Flying a plane is easily one of the most thrilling adventures one can take on. Manning a huge aircraft cruising thousands of feet above sea level, while applying the principles of aerodynamics with logic and grace. At times while ensuring on-time performance and keeping the safety of your passengers in mind, there’s the approaching hurricane, or storm.
But it’s all in a day’s work for Philippine Airlines Capt. Butch Generoso, who has had a colorful 34-year career in the field of aviation. There are days more challenging than others. Googling the man’s name will reveal he was in command of an Airbus A330 carrying 278 passengers when it was hijacked by an armed man back in the year 2000.
“I’m a very laid-back person. So when somebody points a gun in your head and slaps you with a grenade, I think that’s crazy!” he says, recalling the experience to ANCX. At that time, there was nothing he could do. Not even talk. “After a while, when you realize death is near you and you need to react to survive, only then did the power of speech return to negotiate.” Capt. Butch convinced the hijacker they were not adversaries, that the crew will do as instructed. “That gun exploded in the cockpit.”
The hijacker—a Filipino—bailed out after taking money from the passengers, later jumping off the plane, after it was brought down to 6,000 feet, with a homemade parachute. No passengers were harmed on that fateful one-hour drama and the plane was able to land safely at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. For his presence of mind and crisis management skills, he received a commendation from former President Joseph Estrada.
Hard to beat that moment. But there were others just as tense, where it was also a matter of life-and-death.
In July 2006, when the war broke out in Syria, he was the captain in charge of flying an A330 aircraft to Damascus airport that will rescue our war-affected OFWs. “We had to arrive after midnight and leave immediately after boarding of passengers,” he recalls.
When the civil war erupted in Libya in 2014, he was assigned to the flight tasked to rescue Filipinos evacuating to the island of Malta.
In 2017, he experienced how it is to race against time amid what was regarded the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico. He flew an A340 the morning before Category 5 Hurricane Maria and helped to evacuate Filipinos working in hotels there. “We were the last big plane to depart the islands and the winds were starting to affect our departure as Maria was to arrive in the afternoon,” the captain recalls.
He had flown three Philippine presidents—Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo—to various destinations. “During the time of GMA, we journeyed almost to all the continents, even Africa. We went as far as Cuba. You know—those places you wouldn’t think you’re gonna to go to, I landed on those airports,” he says.
He also had the honor of welcoming Pope Francis during his arrival at the Fiumicino Airport in Italy, when his Holiness took an Airbus flight. A deputy flew the pontiff, but Captain Butch was assigned to welcome him upon landing.
Listening to the guy tell his stories, it’s clear he landed a job that stirred his passion. He can talk about aviation for hours on end, without his—or your—interest wavering. He is eloquent, and just like the way you picture pilots to be, he is mild-mannered, dignified.
Looking back, it seems even his life is also a big adventure.
He was 24 and already working for the Department of Foreign Affairs (during Doy Laurel’s time) when he got an appointment to become an attaché in Canberra, Australia. And then a very tempting opportunity came through his father-in-law, former PAL Captain Emilio Balcos. “He gave me a document to fill out in case I was interested in a scholarship program for a flying school,” recalls Captain Butch.
The young man had no ambitions to become a pilot but the opportunity sounded too great to be missed. “The PAL scholarship even covered my stipend so I was making a little money for my baon,” he says. “Everything was free including the uniform. And so I just dropped the thought of continuing my career in foreign service, and began my career in aviation.”
A year and a half after graduating from the PAL Aviation School, Butch was sent to Amsterdam to train for the Fokker 50 plane. He was eventually promoted as captain of PAL’s Fokker 50, and after a month of being captain, he was invited to become a management pilot. “A management pilot is the one who oversees all the pilots,” he says. At that time—he was only 31–he was the youngest to ever hold the position.
It was a post that entailed a different level of adventure—being a 24/7 job.
“For instance, at the peak of our flight operations pre-COVID, we had an airplane flying every time. All of those airplanes have satellite phones, and anything that happens in the airplane during flight—say, a couple of fuel pumps failed—I will be receiving a call, because my number is on the speed dial,” he explains, the pressure in the story making a wrinkle on his forehead more visible. “That call could come at 2am, 3am, or 4am, depending where the plane is—in the North Pole or over Russia. So I need to give a solution right away.”
Aside from his management duties, which includes the rostering and training of the pilots, there would be times he still mans the aircraft, especially when it’s an important flight. To date, Capt. Butch has amassed over 15,000 flying hours.
The job may be tough and demanding but Capt. Butch considers his time in PAL the best years of his life. The perks are nothing to sneeze at. First class travels for the children, even when they were still very young. “It’s because of the benefits of the profession. At a very young age, nagsawa na sila sa Disney Land sa Anaheim—because it’s free! My daughter would go to Hawaii for three days just to shop for clothes. The company had been very good to us,” he says.
But come June next year, Capt. Butch will be retiring from PAL, and while he’s been reminiscing on all the good times, he says he is look forward to taking a step back.
“After 35 years, I could fly another 5 years. But don’t you think it’s best to retire while you’re very healthy?” he says when I ask if extending his service crossed his mind, supposing that’s an option.
