Spy plane crashes in Zamboanga

- Roel Pareño () - April 1, 2002 - 12:00am
ZAMBOANGA CITY — A US Gnat unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) being used in the joint RP-US "Balikatan 02-1" military exercises crashed yesterday morning in a bay outside the city, the US military announced yesterday.

The drone took off from Edwin Andrews Air Base here around 8:30 a.m. for an unspecified "routine" surveillance mission and was on its way back to the air base at around 9:27 a.m. when it crashed into Caldera Bay, some 14 kilometers west of Zamboanga City.

US army Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of US Special Forces in the Pacific, said Philippine divers and US navy SEALs recovered the drone in waters some six miles off Barangay Recodo at 11 a.m.

While the cause of the crash was still unknown as of press time, Wurster said the drone was recovered "almost fully intact," which would allow US technicians to determine what happened.

"Nobody got hurt. The ‘pilot’ is safe," Wurster jokingly told reporters.

US army Maj. Cynthia Teramae ruled out the possibility that the drone crashed because of hostile fire.

The crash was the second accident involving US aircraft taking part in the six-month Balikatan exercises.

An MH-47E "Chinook" helicopter crashed in waters off Negros Oriental on Feb. 22, killing all 10 American soldiers aboard. A recovery team has so far recovered eight bodies.

On Jan. 31, a C-130 cargo plane was hit by small arms fire while flying over northern Luzon, but US military officials said no one was hit and the damage to the aircraft was minimal.

At least two drones were brought to Western Mindanao to support some 160 US Special Forces members who are training and assisting local troops in the pursuit of Abu Sayyaf terrorists still holding hostage American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap on Basilan island.

Local military officials have cited the role of the drones and P-3 Orion spy planes in an encounter between government troops and the terrorists in the vicinity of Lantawan, Basilan last week, resulting in the death of at least a dozen guerrillas.

Pursuing local and American forces, however, have so far failed to rescue the
hostages while the Abu Sayyaf have broken up into smaller groups and are supposedly trying to slip out of the island.

The military said the drones and the P-3 Orions have been vital in the pursuit, especially in night operations.

The P-3 Orion is a land-based, long-range anti-submarine warfare plane fitted with sophisticated computers, including an infra-red detection system, and is capable of launching deep-penetrating air-to-surface missiles.

The aircraft has been in use by the US military since 1962 but has been continually updated and is now used for both anti-submarine and land warfare. The P-3 Orion is also being used in the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan.

Military officials said the ongoing training is exposing Filipino troops to the advantages of remote command-and-control but the use of aircraft would likely be limited for six months because the aircraft are assigned to maritime patrol aviation squadrons that are only deployed outside the US for six months at a time.

Each squadron has nine P-3 aircraft and is manned by approximately 60 officers and 250 enlisted personnel. Each 11-person crew includes both officer and enlisted personnel.

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