Death toll climbs to 142 in Hercules plane crash

At least 142 people were confirmed dead after a military plane crashed into residential area in Medan just two minutes after take-off, hospital staff said Wednesday.

The Hercules C-130 aircraft ploughed into houses and commercial buildings on Tuesday after taking off from the Soewondo airbase in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, officials said.

More than 30 of 142 bodies taken to Adam Malik hospital had been identified and were being handed over to their families, said hospital spokeswoman Sairi Saragih.

Armed forces spokesman Fuad Basya said earlier that eight bodies were of victims on the ground or in buildings.

Workers cleared the crash site and cut large pieces of the plane’s fuselage among destroyed houses and rubble in the streets.

The pilot had made a request to return to base moments before it went down, likely because of engine trouble, military officials said.

The aircraft was carrying 113 people when it left Jakarta, including personnel and their relatives, but some may have got off or on the plane after stopovers in Pekanbaru, Dumai and Medan, Air Force chief Air Marshal Agus Supriatna said Tuesday.

The military said the plane was 51 years old but insisted it was airworthy.

Agus said Tuesday that all B-model C-130s, which were produced in the early 1960s, would be grounded pending an investigation into the crash.

The crashed plane was one of 28 Lockheed C-130 cargo aircraft of different models and ages operated by the military.

The accident has put a spotlight on Indonesia’s poor aviation safety record and ageing military hardware after a 2009 crash involving a C-130 aircraft in East Java province killed at least 98 people.

President Joko Widodo urged a “thorough” investigation into the accident.

“I ask the minister of defence and the armed forces chief to embark on a comprehensive overhaul of the management of military equipment,” Joko said Wednesday.

“We don’t just buy. We have to modernize,” he said.

Since the resignation of the late president  Soeharto in 1998, the TNI has undergone reforms, but efforts to modernize it were hampered by budget constraints after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched an ambitious plan to renew old defence equipment, with a defence budget of 156 trillion rupiah (11.7 billion dollars) earmarked for the 2011-14 period.

The government laid out plans to buy modern fighter aircraft, submarines and tanks, and enter into joint ventures with foreign defence companies for local production of weaponry.

Armed forces spokesman Fuad Basya said Indonesia is diversifying the sources of its defence hardware, buying from countries such as Germany, Brazil, Serbia and Russia.

So far the military has achieved only 38 per cent of its “minimum essential force” goal, Fuad said.

“We are happy to hear the president’s commitment and we hope his ministries can realize it,” he said. “The economic situation should not be an obstacle if the government has the commitment.”

Evan Laksmana, a military observer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, questioned whether the aircraft was fit enough to carry more than 100 passengers with cargo.

“While the Hercules C-130 can theoretically carry up to 42,000 pounds (19,050 kilograms), many consider 100 passengers to be too many for an ageing aircraft,” said

“The Hercules C-130 fleet is ageing, what sort of maintenance policies are in place and are they strictly enforced?” he said

Evan said maintenance is not less important than modernization.

“Procuring advanced platforms is one thing, but budget and planning rarely go into maintenance,” he said.

“As most of our military casualties result from aircraft-related accidents, why is the Air Force still seen as a step-brother among the services?” he said.

Jokowi has been publicly criticized for breaking the tradition of rotating the post of military chief by appointing an army general instead of the Air Force chief, who was supposed to be the next in line for the job.

Meto TV reported that relatives of the victims claimed their loved ones had paid to fly aboard the crashed plane, raising questions about whether the crew had breached safety regulations by selling space to civilians on the aircraft.

Fuad said the military was investigating the allegations, but insisted that those on board were military personnel and their families.

He also dismissed concerns about the age of the aircraft, saying it had not reached the end of its service life.

“Planes are not like human beings,” he said. “If a Hercules’ engine is broken and then replaced it can be like new again.”

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