“I need to spend time now with my family because I had deprived them of that time. There would be times when I was gone for 15 to 20 days a month. The family had their sacrifices. It’s about time that I give it back to them while I’m still healthy,” he says, adding he had just passed his medical tests with flying colors.
He says PAL has a very good retirement program, so he knows his family is secured. “People could say things about PAL, but it is a very good family-oriented corporation. They take care of you and that’s how I felt,” he offers.
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Sharing the adventure
Of all of Captain Butch’s achievements, it is flying with his son, First Officer Jose Iñigo Generoso, that gives him a different kind of high.
Father and son were together recently in a milestone flight marking PAL Airbus A330’s first journey from Manila to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The 9-hour and 30-minute non-stop journey was the response to the request of OFWs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic—257 of them—who wanted to return home to their families in the Philippines.
The younger Generoso, 36, couldn’t be prouder being in that same flight as his dad. It was, of course, only one of the many trips they had been together in. Despite the goal of that flight, Iñigo recalls the trip to be smooth and unhurried. “Relaxed lang,” he says. I’m guessing that’s the normal state of mind when you’re working with a seasoned pilot for a boss and a dad. And Iñigo has also been a pilot for a good ten years now.
“Ever since, madami syang itinuturo sa akin,” the son says when asked about the things he learned from his dad. “At first I thought it’s hard to remember everything, napakadami kasi. But when I started flying, that’s when I realized that I’m able to apply them. Parang naging innate na sa akin.”
Capt. Butch admits that one of his proudest moments as a father and a trainer is watching his son fly. “I see how [Iñigo] hovers the airplane till it touches down, how he brings down the plane on the approach. These things are very graceful and that makes me emotional. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy listens to me. He has listened to my corrections.’”
Third generation pilot
With a pilot for a lolo (deceased Capt. Emilio Balcos) and a father, taking a career in aviation seems the most natural career path for Iñigo. “They both have a huge influence in my life,” the soon-to-be father of three admits.
There would be a few occasions when Capt. Butch would bring a young Iñigo to his flight. One the chief pilot fondly remembers starts when he accompanied the boy to his grade school enrollment. They were buying school supplies when he got a call that a plane malfunctioned in Calbayog, Samar. He was told to bring a mechanic, some equipment, and since he was with his son, he was instructed to just bring him along.
“On our way back, it’s just me, another pilot, and my son Iñigo. We were there in that small plane flying home to Manila. At that very young age, he knew he was going to be a pilot. It is just a question of when he will start becoming one,” says Capt. Butch.
Aside from his fascination for flying, he also didn’t see himself in a 9 to 5 office job—hence the lure of aviation. He started off with a management course, though. He took up Management studies and enrolled in aviation classes during the regular school breaks. “I was with him when he enrolled at Omni Aviation,” Capt. Butch recalls. “After preparing the groundwork, I figured we have to let him go and see if he really desires it.”
Capt. Butch and his wife got their son an apartment with his schoolmates. “His life changed after that,” he recalls. “He used to be enjoying life to the fullest, attending weekend parties. Then suddenly that changed, because he had to drive to Clark very early to fly at 6 in the morning.” The little boy grew up.
Meanwhile, Lolo Emilio, who had already retired then, would serve as a motivating presence in his apo’s life, filling in for his son-in-law when the latter can’t be pulled out from duty—like being there to witness Iñigo’s first solo flight because Capt. Butch had to fly a President.
Good thing Emilio enjoyed going to the airfield to watch his grandson. “Ako naman para makabawi, I would fly with him on weekends. I ride a small plane with him, teach him skills that the instructors of those small planes wouldn’t teach. Very early on, I was sort of teaching him already how to fly a real airplane,” he says.
A burden and a blessing
Capt. Butch imagines that carrying the surname of two PAL chiefs—Balcos and Generoso—is more of a burden than a blessing for his captain-in-training.
“Honestly, it’s tough for him. Every time he flies, a lot is expected of him,” he says. “And since all the instructors and captains are under me, that can be a tricky situation to be in as well. They are likely to think na pag nagkamali sila sa sasabihin nila, baka isumbong sila sa akin [ni Iñigo]—things like that.”
But on their private father-son moments, such as during layovers, the two would make time to check out a pub, have a bottle of beer each, and talk about the flight they just had.
“One of our last pre-COVID flights was our flight to London. We landed in Heathrow, which is a difficult airport like JFK. I talked to him about what he did and how to improve. Because you don’t do those things during a flight. You need to give your pilot room to correct himself at the right time. Otherwise, you will not be helping a pilot,” he explains.
But on most days, Iñigo says they just talk about things that are not related to work. “Noong una, we talk about my flights almost every dinner time. But later on, matagal na din akong lumilipad, I guess napagod na din syang pag-usapan, iba na ang napapag-usapan namin,” he shares, smiling.
I ask Iñigo if he does feel the weight of being his father’s son. If he has plans to follow his father’s career path as a management pilot, then he certainly will feel pressured, he says. “Pero wala akong balak e,” he quips, his smile bigger.
Besides, he thinks he’s already equipped with the most important lesson. “As long as you keep your nose clean, you’ll get to where you want to be,” he says, echoing his dad’s words.