C-130 Philippine Air Force aircraft carrying combat troops to fight Muslim militants collided with an aircraft landing in the south Sunday. It was carrying at least 42 soldiers from the army and three civilians. This was one of the most devastating air force disasters.

According to military officials, at least 49 soldiers were also rescued from injuries after the noontime crash into a coconut tree outside Jolo airport, Sulu province. Three of the seven villagers who were struck on the ground perished.

There were 96 people aboard the aircraft, including five crew members and three pilots. The rest were military personnel. Only five soldiers remain unaccounted for as of Sunday night. Officials said that the pilots survived, but were severely injured.

Lockheed C-130 Hercules, one of two ex-U.S. Air Force planes, was handed to the Philippines in military assistance this year.

The plane took off from Manila originally with just a handful of passengers. Romeo Brawner Jr. (a two-star general in the army), disembarked in Cagayan De Oro with his wife, three children, and their family. He’s now set to take over as the new military region commander. The army troops boarded the C-130 at Cagayan De Oro to fly to Sulu.

Brawner stated that he was shocked to discover that the plane on which he had just flown had crashed.

Brawner stated to The Associated Press, “We are very grateful that we were spared but extremely sad that so much lost their lives.”

Officials stated that the wounded personnel were taken to a hospital at Sulu, or flown to Zamboanga. Meanwhile, troops continued to search for those missing. According to a military statement, witnesses said that several soldiers were seen leaping from the aircraft just before it crashed into the ground. This saved them from the blast caused by the crash.

Initial photos released by the military showed that the tail section of cargo plane was relatively intact. Other parts of the plane were either destroyed or left in pieces in a clearing with coconut trees. Soldiers and other rescuers were seen running to the crash site covered in smoke, where dark gray smoke was visible shortly after impact.

Officials said that the plane was carrying troops from southern Cagayan De Oro to Sulu. Many of these soldiers were new recruits.

Maj. Gen. William Gonzales, a Sulu military commander, stated that they were supposed to “join us in our fight contre terrorism”. For decades, government forces have been fighting Abu Sayyaf militants within the predominantly Muslim province Sulu.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known. According to Lt. Gen. Corleto Vian, the regional military commander, the aircraft was unlikely to have been subjected to hostile fire. Witnesses claimed that the plane appeared overshot the runway and then crashed onto the perimeter of the airport.

General Cirilito Sobejana, the military chief of staff, stated to reporters that the plane had “missed the runway” and was trying to regain power. However, it crashed.

According to an air force official, the Jolo runway is shorter that most other in the country. This makes it harder for pilots adjust if the aircraft misses its landing spot. Because of lack of authority, the official spoke under condition of anonymity. He has flown military aircraft from and to Jolo many times.

Initial photos showed that Sulu was experiencing fine weather, but other parts of the Philippines were seeing rains from a tropical depression. Jolo, the main town of Sulu, is just a few km (miles) away from an area in the mountains where troops have fought Abu Sayyaf militants. Some militants have joined the Islamic State group.

Separately, the U.S. has blacklisted Abu Sayyaf for terrorist activities such as bombings, ransom kidnappings, and beheadings. Although it has been greatly diminished by years of government operations, it remains a threat.

After vowing to eliminate Abu Sayyaf, allied foreign militants and others, President Rodrigo Duterte increased the military presence in Sulu by creating a full division.

The government forces were then pursuing Muslim armed group a year after putting an end to five-month-old siege of Marawi by militants from the Islamic State group. In months of intense ground and air assaults, more than 1,000 people were killed, mostly militants and long-elusive Abu Sayyaf leaders.

Sunday’s crash occurs as the military fleet is already stretched. The air force was responsible for transporting medical supplies and vaccines to remote islands provinces during spikes in COVID-19 infection.

There have been many tragic accidents in the history of the Philippine air force. In 1971, a Philippine aircraft crashed into a rice field near Manila killing 40 military personnel. The S-701 Blackhawk helicopter, which was just delivered, crashed in a rice field north of Manila, killing all six personnel.

As it faced decades-long insurgents from Islam and communists, and territorial rifts in South China Sea with China, the Philippine government struggled for years with modernizing its military.