PAF pilot killed in F-5A jet crash

- Paolo Romero -
An aging Philippine Air Force (PAF) fighter jet exploded in midair and crashed into an empty school in Mabalacat, Pampanga during war games with US forces yesterday.

The jet’s lone pilot was killed and at least 16 people on the ground were injured, officials said. It was the second time in a week that a PAF aircraft had crashed during the Balikatan joint military exercises between Philippine and US forces.

A US Embassy spokesman said there was no American soldier on board the single-seater F-5A Freedom Fighter, a mainstay of the PAF.

Armed Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jose Mabanta identified the pilot as Capt. Daniel Teodoro Policarpio of the 5th Fighter Wing.

Mabanta said the plane was returning to an airfield at Clark, a former US military base, from support maneuvers with another PAF F-5A and two US Navy F/A-18 Hornets when it crashed.

"It seems there is no survivor on the plane," Mabanta said. "It did not crash-land. It crashed directly and we are still determining the cause of the accident."

He said the ill-fated aircraft took off from Clark at around 9 a.m. for Ternate, Cavite, accompanied by the three other planes to provide air support for an amphibious exercise by Philippine and US marines.

"It was coming in for a landing when the accident happened," said PAF spokesman Arturo Orticio. That prompted PAF chief Lt. Gen. Benjamin Defensor to ground the remaining six F-5A fighter jets and order an investigation.

Witnesses said they heard a loud explosion at around 10:45 a.m. before the jet plowed into the Mabalacat Elementary School, hitting one of the buildings and leveling six bigger rooms.

But a disaster was avoided because the school was empty due to the summer vacation. The three other planes accompanying the F-5A made it back safely.

"I saw badly burned people running away from the crash site. It was terrible," witness Boy Sagad said. Another witness, Daniel Cervantes, said what remained of the plane seemed like a "large piece of crumpled metal."

Before the crash, witnesses said the plane flew so low and clipped the roofs of least 40 houses in Barangays San Joaquin, Mama Titang and Poblacion in Mabalacat.

Metal fragments from the plane set three houses on fire, witnesses said. Police said one of the plane’s wheels smashed into another house, injuring four occupants.

Sixteen civilians were confirmed injured, but military doctors were checking other houses around the crash site for more casualties, Mabanta said.

Radio reports identified three of the injured – Jesus Rivera, a teacher at the school; Junior dela Cruz, a utility man also at the school; and Virginia Garcia, an occupant of one of the damaged houses.

At least three of the injured were treated for serious burns, rescue officer Daryl Manalang told Reuters.

Pampanga Gov. Manuel Lapid said one civilian on the ground was killed, but this could not be independently confirmed. "There is great damage here," he said, adding that the body of the downed pilot was charred nearly beyond recognition.

The pilot was seen apparently trying to bail out moments before the plane exploded. "We saw what looked like a parachute, as though the pilot was trying to bail out," municipal officer Jun Magbalot said.

Col. Horacio Lactao, the Philippine co-director of the Balikatan joint war exercises, said the school building into which the F-5A crashed was only about two kilometers from the end of the Clark airfield.

"There were civilians who sustained minor bruises and they were immediately evacuated for treatment. We are still confirming if there are still others," Lactao said.

Lt. Mary Nancy Pastor, a spokeswoman for the joint military exercises, told AFP by telephone from the crash site, "We have not determined the cause at this time. We are investigating, and we will issue a statement soon."

More than 2,000 US troops are taking part in the exercises at Clark.

Prior to the accident, the PAF had 14 Vietnam War-era F-5As, nine of which were operational. The F-5As belong to the PAF’s 5th Fighter Wing at Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga.

Now obsolete, the F-5A first came into production in 1965. All of the PAF’s F-5As came from grants from the US, Jordan and South Korea.

The last time an F-5A crashed was in 1997 when the plane smashed into a rice field while performing aerial acrobatics, killing the pilot and a farmer.

Yesterday’s crash was the second in the US-Philippine military exercises over the past week.

Three Filipino airmen were injured last Friday when a PAF MG-520 helicopter gunship crashed after a support maneuver with US aircraft.

The PAF has since grounded its MG-520 fleet for the duration of the exercises, which are to end later this month, officials said.

Because of the accidents and the grounding of planes, no Philippine aircraft will be able to participate in the closing exercises of the Balikatan 02-2 at the Marine Base in Ternate, Cavite today.

Presidential Commission on Visiting Forces Agreement executive director Jaime Yambao said the amphibious landing exercises scheduled this morning will push through despite the crash in Mabalacat.

Early this year, a US transport plane was hit by small arms fire while flying over a mountainous area near Clark. The attack was blamed on communist rebels, who had warned they would target US troops in the Philippines.

In February, 10 US servicemen were killed when their Chinook helicopter crashed into the sea off Negros Oriental after ferrying troops to Basilan island in the southern Philippines. That crash is still being investigated.

US troops are also helping Philippine forces hunt down the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan.

Said to be linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, the bandits have been holding hostage an American missionary couple and a Filipina nurse for nearly a year now. — With reports from Rey Arquiza, Ding Cervantes, Ric Sapnu, Pia Lee-Brago

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