Manila International Airport

Hi all !
After several years of writing my blog, I am taking a creative breather. Hopefully, I’ll come up with new ideas when I return. In the meanwhile, please look at my list of previous posts on the right hand column and hopefully you’ll find one or two of interest. I’ll be back again very soon. Thanks for your patience ! –

Lou Gopal

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My family have always been travelers. Because of our jewelry store on the Escolta, my dad wandered all over the world searching for exotic jewels from faraway places such as India and Morocco to basic costume jewelry from factories in New Jersey. On the other hand, my mom just loved to travel, typically going to the U.S. to visit her sisters and brother in California, Florida and South Carolina. Being their only child, I was always “dragged” along for the ride. Looking back on those days, I have come to appreciate the valuable education I received from visiting all these countries. That’s me below – I believe this must have been at HongKong’s Kai Tak airport.

In the late Forties and early Fifties, we would take a four-engine prop plane from Manila International Airport. It was then a one level Quonset hut-like building where one could buy their tickets at the PAL, Northwest or PanAm counter. Your family and friends could see you off at the gate while you walked across the tarmac to your plane dressed of course, in your Sunday best; no jeans and t-shirt. Flying to San Francisco would be a two-day trip; stopping at Guam, then Honolulu and finally, the Golden Gate city.

“The Manila International Airport was a large WWII metal Quonset hut painted white. It had a large white hand painted board that said “Manila International Airport” in black paint. The front side was almost all open to the sky. There were old wooden tables set up for customs and immigration. Overhead the ceiling lights were bare electric light bulbs. They hung from the rafters on bare wires. Not very esthetic to look at but it seemed to work and no one complained.” [source: “I have a hat too…flying in the fifties was fun !”,
by Lari Harris Newbury ]

 

Before the war, Manila had two civilian airfields: Eugenio Lopez’s INAEC (Iloilo-Negros Air Express Company) used a strip near the Bonifacio Monument, called Grace Park.

 

 

 

 

Grace Park airfield 1940-

Grace Park airfield 1940-

Manila Intl Airport 1930s-logo

Philippine Airlines (PAL) used Nielson Field, named after Laurie R. Nielson, a New Zealand businessman, who proposed the construction of the airfield under the aegis of Don Enrique Zobel. PAL began in 1931 as the Philippine Air Taxi Corporation (PATCO), a cargo service owned by American mining companies operating in the Philippines. PATCO went bankrupt in 1940, but was bought in 1941 by a group that included wealthy industrialist Andres Soriano, Sr.

Andres Soriano and PAL crew at Neilson Tower.

Andres Soriano and PAL crew at Nielson Tower.

The birth of the Manila International Airport started out at the Grace Park Airfield in 1935. Before that international flights via PanAm Clippers landed in Manila Bay. Nielson Field opened in 1937. Just seven months before war broke out in Dec 1941, Philippine Airlines flew their first commercial flight out of Nielson Field. The Japanese military quickly took control of the field in January 1942.

Philippine Airlines resumed operations at the Nielson Field Airport on February 14, 1946. As the airport was substantially damaged during the war, it took over a million pesos to reconstruct the terminal and field and it immediately became the official port of entry for air passengers into the country. After Manila International Airport was moved to the Nichols Field location, Nielson Field deteriorated. In late 1950s, I recall seeing parts of the old tarmac covered with weeds in areas surrounding Ayala Avenue. Thankfully, the old Nielson tower terminal was saved from demolition and was used as a restaurant and now houses the Filipinas Heritage Library.

Nielson Field-Filipinas Heritage Library (photo by Hizon's Catering)

Nielson Field-Filipinas Heritage Library (photo by Hizon’s Catering)

There were also two military airfields: a small one at the rear of Camp Murphy and Nichols Field, a U.S. military airfield located south of Manila in Pasay and Parañaque. Named after Captain Henry Nichols, US Army commander of monitor ship “Monadnock” during the Philippine-American War, Camp Nichols was at that time the largest and most well-equipped airport in the Philippines.

Below, Nichols viewed from the southeast end of the field.  Officers Club was in the center left with Post Stables to the rear.  Flight line and hangars were in the center.  Barracks, Officers Quarters, Headquarters and Philippine Air Depot were in the upper right. Manila spreads northward in the upper background.  (circa 1937) [source: NASM Archives]

Nichols Field B-3A Martin Bomber 1938.

Nichols Field B-3A Martin Bomber 1938.

