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MEDAN, June 30, 2015:

At least 30 people were killed when a military transport plane crashed into a residential area two minutes after take-off in northern Indonesia on Tuesday, putting a fresh spotlight on the country’s woeful air safety record.

The C-130 Hercules aircraft, which first went into service more than 50 years ago, plunged into houses and a hotel in a built-up area of the Sumatra city of Medan, killing passengers on board and people on the ground.

“The latest information we have is that 30 have died,” Hisar Turnip of the Basarnas search and rescue agency said. “That’s the latest information, the number could go up.”

Military spokesman Fuad Basya said that 12 personnel, including the pilot, had been aboard the plane, which witnesses said appeared to explode shortly before it hit the ground.

Black smoke billowed from the crash site and crowds of people milled around the wreckage, hampering emergency services rushing to the scene.

The Hercules transport plane was on its way from an air force base in Medan to the remote Natuna islands. Media said the pilot had asked to return because of technical problems.

“It passed overhead a few times, really low,” said Elfrida Efi, a receptionist at the Golden Eleven Hotel.

“There was fire and black smoke. The third time it came by it crashed into the roof of the hotel and exploded straight away,” she said by telephone.

Pressure to modernise

According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 10 fatal crashes involving Indonesian military or police aircraft over the last decade. The accidents put under a spotlight the safety record of Indonesia’s aviation and its ageing aircraft.

AirAsia flight QZ8501 crashed less than halfway into a two-hour flight from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore last December. All 162 people on board the Airbus A320 were killed.

“It’s too early to say what caused today’s disaster, but it will again raise concerns about air safety in Indonesia, especially since it comes just half a year after the crash of QZ8501,” said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at Flightglobal, an aviation industry data and news service.

The Indonesian air force has now lost four C-130s, reducing its transport reach in an archipelagic country that stretches more than 5,000km from its western to eastern tips.

Although Indonesia accounted for nearly one-fifth of defence spending by Southeast Asian countries last year, as a percentage of GDP it was the lowest in the region at 0.8%, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data.

President Joko Widodo, who took office last year, has said he plans to double military spending to US$15 billion by 2020.

However, the transport plane accident could bring pressure on the President to spend more on modernising the air force.

“This incident shows us that we must renew our aircraft and our military equipment,” Pramono Anung, a lawmaker and member of the parliamentary commission overseeing defence, said.

“The Hercules is already old, many of our other (weapons) systems are already old. As Parliament we will support giving more funding to the military so that they can upgrade.”

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