, is pilot Captain Christine Pauline B. Diciano O-0306 Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). That’s Captain Diciano for you, thank you very much. And, as you will surely discover if you manage to read this article to the last paragraph, she to me is the bomb! I gave her 6 open-ended questions, just an outline really, and as per usual I expected her to answer in glib, somewhat close-ended answers which will then encourage me to dig into the trenches of research, or simply probe further. Better yet, a chance to meet her in person perhaps? But, as luck would have it, she gave me an entire manuscript, a writer’s dream really. Or, should I say, lazy writers like me. So here in her own words were her answers that are as honest and enriched by her experience in a career where, to mention a cliché, the sky is the limit.

What sparked the idea of becoming a pilot and how young were you when this happened?
“1986. I was in first grade, and I still vividly remember the series of solar and lunar eclipses that year as I excitedly gazed up to the skies, through a small cellophane cut-out which was the best way to watch a solar eclipse in lieu of a telescope. It was then that the sky and the ability and experience to fly became a lingering childhood fascination.  When I became old enough, I gave in to a gnawing appetite to read about aviation not only in a general sense but also the inspiring achievements of women in aviation--that of Katharine Wright, Amelia Mary Earhart, and years after, the heroism of fellow Bacolodnon, Air Force Captain Mary “Amazing Grace” Baloyo*.  I would also be interested in a Phoenix, a Greek folklore of a long-lived bird that regenerates or gets ‘born again’.”

(*Writer’s note: Air Force Captain Mary “Amazing Grace” Baloyo, born October 30, 1973, died March 26, 2001, was a PAF flight officer who posthumously became the first female member of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to receive the Medal of Valor. On March 26, 2001, she and Capt. Ben Nasayao were on a proficiency flight from Danilo Atienza Airbase in San Antonio Cavite to Clark Air Base. While approaching Clark's Runway 20 at 1,000 ft above ground level the aircraft's engine failed and thus rapidly descended into a heavily populated area. Capt. Nasayao was able to eject himself at 300 ft above ground level sustaining injuries, while Lt. Baloyo remained on board to steer the aircraft so that it crashes away from a heavily populated area to a vacant field. She was killed instantly upon impact. She was posthumously promoted to the rank of Captain and received the Medal of Valor.)

How was it growing up in Bacolod? Tell us about your childhood memories.

Hailing from the province of Negros Occidental, she proudly exclaims – “I am a Sum-aganon from the “City of Smiles” Bacolod who was born from a mother who was a nurse and a Navy/Coast Guard-enlisted man, who was my father. Their humble beginnings and struggles in life inspired me to work hard on my education, and in finding jobs to support my family.”

With that early motivation and drive, Christine Pauline Bergano placed a high premium on education because she knew it would bring her closer to her dreams. A proud product of the public school system, young Christine began grade-school education at Sum-ag Elementary School. “I then worked my way through secondary education at La Consolacion College through an academic scholarship, Himig Pinoy (school choir) membership, and the student government,” she writes. Christine also recounts how she would perform in regional network groups and local events on weekends so she can save her “talent fees” for baon in the next week or two. “I know how it feels to walk for kilometers sparing that extra amount for school projects and laboratories,” shares a proud Christine.

Forgoing a double major in Physics and Mathematics with the University of the Philippines in Miag-ao in Iloilo, Christine instead enrolled at the University of St. LaSalle in Bacolod taking up Computer Science. To augment her school expenses, she was able to get performing arts scholarships from Kariktan Dance Ensemble (now John Baptiste Dance Company) which was among the pioneers of the College of Arts and Sciences. Because of this, she also became a member of the ARTIANS Cheerdancing Group. All this she did while serving the church and her community as Sangguniang Kabataan Councillor.

And she’s not done yet after these as instrumental to her senior year was the scholarship she earned – she was one of only three scholars in the city of the Metrobank Foundation scholarship grant.

Pursuing the dream – how did you do it?