Boeing P-26 Family; Military, USA, Army Air Corps, Units, 3rd Pursuit Squadron (c. 1938)

Boeing P-26 US Army Air Corps, 3rd Pursuit Squadron (c. 1938)

Officers Club (Cariboo Club) at Nichols Field, PI.  1938.

Officers Club (Cariboo Club) at Nichols Field, PI. 1938.

During the occupation the Japanese also took over Nichols as a strategic military base. It was later quite damaged by U.S. forces during the battle of Manila.

Nichols Field bombed by US-Feb 6,1945 (photo courtesy J. Tewell)

After the war, Nichols Field resumed operations as an American air base. The Douglas DC-3 shown below at a very undeveloped Nichols Field, Manila in 1946 [Ed Coates collection].

PAL-C47A-35DL at Nichols Field, 1946

PAL-C47A-35DL at Nichols Field, 1946

Nichols Field later became headquarters of the Philippine Department Air Force, under the Army Philippine Department. In 1982, then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos renamed Nichols Field to Villamor Airbase to honor Col. Jesus Villamor, the Philippine Air Force Ace pilot and World War II hero.

Nichols AF entrance-1950s

Nichols AF entrance-1950s

Nichols-Base Operations

Nichols-Base Operations

In 1948, the U.S. government turned over Nichols to the Philippine government and the field was converted into one terminal building for international passengers and a control tower overlooking the one runway. Below, drawing showing the proposed International Airport at Nichols Field.

MIA drawing 1949 (courtesy: Robert Hudson)

MIA drawing 1949 (courtesy: Robert Hudson)

I remember getting through the small airport in the 1950s was chaotic. There were passports to be checked and stamped, luggage had to be checked in, everywhere people either yelling directions or trying to get information to lead them to their gates. There may have been two. I marveled at the sleek, silvery crafts that stood like monoliths on the runway never imagining they would look like toys compared to the giant 747s that would eclipse their size in just a few years.

Pan Am at Gate 14-1981 (photo by: Meg Jmp)

Pan Am at Gate 14-1981 (photo by: Meg Jmp)

 Returning home was probably even more chaotic. If one had previous experience and knew the “system”, it was understood that a little under the table money would speed your way through customs and immigration. I pitied the novice tourist who didn’t know how this all worked. For them, each bag would be searched for “contraband” (cigarettes, liquor, etc). Once I saw a customs officer drag his finger through a woman’s face powder while she watched in horror as the powder spilt all over. To make my life easier, I would always leave a sealed bottle of Black Label right on top and when asked “What is this ?” I would answer, “That’s for you, chief !” and somehow we slid right though without a problem.

Manila International Airport - 1960s

Manila International Airport – 1960s

Federico Ilustre-architect

Federico Ilustre-architect

 

It wasn’t until September 22, 1961 that the new terminal designed by Federico Ilustre was inaugurated. Unfortunately, a little over ten years later, a devastating fire, apparently from an electrical short, caused substantial damage to the terminal building. A smaller, second terminal building became the international terminal until 1981 when the higher capacity terminal (Terminal 1) was built to replace it.

 

 

MIA airport burning

MIA airport burning

 

MIA viewing deck-1972 (courtesy: Retro Filipino)

MIA viewing deck-1972 (courtesy: Retro Filipino)

Terminal 1, originally named Manila International Airport, was given its present name Ninoy Aquino International Airport on August 17, 1987 honoring Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., who was assassinated at the airport after returning to the Philippines from his self-imposed exile in the United States on August 21, 1983. Plans for a new terminal were conceived in 1989, when the Department of Transportation and Communications commissioned Aéroports de Paris to do a feasibility study to expand capacity.

AS Friends at Manila Intl Airport-1950s (courtesy Tom Bigelow)

My American School friends at Manila International Airport-1950s (courtesy Tom Bigelow)

(courtesy: Tom Bigelow)

(courtesy: Gunter Prittwitz)

For me the Fifties were a time of innocence. Manila was still under reconstruction and time seemed to pass more slowly. I have many memories of the old Manila International Airport; from the happiness of greeting friends from abroad or the thrill of leaving Manila for another adventure. I left in 1962 to live and eventually retire in Seattle, only returning for a long awaited visit home in 2004 to find just about everything had changed – even the very modern airport which compares and even exceeds that of many large cosmopolitan cities. Yes, I was perhaps a little disappointed to find Manila had “grown up” but it was still a joy to come back home. Manila, I love you.

I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below or share your stories and photos to: Manilanostalgia@gmail.com

Cheers ! Lou

Cheers ! Lou

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