In 2008 Airports of the World visited the former Clark Air Base in the Philippines and discovered how it has been revitalised as a commercial airport in the wake of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
It could be argued that the development of Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (DMIA), named after the ninth Philippines President, owes much to the peace dividend which followed the Cold War in the early 1990s. While that is probably true, the transformation of the former Clark AB came after it was devastated by the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo, just as US forces were moving out at the end of a tenancy agreement. What has literally risen from the ashes is an international airport that its management is hoping will become the Philippines’ premier gateway.
The US military presence at Clark goes back to 1903 when the US Army established Fort Stotsenberg near Sapang Bato, Angeles, the Philippines. In 1912, the Army established a flying school on the site and it became officially known as Clark Field in 1919. Following the turbulent years of World War Two, during which the Philippines was occupied by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, a Military Bases Agreement was reached with the USA on March 14, 1947, which allowed US forces the use of Clark Air Base until 2046. The US Army handed control of the facility to the US Air Force in 1949 the original agreement was subsequently amended in 1966 and came to an end in 1991.
The USAF made full use of the base, which was its largest overseas airfield, covering 14.3 square miles (37km2); the military reservation surrounding the base itself occupied 230 square miles (596km2). For many years the USAF’s Pacific Air Force (PACAF) based its 3rd TFW (Tactical Fighter Wing) here and it was also home to Military Airlift Command’s 347th TAW (Tactical Airlift Wing) from November 15, 1973, until the base closed. However, it was the glamorous 3rd TWF that stole the limelight, flying fighters that included the Northrop F-5 (the 26th Aggressor Squadron) and the mighty McDonnell Douglas F-4E and F-4G Phantom II. These aircraft were resident in the 1970s and 1980s, but North American F-86Ds and Boeing B-50s had been common sights in the 1950s, while in the 1960s Convair F-106s were based there. Clark was a vital pivot point for traffic passing between the continental USA and the Asia-Pacific region and its size and importance was enough to warrant regular connections by Flying Tigers B747s in the 1980s.
Ending with a bang
Easily the most turbulent year for Clark AB was 1991. By this time, the Philippine Senate had rejected an agreement reached by the US with the then president Corazon Aquino to extend the lease at the base. The US military was preparing to leave in June, just as the Mount Pinatubo volcano began to erupt, and an evacuation of the base and surrounding areas became necessary.
When the volcano sprang into life on June 3, it was one of the largest eruptions of recent times. Some 10 billion metric tons of magma were spewed out in the second biggest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century. As the volcanoe’s activities increased in violence the evacuation zone grew. Clark AB was included within it, as it lay within a 25-mile (40km) area. The most intense eruption, on June 15, ejected material to a height of 21 miles (34km), while large pyroclastic (fast moving rivers of magma, rock debris and gasses) flows devastated the surrounding area. Giant clouds of ash deluged the region and in all some 2.5 cubic miles (10km3) of material was ejected, the second largest quantity of the century after the Novarupta (Alaska) eruption in 1912.
The effect on Clark AB was enormous – the entire facility was buried in deep ash and hangars and other buildings collapsed under the weight. This sealed the fate of the US military presence as it was then uneconomical to clear the base up and make repairs. It was decided to end the negotiations with the government and leave.
The former military base lies close to the northwest side of Angeles City in the province of Pampanga, some 40 miles (64km) northeast of the Philippines’ capital Manila. It was a vast site, with housing and commercial areas as well as the main operation ramps and runways. The nearby foothills of Mount Pinatubo were occupied by two large housing estates and a golf course. Five large boulevards criss-crossed the facility, an essential system as by 1990 some 15,000 people were permanently based there.
Clark AB was officially returned to the Philippine government on November 26, 1991, but it was several more years before any use could be made of the site. However, in 1995 removal of the ash deposits began and a general clear-up got underway.
The Philippines Government designated the former air base and the surrounding area as a free port and an economic zone, known as the Clark Special Economic Zone, covering an area almost half the size of Singapore – 69,187 acres (28,000ha). This, it hoped, would attract investment and foreign trade to the central Luzon region. Both business and tourism opportunities were promoted and a great deal was made of the relatively short flying times from places such as Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. The zone is also well connected to the capital Manila by the North Luzon Expressway, the car journey taking up to one-and-a-half hours.
