Manila - The crash of an Air Force Huey helicopter, which killed nine people on March 28 and stunned the nation, has thrown into sharp relief the dismal state of the country’s fleet of military aircraft. President Gloria Arroyo has ordered the entire fleet of the Vietnam War-era UH-IH helicopters, the main workhorse of the Philippine Air Force, to be grounded until they have gone through safety checks.
The helicopter that crashed in a mountainous area in Nueva Ecija was carrying a group of seismologists who were scouting for places where the Red Cross could settle people displaced by last November’s deadly landslides in the province of Aurora.
Investigators are looking into three probable causes of the crash: Aircraft failure brought about by defects in the chopper; strong winds which might have buffeted the helicopter; and human error.
Even while the cause has yet to be determined, several Philippine newspapers said it underscored the urgent need for military modernisation, which had been hampered by the lack of funds.
The Philippine Air Force, once second to none in Southeast Asia from the end of World War II until the late 1960s, is today a pale shadow of itself. It has no combat-worthy fighter jets since all its F-5s have been grounded by old age and could only rely on the Huey helicopters, most of which were obtained under a US military assistance programme.
According to a congressional report, the PAF had 128 flying Hueys but crashes and lack of spare parts had whittled this number down to 31 as of last November. Of the 31, only 18 were currently flying while the rest were "under repair".
In an editorial, The Philippine Star lamented at the sorry state of the country’s military preparedness. "These days, the Armed Forces of the Philippines must rely on military doleouts from the Americans and even the Thais and Chinese… And as the latest tragedy has shown, they cannot even fly a team of government scientists to a proposed resettlement site without risking disaster.
"A nation needs a credible armed force not just to wage war on enemies of the state but also to defend territorial integrity and perform the numerous functions of the military during peacetime. Investing in that kind of military credibility, however, requires funds and political commitment – two things that are lacking in this weak republic," the editorial said.
* PAF grounds all Hueys; military modernization pressed (The Philippine Star, March 30)
* Investing in credibility (The Philippine Star, March 30)
* Outdated Air Force barely flying (The Manila Times, March 30)