Alkali Modibbo is the rector of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, he speaks on how the college spent at least N500 million annually to maintain its unused two Bell 206 helicopters and why Nigeria’s 70 percent score in the just-concluded International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit was not a pass mark.
What is your take on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Safety audit?
The 70 percent that we got is not a pass mark by ICAO and aviation standards. Since we started flying, 75 percent is the minimum and in aviation, anything below 75 percent is a fail. I was there at the briefing. Everybody took it in good faith; the Ministry, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), NCAT, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and others, we took it in good faith.
Audit is not a witch hunt, but to help you put things right. The Director-General of NCAA and the Permanent Secretary were happy with what they even got because most of the problems we have are implementation of policies that we have on ground. Our policies are very good, but implementation of the policies is what we lack, but NCAA has woken up for the corrective action plans.
All I will tell Nigerians and every stakeholder is that it is good to have audits and if you have some open items, it will help you to close them and even do better. If you get things easily on a platter of gold, you will relax. The ICAO auditors will come back in another 18 months to come and see if we have closed the gaps noticed. In a nutshell, Nigeria is doing very well.
Can you shed more light on the alleged two missing Bell 206 helicopters from the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology?
First and foremost, airplanes don’t get missing; if an aircraft takes off, it must land. In the process of landing, the aircraft would be asked so many questions of where it is coming from and going into. The two helicopters were acquired by the Federal Government about 12-13 years ago during the time of former President Goodluck Jonathan. It was purchased for the purpose of training pilots, but that kind of helicopters, you can’t use them for initial training of pilots. And what the college does is basic training.
The helicopters have jet engines and with jet engines, it is so expensive that an hour training would take you your entire Private Pilot Licensing (PPL) on the piston engine airplanes. So, the Ministry of Aviation decided to sell the helicopters and replace them with piston engine helicopters. The only way you can sell it and get your money back is by auction, which is the approved process for selling government properties.
The process started in 2019, we filed all the papers and requested for approval and evaluation from the ministry. The ministry wanted us to sell it by the bluebook rating, which is the new helicopter prices, but we cannot sell old helicopters using the bluebook pricing. So, we had to request the ministry to look into that issue and we told them that the aircraft have been with us for more than 10 years, redundant in the hangar. Yet, we maintain the helicopters annually to the tune of N500 million to sit in the hangar. So, after five years, we have spent about N5 billion in maintaining the two helicopters, yet we don’t use it for training or to source any revenue from it. It is a waste for the college because the helicopters must be serviceable all the time. For the 12 to 13 years period, none of the two helicopters reached 40 hours flying time.
We talked to the ministry and the minister agreed and approved the sales of the helicopters and we followed the due process. We wrote to the Ministry, requesting to the Ministry of Works to get valuers to evaluate the helicopters, which was done. The Ministry of Works sent this to approved Federal Government auctioneers who came over and the helicopters were auctioned and at the end of the day, the helicopters were sold to two different companies.
How much were the helicopters sold?
The helicopters were sold at about $600,000 each.
Have you replaced the helicopters sold with new ones?
Not yet, the process of getting new airplanes is not a switch you put off and on. You need to start writing to various government agencies. The Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace Development will write to the Ministry of Finance for approval and processes, which will take a while before you are able to buy the piston engine airplanes.
That money could have fetched us two Robinson R44 and two R22 helicopters, but I am sure the Federal Government will want to approve probably one R44 and one R22 because of the issue we are having with foreign exchange. R44 is a larger fashion of R22; the R44 has four seats and the R22 has two seats for training.
How has the absence of helicopters affected training of students at the college?
We have never trained anybody on helicopters at the college. Probably the past government didn’t seek advice from NCAT and when the government wanted to purchase helicopters for its agencies, it decided to include NCAT. The government then, acquired 10 helicopters for the Nigeria Police, bought for the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and others. The government then considered two Bell 206 helicopters for NCAT.
If the government had involved NCAT, we would have told them the type of aircraft we can use for training, which is piston engine helicopters, but the Bell 206 you cannot use it for training. Nowhere in the world the helicopter type is used for training. It’s like you using a Boeing 737 aircraft to teach someone how to become a pilot, you don’t do that.
What is the latest information on the Boeing 737 simulator aircraft at NCAT?
