BANGKOK - Indonesia's air force grounded its fleet of aging Hercules cargo planes after Tuesday's midday crash of a C-130B into a residential neighborhood in the city of Medan on Sumatra.
More than 140 bodies have been recovered from the site. The accident is prompting calls in Indonesia for a badly needed modernization of military aircraft in the name of safety.
Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, is vowing to replace all old military planes after the tragedy in Medan, the latest in a series of deadly air crashes going back a quarter of a century.
'Age of planes'
“There must be an evaluation of the age of planes and defense systems. Hopefully, we can stay away from disasters,” the president said in a message sent via Twitter.
“There's a serious corruption problem in the country,” Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association told VOA. “Traditionally the air force was starved for funds, although that has got better in recent years. And so there could be many different contributing factors to this crash.”
Indonesia's civil aviation record is also poor. The crash in Medan comes six months after an AirAsia commercial flight crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.
Cargo planes are critical for the air force in a country spanning 5,200 kilometers and composed of 13,000 islands.
Most military cargo planes carry a relative scant number of people compared to commercial flights. But this air force plane, loaded with ammunition, took off from Suwondo air base at Polonia loaded with about 100 passengers – believed to be mainly relatives of military personnel – plus 12 crew members.
Although officials deny the military plane carried any paying passengers, local media reported that some had paid as much as $75 to board the flight to Tanjung Pinang in the Riau islands.
The cargo plane radioed that it wanted to return to the base just prior to the crash, which occurred only two minutes after takeoff, said air marshal Agus Supriatna.
“Such a request means something bad had happened,” Agus, who is the Indonesian air force commander, told reporters.
He speculated that engine trouble might have been the cause of the crash but added that the aging C-130 was in good condition.
Witnesses say the plane, built in 1964, exploded just before smashing into a hotel and houses.
Just because a plane is old, however, does not mean it is inherently unsafe, according to James at the Australian Defense Association.
“It depends on how well it's maintained. But every aircraft does reach the end of an effective life at some stage. This was an aircraft probably reaching near the end of its life. And it may indeed have been overloaded,” James told VOA.
Killed on the ground
About 20 people on the ground were killed.
Survivors described a terrifying scene of people fleeing covered in blood with their clothes alight as flames rose as high as a four-story building.