Taiwo Ajayi is the first female Accident Investigator in Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB). In this interview, she speaks on her experience as a woman working in an industry dominated by men. She also speaks on the role AIB is actively playing in Nigeria and West Africa.
Why did you decide to go into aviation?
When I was growing up, the frequent plane crashes that used to occur made me curious to know why it was so and I wished in my mind that I will have the opportunity in future to know what causes planes to crash. I eventually found work in aviation after school and when the opportunity presented itself to train as an investigator, I took it. When you get in here, you need to get training to be able to know the job. I was scheduled to go for air traffic control training, which I did and I got interested in it because I observed that when some of our senior colleagues write reports, there would be aspects where they would need to be at the scene in order to evaluate the situation of things. The knowledge of air traffic control is something that is invaluable because it gives the safety investigator an edge. It was after I got a job here that I knew that aviation is a highly regulated industry. It’s a lot of hard work and perseverance.
What was the training like?
For the air traffic control, it was very rigorous because you will have to do a lot of practical and reading because lives are involved. An air traffic controller can handle up to 1000 passengers because you are controlling an aircraft carrying about 250 passengers which a doctor can’t handle on a normal day. If there is a breakdown in separation, that would cause a huge problem. That is why we undergo series rigorous training where even your emotions have to be kept in check because sometimes, some of my colleagues get overwhelmed during the stimulator training and just start crying when they are told that they have caused the crash of 200 passengers. But you have to mentally strong and focused.
After going through that training, you have to learn how to fly a plane which is also rigorous, because if you have phobia for flying, then you would have serious problems. It is after that, you will be sent to a facility for on the job training to put what you have learned into practice.
What advantages did your training as an air traffic controller give you as a safety investigator?
When I got in here, we didn’t have someone who was a full-fledged air traffic controller that could guide us with the reports. But being an air traffic controller and a safety investigator, whenever the air traffic controller is speaking with the pilot, you will be able to know if what the pilot says is a source of concern because it might be a leading trail to what really happened. You will also be able to tell if the air traffic controller gave the right direction to the pilot, so it is so many things that are intertwined and helps with the job.
How do you sometimes feel knowing that you are one of the few women working in a male dominated industry?
It’s a privilege to work in this situation because it gives you a high sense of responsibility and you don’t take things for granted. You try to follow information that you are given and have a cordial relationship with people around you which makes the work go on well.
Did you study any aviation related course in the university?
I studied Biochemistry at the University of Lagos and I did my National Youth Service in Jos, Plateau State. One of the most important aspirations I have is to have 100 percent safe skies in Nigeria and Africa if possible. When you write a report, it is not to indict anybody or apportion blame but it is to forestall future occurrence. I pray for the management we have in AIB and with the way things are improving, we know that the sky is the limit for us.
From your experience working in AIB, would you say that they have sufficient capacity and manpower in terms of having safety officers that can handle difficult situations?
Right now, we have 34 safety investigators on ground and we have some people on standby who have been recruited because there is always a succession plan in management. We believe that once everybody is well trained for the job, we would be able to handle any situation, not like before when we had less manpower. AIB is playing a massive role in the West Africa as we have made our services available to countries outside Nigeria. The number of accident investigators we have can cover the whole of Africa and they are well trained. In West Africa, not all of them have independent accident investigators like Nigeria, so they look up to us and we are available at any time to render help. We are trying to go multi modal which is a very big opportunity waiting for us to also engage more people.
From your experience and observation, why do you think that you are the first woman safety investigator despite having an accident bureau which has been in operation for many years? How come the agency is just producing the first female investigator now? Why haven’t we had more women in the past?
Aviation has been a man’s world for a long time but in life, when opportunity meets you, you have to take hold of it and do whatever you can do with it and that is what happened in my own case. The perception has been that aviation is a man’s world but it is just now that women are breaking barriers and doing excellently well. We now have lots of female pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and many more. I have been in AIB for seven years and I can tell you that women are taking their place in the industry.
Have you been a part of any investigation and if you have done, how challenging have they been as no two accidents are the same.
I have participated in a couple of accidents and incidents. When I got in, we had senior colleagues who wanted us to get used to the job. I remember that there was an accident in Lagos and I was drafted to the site and it was a horrible scene. I couldn’t get over it for a week because there was total destruction. We did a lot of work during the investigation of that accident. We took pictures, collected lots of evidence and after that, we did other investigations with my colleagues and we drafted our reports from there. Sometimes, you go for investigation and you copy the evidence and at the end of the day, they get overwritten. Such an experience can be very frustrating. It means you have to go to other units to know what went wrong.
When you say that reports are overwritten, what do you mean?
When you overwrite a report, it means that the event was overwritten by something. You may have a piece of evidence but then you discover that the pilot had an issue before landing, maybe they were supposed to switch on or switch off something in the cockpit and they didn’t do it. That may make us lose what we are looking for because we won’t be able to get that information and we won’t know what transpired.
It’s like when you are driving your car and you stop, you may have to switch off your air conditioner or radio before switching off the engine. In aviation, there are procedures for everything and those procedures must be meticulously followed. There is a procedure for landing, there is a procedure for shutting down the aircraft and every other process must be done properly.
If they are overwritten, how do you now get accurate information for your investigation?
It is not only from the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) or Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) that we get our evidence; there are other places where you get information. You get information from the air traffic controllers, from the aircraft log book and we also ask the crew questions. In our team, we have very experienced people who know what the procedures are and know when they guidelines have been a diversion from the rules.
Were you the only female your class at the aviation school?
No. It was a combination of people from different agencies. We did the ATC before I went for investigation. I went to the aviation school at Zaria for basic training in investigation and I got the opportunity to train in air traffic control and safety. It was a very gruelling experience but I passed all my exams because it is not everyone that trains that scales through as it is very difficult.