BusinessDay

48yrs since Nigeria’s first air crash, inadequate equipment haunts safety

Nigeria’s first air crash occurred 48 years ago in Kano, which may have been caused by an act of God (bad weather), but one out of every six air crashes since then has been attributed to poor safety equipment at Nigerian airports.

The Kano disaster, with a chartered Boeing 707 passenger plane, occurred January 22, 1973, while attempting to land at Kano International Airport, saw the 176 passengers and crew perished in the crash.

However, till date, airports across Nigeria still lack basic safety equipment, BusinessDay’s findings show.

The Boeing 707, operated by Alia, had been chartered by Nigeria Airways to fly pilgrims back from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Lagos, Nigeria.

Since the first crash, there have been a number of air accidents whose causes were attributed to the lack of or poor performance of safety equipment and inadequate skilled manpower.

The various crashes of 2005/2007 brought to light many inadequacies in the flight operation services, as it was discovered that landing equipment were poorly maintained or not available.

For instance, the Sossoliso crash in Port Harcourt and the ADC crash in Abuja were attributed to lack of the wind shear system, which was a major purchase from the N19.5 billion government intervention fund of 2007.

The 2005/2007 crashes showed that there were no radar controllers on duty at weekends (Friday to Sunday) because of lack of radar. For this reason, the site of the Bellview crash on Saturday, October 22, 2005, that could have been detected by the radar controller was not detected or known until Sunday afternoon.

John Ojikutu, member of aviation industry think tank group, Aviation Round Table (ART) and chief executive of Centurion Securities, says at the time of Bellview crash, controllers deficiencies was 300 when there were about 20 airports; today, when many have retired and no serious recruitment and training to replace them, there are nearly 30 airports in the management of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA).

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“Out of these numbers, less than eight are operating beyond sunset because of landing aids, especially runway lightings. These deficiencies reduce operational capabilities of the domestic airlines that ordinarily should be able to operate 15 to 18 hours daily but hardly do 12 hours,” Ojikutu states.

Apart from Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano, Enugu and Owerri airports, aircraft cannot land or take off at night from other airports because they do not have night landing aids.

Currently, the censors of the wind shear in Port Harcourt have been stolen and reduced to just three out of 10 on the runway.

Forty-eight years after the first plane crash, while other international airport runways across the world operate at Category 3, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Nigeria’s busiest airport runway, operates at Category 2, showing that the airport still lacks some safety equipment.

BusinessDay’s checks show that for an airport to operate as Category 3, all the airport components must be upgraded to international standard including the runway, perimeter fence, Instrument Landing Aids, 24-hour power supply, among others. Once a component fails, other components are affected.

Most airports across Nigeria do not have air safety control, perimeter fencing and runway lighting.

A source at NAMA told BusinessDay that the agency had procured Category 3 Instrument Landing Instrument (ILS) but cannot use a CAT 3 ILS on a CAT 2 runway, and this has stalled the agency from fixing these ILS till date.

Further checks show that in the last 10 years, the runway lights at 18L, the local wing of Lagos airport, have been unserviceable, making it impossible for local airlines to land at the domestic airport at night. The situation forces local airlines to land at the international wing, then taxi to the local airport for about 15 minutes at night, burning more aviation fuel and inconveniencing the passengers.

According to Ojikutu, the ILS that were expected to be calibrated every six months were not periodically maintained as most were seen to have exceeded their tolerant limits, and not sure if the calibration of this critical landing equipment is still done periodically.

“Last year, the calibration was being done in the harmattan period when the services were needed most. We are approaching inclement weather in the harmattan period of November to February, and it is doubtful if this has been seriously taken care off.

“We need to pay attention to other critical equipment like the radar, very high frequency omni-directional range (VOR) equipment, etc. Skilled manpower is another crucial neglect in flight safety management,” he says.

Ojikutu also notes that funding is not always the problem but there need to be oversight and audits on the periodic maintenance of the existing equipment, manpower and their services.

Olumide Ohunayo, an aviation analyst, says Hadi Sirika, the current aviation minister, is getting all that they need from the Federal Government using his connections to pull resources out of the Federal Executive Council (FEC).

Ohunayo states that the agencies need to get funding from internally generated revenues because almost all the agencies involved in the safety network generate revenues, but because they have not been able to organise their administrative structure well and show some level of independence, they do not determine how the funds are used.

“Aviation agencies need to be more commercialised in their operations, looking at whatever revenue they generated to be pulled back into provision of services.

“There are some projects that would have helped with upgrade and training, but outright cancellations were what was gotten and a new system was brought all together. Prioritising and optimising is what we should be talking about,” he says.

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