A disastrous military plane crash that killed dozens of soldiers in the Philippines on Sunday has raised questions about the Southeast Asian country’s reliance on aging aircraft and renewed calls to modernize the equipment of the armed forces.
The American-made C-130 Hercules plane, which first flew in 1988, had just been acquired by the Philippines in January and was delivered in February.
It was carrying a large contingent of troops when it overshot the runway in Sulu province’s Patikul town in the southern Philippines, tried to regain power and crashed, Military Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters. At least 50 people were killed, including 47 soldiers and three civilians on the ground. The mishap also injured an additional 49 soldiers and four civilians.
A number of soldiers survived by jumping out of the aircraft before it hit the ground, a task force said in a statement. Photos showed charred and broken pieces of the plane scattered on the ground.
The military said all 96 people who were on board the aircraft have been accounted for.
In this handout photo taken on July 4, 2021, received from Philippine military Joint Task Force-Sulu (JTF-SULU) on July 5, soldiers inspect the wreckage of the ill-fated Philippine Airforce C-130 transport that crashed near the airport in Jolo town, Sulu province, in the southern island of Mindanao, during the search and retrieval operations. PHOTO: Handout / JOINT TASK FORCE-SULU / AFP
Sulu was supposed to be the first assignment for the mostly young soldiers, who were being sent south to help with counterinsurgency operations after a six-month training program.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he ordered an investigation "to get to the bottom of the C-130 incident, as soon as the rescue and recovery operation is completed."
“I ask everyone to join us in praying for the pilots, crew, passengers of the ill-fated C-130 aircraft as well as their families,” he said in a tweet on Sunday.
But as condolences from Philippine officials, including President Rodrigo Duterte’s office, poured in, the tragic accident sparked debate about the need for newer aircraft.
There was also criticism of the government’s purchase of surplus or aging assets from allies such as the United States. The Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in the region, according to the embassy, and the decades-old C-130 that crashed on Sunday was purchased from the U.S. through a military financing program.
“The C-130 is a proven aircraft and demonstrated its reach and capability to deliver COVID-19 supplies across the country over the past year. We hope this additional aircraft will continue to be a steady workhorse for the Philippine Air Force for years to come,” Charge d’Affaires John Law said when the plane was delivered to Manila.
The U.S. embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE World News, but National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan expressed condolences in a statement.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Philippine allies at this difficult time and are ready to provide all appropriate support to the Philippines’ response effort,” he said.
In this handout photo taken on July 4, 2021 and received from the Philippine military Joint Task Force-Sulu (JTF-Sulu), smoke billows from the wreckage of a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane after it crashed near the airport in Jolo town, Sulu province on the southern island of Mindanao. PHOTO: Handout / Joint Task Force-Sulu / AFP
Philippine senators urged the government to investigate the accident and to provide assistance to the families of victims. But Senator Imee Marcos, a staunch supporter of Duterte, seemingly criticized the procurement of used assets.
“Stop buying flying coffins! No more soldiers’ widows and orphans!” she said in a statement.
The armed forces dispelled allegations circulating online that the doomed aircraft was substandard, saying it was in a “very good situation.”
“There is no truth to the rumor that this aircraft is defective. It’s in tip-top shape and the pilots are all rated, seasoned and experienced in flying this kind of aircraft,” Edgard Arevalo, the military spokesperson, was quoted as saying. The Philippines has three remaining C-130s, state media reported.
Visited by at least 20 typhoons a year, the Southeast Asia country relies heavily on C-130 planes to transport goods during humanitarian assistance operations. The planes have also been crucial in transporting supplies and equipment across the country during the pandemic.
Greg Waldron, managing editor of aviation news site FlightGlobal, told VICE World News that when the U.S. upgrades to later versions of the plane like the C-130 J, it provides an opportunity for other nations to acquire still-reliable aircraft.
He said the C-130 model from the accident is a “very tough and reliable military aircraft and it’s not uncommon to see them serving for like 30, 40 or even 50 years in some cases.”
“It's an extremely robust aircraft and it’s the backbone of the transport fleets,” he added.
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