The contract for the Boeing 737 simulator aircraft was during the Princess Stella Oduah as the Minister of Aviation, but the equipment was received during Hadi Sirika’s time as the Minister of Aviation. The intention was to reduce Nigerians going abroad for such training and in the process, spend foreign exchange.
So, the Federal Government wanted to retain the foreign exchange in the country, which is a very good thought and decision. So, the simulator was purchased and brought to Nigeria. The only place you can put a simulator is an institution and NCAT is the only Federal Government-owned school and this simulator was purchased by the Federal Government.
If the government put it in Lagos, there is no flying school in Lagos that is owned by the Federal Government. The containers containing all the platforms for the aircraft, arrived when during the Covid-19 pandemic and despite that, they were able to assemble the simulator aircraft. By the time they finished fixing the simulator, the certification that the simulator came with from America, had expired. It expired in April and they finished assembling it in May.
Then, we went to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) for certification of the simulator and give us the authority to use the simulator, but NCAA said they didn’t have the capacity to certify the simulator for us. So, we needed to have any certification from any approved Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) anywhere in the world.
Since my inception, we have been going up and down; we went everywhere; Canada, South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). And a particular company wanted to charge us over 300,000 euros just to get certificate on the aircraft, which was too expensive. Then, we agreed to train the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and NCAT technical staff on the aircraft simulator. So, we got two engineers each from NCAA and NCAT and another two pilots each from the two agencies. The pilots went for the training and the engineers are embarking on the same training by the end of this month. In a nutshell, the simulator is about to be put into use, hopefully before the end of this year. It is not underutilised, but it has not been put to use yet.
Do you have enough aircraft for training of students?
In fact, we have more than 20 airplanes at the moment used for training. We have 15 TB 9 and five TB 20s. The past regime went into an agreement with Diamond Aircraft Manufacturers. They were going to buy us 20 more airplanes, which are Diamond type. We have received nine of such airplanes now and we have additional 11 aircraft to go. We presently have two multi-engines, which is Diamond 42 and seven Diamond 40s. The 40s are single engines. With that we have enough airplanes that can be used to train pilots.
Though, at times we have the hitch of instructors; the airplanes would be there, but we don’t have enough instructors to handle the training. This is so because of our remuneration. The college is a Federal Government institution and we are paid through the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and the salaries for IPPSS is a government policy, which you can’t unilaterally change. If the Federal Government is not ready to increase salary, there is nothing you can do on your own, but we are trying to see if we can increase allowances for our technical staff, especially the flying instructors, engineering instructors, the air traffic services and control so that we could retain them.
We have lost more than 20 technical staff in the last five years to other greener pastures. When your salaries and allowances don’t measure up with the other colleagues, then people start to look for better places that they can go.
We need more technical staff to train our students. The NAMA is suffering the same pain as we are experiencing. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), NAMA is below standards with the air traffic controllers. So, NAMA comes and grab our air traffic controllers. They air traffic controllers run to NAMA because the salaries and allowances are four times better than what we can offer here. This is not so much noticed in NCAA.
The Ministry is trying to come in for NAMA and NCAT to ensure that these things are resolved so that they will stop poaching our instructors. The only thing we can do is to first adjust our allowances and salaries. If we do that, then we can seek permission to recruit technical staff and instructors, but we have some instructors undergoing training on piloting at the moment. In a year or two, we will be happy with what we have, but we need instructors in the areas of air traffic control service.
With the capital flights out of the country for training on simulator by Nigerian pilots, don’t you think it’s good for NCAT to relocate its simulator to Lagos for effective use?
If you fix a simulator in Zaria and you want to move it from there to anywhere, you are going to spend so much, especially with the devaluation of naira; you are going to spend up to half of the price you used to purchase the simulator.
The only thing the government could do is to bring in another simulator, but you can imagine how long it took the government to buy just one simulator and for you not to have put it to use, the government will not be encouraged to invest additional money on it.
However, I mooted this idea of Public Private Participation (PPP), if we can have some private institutions that we can partner with on simulator equipment training. There is no way NCAT can buy simulator equipment all over Nigeria. We don’t have the resources to do so. No single investor is ready to spend his money on simulator, but I want to assure you that simulator is the best way to make money without risk; you don’t buy fuel, you don’t check batteries and it doesn’t crash. You only service and maintain the equipment and you make your money.
We are ready to give a part of our land to anybody that is ready to bring in simulator and make a joint venture with NCAT, but all what we want now is to get the one at Zaria working, making money and we can now open our arms to investors.