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‘Pilot error, strong wind may have caused crash’

Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star
âPilot error, strong wind may have caused crashâ
President Duterte confers the Order of Lapu-Lapu with the Rank of Kampilan to one of the soldiers who survived the C-130 crash during his visit at the Camp Navarro General Hospital, Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City on July 5, 2021.
STAR / File

MANILA, Philippines — A combination of pilot error and bad weather may have led to the crash of an Air Force C-130 that killed dozens of soldiers and civilians in Sulu last Sunday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said yesterday.

“Combination of the two because there was wind, strong wind that seemed to be pushing the plane. That’s why the plane failed to slow down,” he said in Cagayan de Oro City.

“Another factor maybe was pilot error. He may have missed doing something. Not the aircraft, it’s new. It arrived only on Jan. 29,” he added.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the pilot in command, who was among the fatalities, had several years of experience flying a C-130 aircraft. He also said authorities have retrieved the ill-fated plane’s black box.

He said the black box retrieved on Monday should enable investigators to listen to the conversations of the pilots and crew before the plane crashed.

This developed as the number of casualties rose to 53, with the death of one more soldier at a hospital.

“I spoke to the survivors and they said the plane bounced two to three times and zig-zagged. The pilot tried to regain power because he wanted to lift the plane but it was too late. The right wing hit a tree,” he said.

Sobejana said no one jumped from the aircraft before it crashed. There had been earlier accounts from witnesses that some passengers had tried to leap to safety before the aircraft struck the ground.

He said the front of the aircraft was sliced open and some of the soldiers took advantage of the opening to escape. But those who were unconscious were unable to get out and the plane burst into flames.

The Lockheed C-130 transport aircraft was carrying troops bound for counter-insurgency operations in the southern Philippines when it crashed with 96 aboard.

The death toll rose on Monday to 52, including three civilians on the ground, after two of the 49 soldiers hurt in the crash succumbed to their injuries, the defense department said.

Military spokesman Edgard Arevalo said the plane was in “very good condition” and had 11,000 flying hours remaining before its next scheduled maintenance.

President Duterte personally conferred military awards Monday evening on soldiers who perished in the crash.

The Commander-in-Chief visited the Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City two days after the tragedy.

Duterte personally awarded the Order of Lapu-Lapu with the Rank of Kampilan to the injured at the Camp Navarro General Hospital.

“The AFP is grateful for the President for honoring our soldiers’ courage, bravery and dedication to their sworn duty in pursuit of a lasting peace and development for our nation,” Sobejana said.

The investigating team from the 220th Airlift Wing is already at the crash site, along with the 45th Infantry Battalion and Tactical Operations Group 11 to continuously secure the area and gather more evidence.

“Measures are in place to ensure the airworthiness of our assets and the safety of our crew and personnel using them. As such, we have launched an investigation to find out the circumstances of this unfortunate incident,” he said.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) condoled with the loved ones of the victims of the plane crash. “As your pastors, we share the pain of loss that this recent news has brought us. We condole with the families and friends of the several soldiers and civilians who were killed by the crash,” CBCP president and Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles said in a statement.

Funding assured

This developed as Speaker Lord Allan Velasco has vowed to include in the national budget for next year the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), particularly the Philippine Air Force (PAF).

“I can only give my word that we in the House will include in the 2022 budget the modernization of the PAF’s fleet as well as ensure the proper training of personnel in handling modern equipment,” he said.

“We acknowledge the importance of our uniformed personnel, as our dear President Duterte himself has done several times. The least we can do is to ensure that this never happens again,” the Marinduque congressman said.

“There are simply no words that can be said to console those left behind by our brave military personnel,” the Speaker said in a statement.

Congress was supposed to include the purchase of more C-130 planes in the 2021 national budget, but there was not enough time to deliberate on the modernization of the PAF’s fleet when Velasco took over as Speaker in October 2020.

Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, House Deputy Speaker Mujiv Hataman of Basilan and Reps. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. of Dasmarinas City and Ronnie Ong of party-list Ang Probinsiyano extended their condolences to the victims’ families.

“Full government assistance and benefits should be extended to the loved ones of our fallen soldiers and survivors the soonest time possible. These heroes of our time will be remembered for their great courage and service to our country,” Romualdez said.

“Again, we condole with the families of the victims and we pay our deepest respects to our fallen soldiers,” Hataman said. “We can now consider them heroes who gave up their lives for the country,” he said in Filipino.

“I join the Filipino nation in condoling with those who have lost their loved ones in the tragic accident in Sulu. This is very unfortunate,” Barzaga, chairman of the House committee on natural resources, said.

Ong said the “tragedy should remind us of the daily perils faced by our soldiers and their sacrifices to serve our country and our people.”

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, for his part, renewed his call for the modernization of the country’s air power.

“I am unfortunately starting to sound like a broken record in my call for modern aircraft and training equipment for our troops. I am so saddened by the loss of such brave and patriotic individuals in such a senseless death,” Zubiri said in a statement.

“That’s what angers me the most. We’re losing so many great men and women because of poor equipment and outdated aircraft,” he said.

70 dead in air mishaps

He said in about a year, the country has already lost 70 people in military aircraft accidents, including the crash in Isabela in July 2020; in Basilan in September in the same year; Lanao del Sur, November; Bukidnon last January; and the Black Hawk helicopter crash in Tarlac last month.

“This is one of the worst air disasters for the Air Force and the AFP. We really need to fast-track our aircraft modernization so we can stop ruining lives like this, and ensure that no other accident surpasses this one in the future,” he said.

He appealed to the Department of Budget and Management to find the funds necessary for the PAF to replace their aging fleet, particularly their workhorses, the C-130s.

He said it was “unthinkable” that the country’s soldiers have been flying in 50-year-old helicopters and aircraft for so long.

Apart from upgrading aircraft and other equipment, the government should also beef up training programs for military pilots for fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft.

“Modernization entails not only buying the best aircraft and equipment, but also providing state-of-the-art and extensive training for our military personnel. We have to invest in simulators, so we can consistently train our soldiers without risking their lives, or the lives of civilians,” Zubiri said.

Lorenzana admitted yesterday that PAF’s air assets are practically grounded, with four separate crash incidents this year alone involving three different helicopter types or models aside from the C-130 cargo plane that went down Sunday.

“Even when they were operational, our air assets were still not enough. Now, it’s worse,” Lorenzana told The STAR in Filipino.

One of the soldiers who died of severe burns at a hospital after surviving the crash of an Air Force C-130 transport plane last Sunday had tested positive for COVID-19, health authorities said yesterday.

The unnamed soldier, with a rank of Private First Class (PFC) and a native of Pitogo town, Zamboanga del Sur, died Monday morning due to severe burns while confined at West Metro Medical Center (WMMC).

He was among the four crash survivors taken to the hospital with severe burns, according to Dr. Armand Lorenzo, West Metro medical officer.

An official of the hospital disclosed that the four were subjected to RT-PCR test and two of them – including the latest fatality – turned out to be positive for COVID-19 based on the result released Tuesday morning.

Based on protocols, the remains that tested positive for COVID-19 have to be buried within 24 hours.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, the provincial government of Zamboanga del Sur initially declined to accept the remains but relented after being told by Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr. and the local pandemic task force that the body would be buried immediately in Pitogo. – Roel Pareño, Paolo Romero, Robertzon Ramirez, Ben Serrano, Delon Porcalla

AIR FORCE CRASH
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