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US military looking for answers after Puerto Rico Air National Guard crash kills nine

Wreckage is strewn across Route 21 where an Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane crashed Wednesday in Port Wentworth, Georgia. All nine people aboard were killed. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Aviation experts in the United States military are concerned about a recent "spike" in military aviation incidents, capped by a tragic crash Wednesday that took the lives of nine members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.

What happened Wednesday?

A C-130 cargo plane, which was en route to Arizona to be retired, crashed near Savannah, Georgia, killing all nine crew members aboard.

Initial reports claimed that the plane was more than 60 years old, but Georgia Air National Guard spokesman Col. Pete Boone told the Washington Post that the plane had actually been constructed in the late 1970s and was regularly in the state of Georgia for routine maintenance.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. According to witnesses, the plane appeared to stall shortly after takeoff and crashed near an intersection close to the airport. Miraculously, no drivers were injured or killed.

The plane had been involved in rescue operations for both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The names of the crew members have not yet been released, and officials say it is too soon to know what caused the crash.

Is there anything else?

Yes. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer acknowledged Thursday that there has been a recent spike in military aviation incidents, most of which have been nonfatal.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller was more frank in his language, telling reporters, "We had a horrible year. ... And my heart goes out to the families that lost a … Marine, or in one case we had a sailor and 15 Marines on a C-130."

Gen. Neller referred to a crash that occurred last July in Mississippi.

Neither Spencer nor Neller would explicitly state that reduced maintenance or training budgets were to blame for the recent spike in aviation mishaps. Spencer stated that "there is not enough data right now to tell you that there is an exact correlation," and Gen. Neller stated that he did not think that the budget was responsible for the Mississippi crash.

However, Spencer said that the increase in what the military characterizes as "Class C mishaps" — accidents that cause between $50,000 and $500,000 in damage to aircraft without loss of life — could be a "leading indicator" of potentially more serious problems ahead.

And according to the Washington Post, both men acknowledged that cuts to the military budget caused by sequestration have resulted in pilots getting less overall flying experience. However, Marine Corps. Navy Adm. John M. Richardson denied any notion that the Navy is sending pilots into the air who are not ready to fly.

Both Richardson and Neller acknowledged that the budget deal signed by President Donald Trump in March, which includes additional funding for the military, is likely to help increase pilot training hours and reduce the "backlog" of planes that need maintenance.

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