Having completed her university education with, pardon the pun, flying colors, Christine was now ready to take the first step in the fulfillment of a childhood dream – to get her wings and become a pilot. She was fortunate to have been a part of the Coast Guard Officers’ Course “A” MATATAG Class 02 in 2001, which was the first class taking in female officers after the separation of the Philippine Coast Guard from the Philippine Navy in 1998.  She was then assigned at Coast Guard Education and Training Command for three (3) and-a-half-years as Flag Secretary, Tactical Officer, and as Academics and Tactics Staff Officer. She was also a lecturer and the managing editor of various coast guard publications.

And, she adds, “I was also the only female PCG trainee officer onboard the Japanese coast guard vessel, Kojima, traversing northern Philippines, then on to Busan in Korea and finally, Kure in Japan.  Having been trained in Boarding Procedures and Interdiction Planning by the United States Coast Guard in 2003, I then served shortly as Staff to the office for the Human Resource Management (CG-1) before being assigned to Coast Guard Operations with the Coast Guard Fleet.”  

By 2005, Christine felt she was more than ready to take the final step towards her dream. She felt compelled to put forth her application to the elusive Basic Pilot Training with the Philippine Coast Guard Air Group. She knew getting past the deliberation board was going to be tough. “Carrying only fortitude, my family’s support and faith in God, it was never all about proving something, but it was taking on an experience personally worth trying.”

The Basic Pilot Training (BPT) convened on October of 2005 at the Aeroflite Flying School where Christine trained in theoretical and flying hours. Christine then excitedly shared the following, “Soloing at twelve hours from Manila to Plaridel, Bulacan and back, I was able to fly cross-country, leaping from Lingayen to Pangasinan, then on to La Union and Loakan in Bagiuo.“      

By April 2006, Christine graduated from BPT and immediately transitioned to the Philippine Coast Guard Equipment Qualification Course from May to October 2006. What came next was her Co-Pilot Qualification in 2007. And because she has superpowers, she also managed to squeeze-in two pregnancies in-between before finally completing the Pilot Qualification Course in October of 2009. If you are already hyper-ventilating at this point, so did I.

Historic 17-hour flight (2020) with routes Manila-Zamboanga-Tawi Tawi-Zamboanga-Cebu-Manila.  Transporting the much needed PPEs and medical supplies to the southernmost island ever reached by our Britten Norman Islander aircraft with first-ever all-female pilots, we were prepared as early as 0430H, took off at sunrise and returned in Manila on or about 0130H the following day.  We experienced the most rewarding gesture of gratitude from our kababayans through blinking their lights towards us and saying "its our honor to serve" through flashing lights as well.

But here’s more! Christine then shares her thrilling experiences in maritime surveillance that reads like a National Geographic TV documentary – “I became the first female Air Station Commander in Palawan in 2010 collaborating with AFP’s Western Command for “Oplan Matatag” in the West Philippine Sea that led to the activation of what is now the National Coast Watch Center.  My missions include maritime patrol and surveillance at the Scarborough Shoal, the Eastern seas (Baler), Northern Philippines’ Batanes Island Group and Mindanao Regions.  I have performed various search and rescue during Ondoy, Peping and in other typhoons. My tasks mostly revolved around maritime law enforcement, maritime safety and marine environmental protection missions and, as well, various civic, humanitarian and command-controlled missions.”

Her most recent feat was the historic two-female pilot flight, the longest flying time of 17-hours non-stop, while conducting an aerial mission for COVID-19 operations to the farthest islands in the southernmost frontier of the country: Manila to Zamboanga over Sulu, a landing in Tawi-Tawi, and afterwards, back to Manila via Cebu. This was a first in PCG aviation history!

While she literally flies from one record-breaking achievement to the next, Capt. Christine never fails to attribute these successes to her mentors: “As the first lady pilot and a member of the PCG, I am simply blessed by the leaders who paved the way, by my colleagues and staff whom I had the honor of working with and the various career development opportunities and experiences for personal growth over the years.”

Who were your role models growing up not only in the world of aviation but in general as well?

“As the eldest child, my parents taught me to be responsible and set a good example to my siblings.  Family values, education and my spirituality were deeply ingrained as well as treating everyone with kindness. This became my way of life.  I was raised knowing that our humble beginnings were something that I should be grateful for because they allowed me to persevere in many ways.