Key to the communications network is DMIA, which lies at the heart of the Clark Special Economic Zone, itself thriving as a business generator. Considerable investment was necessary to repair the military infrastructure and bring it up to the latest standards for commercial aviation, but it is now among the most modern in the western Pacific region. A golf resort and a variety of shops can be found alongside the businesses, but a link to the site’s military heritage remains in three forms. There is a museum showing the history of the base, a static display of former Philippine Air Force aircraft and every year DMIA hosts the Balikatan exercises involving the United States and Philippines Armed Forces, with occasional deployments by other units.
Tourism in this part of the Philippines is expected to increase considerably in the coming years, partly due to the airport’s availability. Bienvenido O Manga, Vice-President and General Manager of the Clark International Airport Authority (CIAC), told Airports of the World: DMIA in the Clark Special Economic Zone, north of Manila, is ripe for capacity expansion to five million passengers a year from the present one million. By March 2007, more than 50 weekly flights were arriving from various Asian cities, and by the end of the year this was closer to 75 flights connecting ten cities. Monthly average passenger numbers grew from 6,197 in 2004 to over 60,000 during 2006 – a rise of 456%. In June 2007, the airport handled its one millionth passenger, who arrived from Seoul/Incheon on an Asiana flight.
Public transport connects the airport to Manila, with three bus companies offering services. Bus services are also available to the northern Luzon cities of Aurora, Baguio City, Bangued and Cabanatuan City. The terminal was originally built for Military Airlift Command during the American tenure of the base. Expansion work has just been completed which has increased the airport’s annual capacity from 500,000 passengers to at least two million by adding further check-in desks and other essential equipment. The next development phase, due to start soon, will see improvements to the gate areas to better accommodate large aircraft such as the A380 and B747.
Emphasising the airport’s ability to handle any aircraft, the giant Airbus A380 (MSN009) visited in October 2007 on its route-proving trials. Should the need arise, there are hangars capable of accommodating an A380 if a carrier ever wanted to establish maintenance for the type here.
The Clark International Airport Corporation (CIAC) has submitted a proposal to the MacroAsia Corporation to lease a hangar within the aviation complex where it could establish a maintenance facility. It is also looking to arrange the lease of a hangar for another MRO for the SIA Engineering Company (SIAEC).
Air freight features strongly at DMIA, with United Parcel Service (UPS) dominating the facility. The US cargo carrier has expanded its facilities at DMIA and established an intra-Asia hub there. Its handling area covers 177,610 sq ft (16,500m2) and it processes 120 flights a week, mostly during the night.
Growth in the budget airline sector in the western Pacific region has been strong over the past five years and, not surprisingly, increasing numbers of Filipino workers are now travelling to nearby Asian countries to find work. Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are all popular destinations and the region’s LCCs have been quick to react to the demand for flights.
Cebu Pacific has announced plans to establish its third hub at DMIA (Cebu and Manila are the other two), and to subsequently provide 24 flights a week to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Taipei. Of these, it will promote the Bangkok and Taipei routes in particular as no other carrier serves them from DMIA. Cebu Pacific originally wanted to offer daily flights to Hong Kong, and although the Hong Kong authorities had no objection, the remaining entitlements for flights from other Philippine airports, aside from Manila Ninoy Aquino International, are not sufficient.
Philippine Airlines revealed plans for a hub operation at DMIA shortly after Cebu Pacific made its announcement. However, it is also emphasising a partnership with Lufthansa Technik Philippines to establish an MRO there. The carrier also wants to provide in-flight catering facilities and to offer flights to China, Japan and South Korea. Connections to Australia and North America are also planned, using its new B777-300ERs due to enter service from 2009, and its sister company Air Philippines could also relocate to DMIA. The airline has pledged to invest $50 million in improved facilities and the above-mentioned expansion projects are likely to begin this year.
Asian Spirit applied for flying permits to the relevant agencies in the Philippine and South Korean to fly to Seoul Incheon – with MD-83s. Although flights from DMIA have not materialised so far, the airline is serving Seoul from Davao, Kalibo and Laoag elsewhere in the Philippines.
LCC Tiger Airways has been among the driving forces for budget travel in the region recently and more flights and destinations are becoming available as it continues to expand. It currently connects DMIA with Darwin, Macau, Perth and Singapore, having begun flights from DMIA on April 5, 2005. Another strong LCC is AirAsia, which launched services between DMIA and Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia on the same date. Hong Kong Airlines also began twice-daily flights to DMIA from September 2007.
For an update on CIAC see the August 2010 of Airliner World, on sale now.