Sen. Imee Marcos has described Philippine Air Force (PAF) assets as “flying coffins” after the US-manufactured C-130H transport plane crashed this week outside Patikul town in Sulu, killing 52 troops and civilians.

It was the most unkind and unfair statement.

The air force’s aircraft are in much better shape today than during the 20-year-rule of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, when not a single brand-new plane or helicopter was acquired as he completely relied on second-hand equipment from the United States, the country’s sole military ally.

Washington had transferred to Manila a large fleet of used UH-1H Huey helicopters, C-130 Hercules transport and F-8 Crusader fighter jets as Marcos focused on defeating local security threats from the Maoist-led rebels and Muslim separatist guerrillas.

The air force was in better shape before Marcos came into power as the Philippines was among the first countries in Asia to fly fighter jets in the late 1950s — the F-86F Sabre jets — which replaced the 1940s long-range, single-seater, turbo-prop P-51 Mustang fighters.

In the mid-1960s, the Philippines acquired from the US the much faster Northrop F-5A/Bs Freedom Fighters, which lasted until 2005.

The air force re-entered the jet age during the time of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, when the Philippines acquired from South Korea a squadron of FA-50 Eagle light fighters, which were designed as trainer jets.

Hopefully, the air force will acquire its first multi-role fighter before President Rodrigo Duterte ends his term next year. The US has offered to sell its advanced F-16 Viper for $2.3 billion although the air force has recommended the much cheaper Saab JAS39 Gripen from Sweden.

After Congress enacted a military modernization law in 2012, the air force has seen modern and brand-new aircraft, like the Sikorsky S70i Black Hawk combat utility helicopters, the Polish PZL Sokol helicopter which are used for search and rescue missions, the Spanish-Indonesian CN-295 medium lift transport, and the Agusta-Westland AW109E Power helicopters.

In September, Turkey will deliver the air force’s most lethal attack helicopters, the TAI-129.

The Philippines is also planning to acquire seaplanes.

These brand-new aircraft acquisitions will prove that Senator Marcos is wrong about the aircraft that the air force has in its inventory.

The only second-hand aircraft in the Philippine Air Force are the Lockheed C130 Hercules heavy transport which are very expensive to acquire. A brand-new C-130J could cost up to $160 million but the aircraft that crashed, a C130H, was acquired for less than half the cost, at $32 million. And the cost is for two aircraft, transferred under a “hot transfer” deal, meaning the US armed forces are still operating the planes.

The administration of former president Donald Trump turned the aircraft over to the Philippines under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Excess Defense Articles programs.

It was supposed to be delivered last year but the pandemic delayed the transfer to January this year of the first plane. The second aircraft is due to arrive within this month.

Air accidents are common in the country, especially during the time of the dictator, after he acquired the second-hand F-8 Crusader in 1977.

Designed as a carrier-based fighter, the Crusader was retired in 1976 by the US Navy and US Air Force because it was found to be unsafe. It was labelled as the “ensign eliminator” by naval aviators who take off and land on aircraft carriers.

In the Philippines, it was called the “widow-maker” because many of the fighters had crashed. Marcos bought 35 Vought F-8 Crusader jets, resurrecting the aircraft from their graveyard in an air force base in Arizona.

Eleven years later, after Marcos was ousted in near bloodless popular revolt in 1986, the fighter jets were grounded and later sold as scrap after Mount Pinatubo’s fury buried the mothballed aircraft under tons of lahar in 1991.

Imee’s father never bothered to acquire brand-new aircraft during the 20 years he was in power, relying on the US security umbrella for the country’s external defense. He was confident the US 7th Fleet in Subic and the 13th Air Force in Clark would deter attacks against the country.

He focused on fighting the Maoist-led rebels and the Muslim separatists in the south and spent government resources lining the pockets of his cronies and stashing away jewelry and artwork as well as his ill-gotten wealth in Swiss banks and hundreds of dummy companies.



The presence of the Americans in the country benefited Marcos as mothballed equipment of the US armed forces were handed over to the Philippines, including warships from the South Vietnamese navy that escaped the fall of Saigon in 1975.

During the martial law years, the air force had the largest inventory of old and used aircraft, including C-130 Hercules heavy lift aircraft, the smaller HU-16 Albatross, and the F-27 Fokker Friendship turbo prop planes.

Most of these aircraft were no longer in production in the US and Europe. Some of the planes were “cannibalized” for spares to make the other aircraft operational.

The Philippines also had technical assistance from the United States because the air force could get additional fuel, lubricants and spares to make the old planes operational.

After the US bases were kicked out in 1991 and the Mount Pinatubo eruption left Clark Air Base in ruins, the air force lost its air defense capability.

It has no eyes in the sky and a fighter to intercept aircraft intruding into the country’s airspace, and no missile to shoot down hostile aircraft.

Marcos’ sins of corruption and negligence caught up with the fragile government under the late Corazon Aquino. Luckily, there was no aggressive China in the South China Sea and the old Soviet Union crumbled along with Communist satellite states in Eastern Europe.

Fidel Ramos tried to rebuild the country’s external defenses with Congress passing in 1995 a military modernization law, which allocated an initial P50 billion to rebuild air defense capability from zero.

But little has been achieved because of the Asian financial crisis and the country continued to rely on the United States for second-hand aircraft.

The slow but steady economic growth under the Arroyo government allowed the air force to rebuild its fleet of old UH-1H and Bell helicopters. It acquired its first brand-new Sokol helicopters toward the end of her term.

A second modernization law was approved under Benigno Aquino with an initial P75-billion fund and an annual P25-billion trust fund in the budget, allowing the air force to acquire more brand-new assets.

Under Rodrigo Duterte’s government, the revised modernization program got a shot in the arm with a P300-billion allocation as the air force plans more ambitious acquisitions.

Imee Marcos had wrong information about the “flying coffin” remarks because the air force now has more brand-new assets than during her father’s regime.

She should apologize to the air force for her unkind and unfair description.