Fatal accidents hound, disrupt PAF operations amid upgrade struggles
MANILA, Philippines—The Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) most crucial transport assets are currently unable to fly, grounded because of recent deadly crashes.
The C-130 plane crash in Sulu on Sunday (July 4) that killed 47 of 96 people onboard was one of the worst military aviation disasters in recent Philippine history. As part of standard operating procedure after an accident, the C-130 fleet was grounded.
The Lockheed C-130s are the PAF’s biggest transport aircraft. Two of the four units are currently flying, including the unit that recently crashed with tail number 5125. The other two are undergoing maintenance, with one in Portugal, said AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.
He also vouched for the airworthiness of the aircraft, as he shot down rumors that it was defective.
“The aircraft is in tip-top shape. It’s not brand new but it’s in very good condition. In fact, when it was delivered to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, it has more than 11,000 flying hours remaining,” he said.
The plane that crashed was the first of the two refurbished C-130 aircraft that the Philippines received from the US early this year as part of a military assistance program. The second unit was expected to be handed over later this year.
An investigation on the mishap is underway, Arevalo said. But citing available information, he said the aircraft followed protocols on approach, speed and landing spot as it landed in Jolo.
“What is yet to be determined is what caused the aircraft to exceed the runway,” he said, adding that the pilots handling the plane were “seasoned and experienced” to fly the C-130.
Between July 2020 and Sunday’s tragic accident, a total of 73 people have been killed in a series of military planes falling out of control from the sky. Four cases were recorded in 2021 alone and did not involve combat operations.
Just two weeks ago, a brand new Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk combat utility helicopter crashed near Sitio Binyanan at the village of O’ Donnel, in Capas, Tarlac province while on a night proficiency training flight.
Six pilots and crewmen were killed in the crash.
The rest of the Black Hawk units would not be flown pending the investigation results.
The Philippine government earlier procured 16 units of Black Hawk helicopters for P12.1 billion to replace the aging Vietnam-era Hueys mainly used for transport tasks.
Six Black Hawks had already been commissioned into service late in 2020, including the unit that crashed. Five more units were delivered recently but the PAF has yet to accept them.
The Huey combat utility helicopters were also grounded early this year after a crash in Bukidnon province, which killed seven AFP personnel.
As of June 20, the 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing, the unit in charge of the Hueys, said that its choppers across the country were flown to the nearest PAF main operating bases “for proper storage” as they remained grounded after the fatal accident in January.
Last April, a pilot was killed after a MD520 attack helicopter of the PAF crashed in Bohol province. The PAF has yet to comment on what caused the crash or if these helicopters are cleared to fly again.
In July 2020, four Air Force men were killed after a Huey helicopter crashed in Cauayan City, Isabela province.
Later in September, four military men were killed after a Sikorsky S-76A helicopter crashed near Lantawan town, Basilan province due to bad weather.
In November, a Huey helicopter made an emergency landing in Madalum town, Lanao del Sur province killing a passenger and injuring crewmen.
The PAF, which has vowed to investigate each crash, has not publicly released any results yet.
Arevalo vowed transparency on the findings when available, but said some details would have to be classified.
“It’s just that not all results of the investigation are for public consumption,” he said.
“If there are specific issues that they would like to know about a particular incident and that will not affect national security, we are willing to share that with the public,” he said.
Sunday’s tragic accident makes the burden on the PAF’s limited fleet heavier.
The C-130s, Hueys, and Black Hawks are the PAF’s workhorses vital to transport duties of the Philippine military and national government. These are mainly used for search and rescue, passenger transport, and disaster relief. Recently, these have been at the forefront of delivering medical supplies, protective equipment, and vaccines across the country.
Arevalo admitted that the accidents would affect PAF operations, especially in disaster response, but said that contingency measures were in place.
“Definitely this will impact our ongoing operations but the military as an organization have already put in place contingency measures so that in incidents like these that it might be hampered, it should not be felt,” he said.
“We have Navy ships, Navy aircraft, to help assist in the delivery of basic goods and services. So our people should not worry that their needs, especially at this time, that we are very much in dire need of the rollout of our vaccines. We are going to institute measures,” he added.
A US Special Operations Command contractor-owned Bell 214 helicopter was used to airlift some of the wounded survivors in the C-130 plane crash.
Private airlines have also offered help. “We thank the airlines for their willingness to extend assistance in the medevac,” Arevalo said.
Power of the purse
The Philippine military had sought to buy more air transport assets. In 2020, the PAF asked Congress for 5 brand new C-130J Super Hercules, the newest variation of Lockheed Martin’s C-130 aircraft, to boost its transport capability.
Only two were approved by Congress.
Last February, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the defense establishment was eyeing 32 additional Black Hawk helicopters in order to retire the existing Hueys for good.
Made up of at least 7,641 islands, the Philippines is facing a growing number of challenges, and air assets like C-130s and Black Hawks will be needed to deliver aid to those in need faster, especially in times of disaster.
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