The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was carrying 96 mostly combat soldiers when it ran off the runway while landing Sunday at Jolo airport in Sulu province, military officials said. It crashed into a coconut tree beyond the airport and burst into flames in a midday disaster witnessed by horrified soldiers and villagers.
Troops, police and firefighters rescued 49 military personnel, including some who jumped out of the plane before it exploded and was destroyed by fire. Seven people on the ground were hit by aircraft parts and debris, and three of them were killed, the army said.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was one of two reconditioned US Air Force jets delivered to the Philippines, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia, as part of military assistance this year.
The plane had previously transported two-star General Romeo Brawner Jr., his wife and three children from Manila to the southern city of Cagayan de Oro, where he will become the new regional military commander on Monday.
Those who boarded the C-130 at Cagayan de Oro for the flight to Sulu were army troops, many of them newly trained recruits, who would be deployed to battle against the Abu Sayyaf militants in the south.
Brawner was surprised to learn that the plane he had just flown in had crashed. “We are very grateful to have been saved, but very saddened that so many have lost their lives,” Brawner said.
Video taken by troops showed the aircraft landing in clear weather and then disappearing beyond the airport. “It disappeared, it disappeared,” exclaims a soldier. Later, dark gray smoke rose from the crash site in a wooded area as troops yelled, “He fell, he fell” and cursed in horror.
“They were supposed to join us in our fight against terrorism,” said Sulu’s military commander, Major General William Gonzales. Government forces have been fighting the Abu Sayyaf militants in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu for decades.
It was not immediately clear what caused the crash and investigators were looking for the C-130’s black boxes containing the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.
Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan said the aircraft was unlikely to receive hostile fire. The military chief of staff, General Cirilito Sobejana, told reporters on Sunday that “the plane lost the runway and was trying to regain power, but it failed and crashed.”
An air force official told the AP that Jolo’s runway is shorter than most others in the country, making it difficult for pilots to adjust if a plane misses the landing site. The official, who has flown military planes to and from Jolo several times, spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authority to speak publicly.
President Rodrigo Duterte expanded the military presence in Sulu to a full division in late 2018, deploying hundreds of additional troops, air force aircraft and other combat equipment after vowing to take down Abu Sayyaf. The small but brutal group has been blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization for ransom kidnappings, bombings and beheadings.
Before Sunday, the deadliest disaster for the Philippine air force was an accident in a rice field north of Manila in 1971 that killed 40 servicemen, said military historian José Custodio.
A recently delivered S-701 Blackhawk helicopter crashed more than a week ago near Clark Freeport, a former US air base, and killed all six air force personnel on board.
The Philippine government has struggled for years to modernize its military, one of the least equipped in Asia, as it grappled with decades-long Muslim and Communist insurgencies and territorial divisions with China and other claimant countries in the South China Sea.