MANILA, Philippines?As the workhorse C-130 transport plane roared into the night sky, the veteran pilot advised air traffic control at Davao City that he was turning left on a time-tested path toward Iloilo, an hour?s flying time away.
Then the Hercules plane?one of only two operational C-130s in the Philippine Air Force?s fleet?was heard from no more.
Some 14 hours after the aircraft piloted by Maj. Manuel Zambrano Jr. went off the radar, coastal residents started retrieving human body parts and plane debris, including pilot manuals, identification cards, a flight plan, pictures and combat boots, on shores not far from the airport.
As of press time Tuesday night, no survivors have been found but rescue teams said they were not ruling out the possibility of people being still alive.
Officials have found no lead on how the 37-year-old, 37.6-ton plane ended up in fragments at sea.
Besides Zambrano, eight other Air Force personnel were aboard the plane, officials said. It had not reported any sign of trouble before it crashed.
There were conflicting reports on the weather prevailing at the time of the crash.
Air Force officials said the night skies were clear but some rescue officials said on television that the residents had told them there was a squall blowing and that they saw lightning and heard ?an explosion? before the plane went down.
Originally, the plane had come from Luzon and ferried Scout Rangers to Davao for deployment in the military?s campaign against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the military said.
The Hercules then took off for Iloilo at 8:51 p.m. on Monday to pick up at least 100 officers of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) and fly them to Manila, according to Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Pedrito Cadungog.
Minutes after takeoff, contact was lost. That was after Zambrano?s last message saying he was making a left turn onto the regular air route, a routine maneuver.
The military said the crash site had been spotted at 600 feet deep of water between Davao City?s Sta. Ana wharf and Talicud island just across from the city. Searchers reported seeing oil slick and bubbles.
Early Tuesday night, the head of a search and rescue team said a silhouette of what could possibly be the main body of the crashed C-130 had been detected.
Navy Capt. Rosauro Gonzales, task force commander, told reporters by phone that while there had been no ?visual per se? of the plane?s wreckage, a fish finder sonar reflected a cylindrical object on the sea bed that seemed to be the body of an aircraft.
Gonzales said the object lay 600 feet deep and 2.5 nautical miles southwest of Samal Island.
The military does not have an equipment that could reach objects that have sunk that deep, Gonzales said.
Gonzales said the search and rescue team had not ruled out the possibility that there could still be survivors from the crash.
?It?s just day one and we could say that in rescue operations in disasters such as this, you don?t discount that there are survivors in the first 24 hours,? Gonzales said.
Cadungog, for his part, said: ?We still can?t officially conclude that there were no survivors but all indications are leading to that.?
A list provided by the Air Force information office in Manila showed the C-130 was also carrying copilot Capt. Adrian de Dios and seven air crew: TSgt. Constantino Lobrigas and Staff Sergeants John Areola, Gary Dińoso, Felix Pedro Patriarca, Patricio Claur Jr., Aldrin Illustrisimo and Petronilo Fernandez.
Probe under way
Two Army personnel were also reportedly aboard the C-130 but their identities were not immediately known, according to sources from the Air Force in Davao.
Air Force officials in Manila said that only the two pilots and seven crew members were on board but that they were checking the Davao report.
?Let?s hope there are people alive,? Maj. Armand Rico, spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command, said in Filipino.
Air Force officials said the cause of the crash was still being investigated.
Venerando Serafica Jr., a resident of Bucana, said he saw the plane flying low above his house around 9 p.m. He said he could hear its loud engines and he saw its lights on.
From his porch, Serafica said he saw the plane ?nosedive? and he later heard a sound similar to an object hitting the water.
?It was drizzling so I grabbed an umbrella and went outside. I wanted to find out what happened to it but I could not see anything,? Serafica said.
He said he was hoping authorities would soon arrive ?but until 11 p.m., nobody arrived.?
No sign of trouble
Among the debris found on the shoreline were ?a head (and) body parts,? PAF information chief Maj. Gerardo Zamudio Jr. said.
A dismembered foot and fingers, limbs, a scalp, and tattered military uniforms were recovered on the shore, members of Gonzales? rescue team said.
Cadungog said the ID of Fernandez, one of those aboard, was among those recovered on the Agdao district shoreline.
Earlier on Monday, Maj. Donald Madarang, a pilot, flew the same plane from Manila to Laoag City and back before turning it over to Zambrano. He said it carried navigational documents similar to those recovered in Davao?s shores.
Madarang said the C-130 showed no sign of trouble during the two hours and 15 minutes he handled the plane.
What a C-130 is
Air Force officials considered the crash the worst military aviation accident in recent memory and the second involving a C-130 cargo plane, the military?s workhorse used in troop and supply transport.
A C-130 crash was recorded in Naga City in the 1990s, officials said.
?What I?m very much saddened about is our pilots and crew,? Cadungog said.
The all-weather C-130 is a product of Lockheed and is a four-engine turboprop. The crashed plane was manufactured in 1971 and commissioned by PAF in 1983.
Capable of takeoffs and landings from unprepared runways, the C-130, which was originally designed as a troop, medical evacuation, and cargo transport aircraft, has been in continued production for the past 50 years already.
Bearing a newly replaced engine, the plane was carrying around six hours worth of fuel when it took off, said PAF officials.
Pilot error unlikely
Without drawing any conclusions from raw reports from the ground, Cadungog said pilot error was unlikely given Zambrano?s long experience as a C-130 pilot and flight instructor. The Air Force also believed weather could not have been a problem.
Still, investigators said they would look at all angles, even the possibility of sabotage.
?Right now, we keep on reviewing our security procedures. Until such a time we can?t get any evidence, we will not discount any factor,? Cadungog said.
He said the plane?s age could not have been a factor; all PAF planes had been well-maintained.
The Air Force has sent a 16-member investigation team to find out what really happened.
?We will look at all possible angles,? said the investigation team leader, Maj. Gen. Jovito Gammad. With reports from Dennis Santos and Jeffrey Tupas, Inquirer Mindanao; and Julie Labog-Javellana in Manila