The kind of person and public servant that I am today was heavily influenced by the faith and devotion of my Nanay Lilia, the strength and tenacity of Tatay Doming, the creativity and support of my brother Joseph, the admirable servitude of my aunt, Nanay Alit, who recently passed away, and my teachers in the educational institutions I went to through the years.”

Last but not least, Capt. Christine is also grateful to the men and women of the Philippine Coast Guard for braving many odds and meeting every expectation without expecting something in return, all for the love of serving, day-in and day-out.  

Despite your achievements today, is there anything else you want to achieve or challenges you want to overcome, or dreams you want to make real?

“Amidst the pandemic, I would love to take my Nanay and Tatay in a nearby nature farm or resort for a simple vacation.

I would love to publish my own book and the creative writings of my daughters while handling our family’s adventure camp to showcase my husband and children’s creativity or merchandise.  It will be a delight serving pastries and beverages I learned from my online classes and offer customers with fusion foods from Negros and Cagayan.

Following the launch of our Bergaño’s Brew three months ago with my brother Joseph, I pray to have a simple coffee and chess nook (with good reads) for my Tatay and Nanay in Sum-ag where we can enjoy the fellowship and sharing of life lessons regardless of generations.  This young business has allowed us to help local bean farmers thrive and also provided support to Kids of Jesus during their Bible study.

I am currently working on initial activities in helping a number of pediatric cancer patients avail of an alternative learning system for them to have a better chance at life.”

Christine also hopes more will join her in promoting the causes of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Philippines. She in fact has started her own donations program for UNHCR in 2019, a program that aims to continue delivering critical aid to people on the margins, the refugees, the internally displaced, and the wandering stateless multitude like the Rohingyas, and, as well their host communities who are also at great risk, all needing special attention.

With women supporting women, Christine launched in 2020 the JUANApreneur initiative so that Filipina Coast Guardians can showcase their products and entrepreneurial activities.  Furthermore, she sees herself pursuing advocacies for deeper appreciation of the maritime industry as well as women empowerment, and gender development in whatever capacity and wherever her next assignments will take her.

How do you see Filipinas in aviation in the next decade?

“With 2,747 women in the 18,923-strong PCG, we serve in various capacities and decision-making processes as pilots and crew. We also have our ICS and crisis staff and personnel, K9 handlers, intelligence and surveillance agents, unit commanders, battle captain, divers and rescue swimmers, technical and special operations officer, ship captains, and many others – all women.”  

Capt. Christine is also confident that the future of Filipinas in aviation in the next decade is as promising and far-reaching as the horizons she sees beyond the cockpit.  “But in order to make that journey, it is important that we need to constantly challenge ourselves making sure we provide opportunities for others to be empowered so they too can pass on the same, if not more.”  

Finally, Capt. Christine is optimistic about her own future and all the opportunities it shall bring with a mindset that will surely bode her well -

“In life and career, I have developed a fortitude anchored on objective motivation, right energy, and purposeful persistence.”

And to this I say, “To infinity and beyond, Captain Christine!”

MARITIME AIR SURVEILLANCE COURSE at the Defense International Training Centre in Melbourne Australia in 2013.  Two weeks after, we moved to the Northern Territory in Darwin in the Royal Australian Army.  These pilots also helped the Philippines in the transport of relief operations and donations during the onslaught of Typhoon Haiyan.

As Tactical Officer to the first ever female non-officers of the Philippine Coast Guard in 2003

Field Study in Japan (2015) visiting Kobe, Tokyo, and Yokohama.

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France (2015) during my Post graduate studies for Maritime Education and Training with Organizational Leadership

Field Study in London (2015) where we attended the HTW Session at the International Maritime Organization Headquarters and Nautical Institute in Lambeth as well as Royal Observatory in Greenwich (side visits at the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, front of MI6, London Tower and Bridge, Ripleys and the British War Museum)

Cheering on together with my classmates turned sisters (Myamnar, Korea, Sri Lanka, Africa, Indonesia and Philippines) during one of our football/soccer games against our junior class World Maritime University Batch 2016 in Malmo, Sweden.

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