By Ben Cal

Air-to-ground firefight (3rd of 4 parts)

But the most horrifying experience in my brush with death was when the PAF helicopter we were riding, together with American journalist, Marc Lerner, correspondent of Washington Times based in Manila, engaged in an unexpected daring air-to-ground gun battle with communist rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA) in Burauen, Leyte in Eastern Visayas in 1989.

One day Marc asked me if I could arrange with my contacts in the military to go to a place that has been recently cleared of NPA rebels. I called up my friends in the Armed Forces and I was told to proceed to Tacloban City in Leyte province. From there we can inquire from the regional commander of the area that had just been cleared of communist insurgents which we can visit.

We took a commercial flight the following day going to Tacloban City. We proceeded to the Philippine Constabulary (PC) Regional Command where I met Col. Wilfredo Reotutar, operations chief of the PC Regional Command.

I asked him of any area that the military had liberated and he said “Burauen. We have just cleared that of NPA rebels. We will take you there tomorrow by chopper,” a beaming Col. Reotutar told me. I relayed the same information to Marc who was happy about it.

The military was keen to show the media the success of the government’s counter-insurgency campaign in Eastern Visayas which at that time was one of the largest concentrations of NPA guerrillas in the whole country.

Marc was anxious about the trip to Burauen. So was I. As a reporter, I had been in and out of Eastern Visayas several times, but it was my first time to visit Burauen municipality, a known rebel stronghold for two decades.

That morning before going to the airbase, I prayed Psalm 23 asking God’s protection. It has been my practice to recite this prayer every morning before going out. Upon arrival at the PAF airbase we boarded two helicopters each armed with two M60 machine guns – one on each side with both doors wide open.

Fifteen minutes after we took off, our pilot said over his two-way radio telling his crew - “prepare for landing” as he peeped over to his left side widow to survey the site where we would land.

As an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), he ordered his two gunners to be alert for any eventuality as our chopper circled around in preparation for landing.

As our helicopters descended to an altitude of about 800 feet, a staccato of gunfire reverberated in the air that alerted my attention. Since I was sitting on the extreme left I looked down.

I was shocked by what I saw! Armed men hiding behind coconut trees were firing at us! What is this, I murmured. I could not believe what was happening. But I could do nothing in such a predicament.

Nonetheless, I was able to control my emotion and observed a panoramic view of the firing down below when I saw a group of people, apparently village officials who would meet us during our arrival waving their hands, signaling to the pilots to abort the landing and fly out from harm’s way.

The NPA rebels continued firing their automatic rifles as they moved from one coconut tree to another.

Then our machine gunner at the right shouted to the pilot: “Sir, our chopper is hit by ground fire and there is a trail of smoke coming out.” 

I looked up and saw the smoke emitting from the chopper’s rotor. The other helicopter was also hit and was emitting black smoke.

Then our pilot pulled the throttle up to gain altitude. I thought we were flying back to base, but to my great surprise, he pulled down the throttle, bunked the chopper to the right at full speed and ordered his gunner to fire for effect.

As the M60 machine gun roared to life, spewing deadly bullets, the whole gunship shook like we were experiencing a powerful earthquake. I held on to my seat, then after a  second or two, the pilot bunked the chopper to the left, as the second gunner behind me opened fire with gusto.  Again we experienced violent shaking aboard.

 At that point, I prayed the Act of Contrition asking God’s forgiveness for my sins and surrendered my all life to Him. The next time I knew, all my fears had dissipated.

Then another heavy volume of fire from the helicopter gunships crackled in the air as I saw empty shells from the M60 machine guns falling down from the sky.

I checked myself if I was hit as I looked at Marc Lerner, who was seated beside me, and the others on board. We were still alive! So were those in the other chopper. No one was hit!

But the air-to-ground gun battle continued for about ten long minutes.  For me, it was like an eternity! In fact, it was the only time in my life that I experienced personally an air-to-ground firefight aboard a helicopter gunship, and so was my American friend, Marc. We were practically in the line of fire, but came out alive unscathed!

The armored hand of God shielded us from harm's way. It was a horrifying incident I will never forget in my life as a journalist. 

At the height of the gun battle, I thought of my family and my 32-year-old beautiful wife, Fe and our two daughters, Sharon, 12, and Pamela, 7.

“What would happen to them? I asked myself.” But since there was no way out, I just surrendered my life to our Lord Jesus Christ.

In silence, I prayed to God thanking Him for saving our lives. Shortly before we took off in Tacloban City, I prayed Psalm 23 seeking God’s protection. It has been my habit since I was a teenager to pray Psalm 23 every morning until today before going to work. I say it is a very effective prayer.

After the firefight, the two gunships, still spewing smoke overhead flew back to Tacloban City flawlessly despite being peppered with bullets. As a precaution, the lead pilot opted to land the chopper at the tip of the runway. So was the back-up helicopter.

All of us immediately unlocked our seatbelts and hurriedly jumped to the ground. Our pilot checked our chopper and counted 13 bullet holes.

“We are lucky, a bullet did not hit the engine which is only one inch away!” our pilot said, shaking his head, but grinning from ear to ear.

The pilot of the other chopper counted more, 15 bullet holes.

A few minutes after we landed, we received a radio message from the barangay (village) official that at least six NPA rebels were killed and an undetermined number of rebels wounded.

It was the most dangerous experience I had as a journalist caught in the vortex of the air-to-ground gun battle between government forces and communist rebels!

Thinking that horrible incident 34 years later still jolts my mind. I commend the bravery of the two pilots, their co-pilots and four crew men manning the M60 machineguns for their gallantry in action beyond the call of duty.


About the Columnist

Image of Ben Cal

He covered the defense and military beat for over 40 years. He had the privileged to have covered the Mindanao War in the 1970s and 1980s when former President Fidel V. Ramos was Constabulary Chief; later as Armed Forces Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and Defense Secretary. Ben is the longest reporter who had the privileged to cover Ramos from October 1974 until July 2023. He wrote three books about Ramos as a military officer, as President and even after his retirement from government service as he remained active in serving the country a private citizen.