Military plane crashes, civil mishaps raise safety concerns

• Beechcraft King350 aircraft record second crash in three months
• Check ‘inclement weather’ trend, Ojikutu warns
• Stakeholders insist on thorough probe, public disclosure of findings, better regulatory oversight
• Afenifere calls on military to check its fold, says three crashes in four months inexcusable
• Nigerians expressing concern understandable, says Airforce spokesman

Deadly plane crashes in military operations and series of mishaps in its civil operations have raised fresh concerns over safety of the airspace in general. Aviation stakeholders said though the development was a blight on Nigeria’s safety record in global aviation, the sequence of occurrences raises a “red flag” to warrant new precautionary measures to avert more disasters, especially as the rainy season sets in.

Specifically, they called for independent investigation of all recent crashes in military operations, public disclosure of findings and recommendations, a Marshall Plan of action and proper funding for both military and civil operations as critical arms of security and the economy.

Both military and civil aviation have lately recorded very disturbing incidences, though not necessarily connected. Prior to last Friday’s NAF203 plane crash that killed the Chief of Army Staff and 10 others, a similar Beechcraft King350 airplane (NAF201) had crashed in February killing all eight officers onboard.

Last month, a Nigerian Airforce fighter jet was declared missing and suspected to have crashed. While Boko Haram claimed to have shot it down, the military spoke in denial. Till date, there is no further information about the incident.

On the civil aviation front, both Aero Contractors and Max Air commercial airplanes had bird strikes last week, making air returns shortly after takeoff. In March, Aero Contractors recorded engine issues midair, forcing it to make an air-return to Kano. Before it was grounded by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Azman Air recorded series of mishaps, including a loss of landing wheel on arrival in Lagos.

Air Vice Marshal, Adebiyi Okanlawon (rtd), reckoned that the incidents followed a trend that should worry both the regulators and handlers of aviation generally. Okanlawon, yesterday, said given the central role of the armed forces in combating insurgencies, it was important to disabuse public minds linking crashes to operational carelessness, negligence or sabotage.

While the NCAA regulates civil aviation, the military is self-regulated by its own Standard Operating Procedures. Okanlawon, however, said: “I think we should conduct appropriate investigations into all these and make some of them (findings) public to rest the minds of Nigerians and show that they are not due to carelessness.”

Apparently in sync with the general view, the Accident Investigation Bureau Nigeria (AIB -N) has been mandated by the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) to lead the investigation into last Friday’s crash of a military aircraft. The Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from the Beechcraft 350 aircraft have been recovered and investigation has commenced.

Aviation security consultant and former commandant of the Lagos Airport in 90s, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), was particularly worried about the role of inclement weather in air mishaps during the rainy season.

Ojikutu said the concerns on airspace safety might not necessarily be because of the number of crashes within a short period, but more about insecurity and its divisive effects on the country, with reference to the C-130 plane that in 1992 killed about 90 officers in Lagos.

“Friday’s crash was said to be as a result of ‘inclement weather’ on landing. Let us get the weather first and read it out. Then, we may get close to the accidents of 2005 Bellview, 2006 Sossoliso, and 2007 ADC plane crashes. There are others but these got into inclement weather, wind shear to be precise.

“I am very conversant with all that led to the procurement of safe tower weather equipment. The question I have been asking is how many have been bought for other airports, including Kaduna after the primary ones for Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt? How regular are they subjected to periodic maintenance? Were they in use at the time of the crash in Kaduna?”

He added that all the incidents and the prevention of a recurrence are best linked to the oversight functions of the regulator. “We had two bird strikes within 24 hours on two aircraft (last week). This, like the story of wind shear, was regular too in the early 2000. The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) had to set up a unit in about four airports, employed a professional and graduate that studied the nature of birds’ life. What has happened to the unit and the professional? What has been the NCAA’s oversight on these since 2008?” Ojikutu asked.

President of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), a think-tank group of the sector, Dr. Gbenga Olowo, said given that two of the four Beechcraft King 350 aircraft in the fleet of the Nigerian Air force crashed in quick succession, “it is time to ground NAF202 and NAF204, especially if they are same aircraft type pending the investigation reports.”

Olowo added that the prevailing security challenges could not be exonerated, but far-reaching remedial measures would have to be taken.

“That our numero uno army chief has fallen this way is a case too many. Remember the vice president narrowly escaped death in a civil chartered operation. Security issues are delicate. But frequent air force crashes in one single year, within a space of five months, could be due to poor oversight functions by its supervising authority, paucity of funds for routine maintenance, training and retraining,” Olowo said.

Also at stake in all of this is Nigerian civil aviation’s safety record in the global community. Before the Quorum Aviation’s Bell helicopter crash that killed three crewmembers in Opebi, Lagos, last August, Nigerian aviation had enjoyed a five-year safety record of zero-fatal accident in commercial air travel.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) earlier reported that airlines on the African continent did fairly well in safe operations in 2020, though there is room for improvement through the implementation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) safety-related standards and recommended practices (SARPS).

Airlines based in sub-Saharan Africa experienced six accidents last year, two of which were fatal, both involving turboprop aircraft. It was the same number of fatal accidents that occurred in 2019; nevertheless the fatality risk increased owing to the fact that there were fewer flights last year. There were no hull loss accidents involving jet aircraft in 2020.

According to a U.S.-based public affairs analyst, Mr. Ken Iwelumo, “the crash of two Nigeria Airforce Beechcraft 350King Air turboprop planes within a few months of each other gives one lot of concerns. Both crashed while trying to land in poor weather.
 
“Beechcraft 350 King Air aircraft cost $8 million each and these aircraft were relatively new having been inducted into the Nigeria Air Force a few years ago. There are over 3,500 Beechcraft series 200 and 300 worldwide, making it the most popular corporate aircraft in the world.
 
“The most recent five crashes of the Beechcraft aircraft worldwide occurred at take-off. Both Nigerian crashes occurred during attempted landings. The aircraft is sound and safe but very unforgiving when there is pilot error. My guess is that these crashes were as a result of poor pilot training. Pilots have to undergo continuous and rigorous trainings to reinforce their current knowledge and to update these skills.”

MEANWHILE, the pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, has expressed deep sadness and utter shock over the death of the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, and ten other military officers in a plane crash. The 11 military officers died on Friday in Kaduna State when the aircraft conveying them crash-landed. The aircraft was billed to land at the Nigerian Airforce Base in Mando area of Kaduna before it diverted and attempted to land at the Kaduna International Airport.

Expressing its grief over the death of the military officers, Afenifere said it was deeply saddened by the fact that the Friday’s crash was the third tragic incident within four months. In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Comrade Jare Ajayi, yesterday, the organisation said the spate of crashes makes one to smell a rat.

The group said: “The loss of any life is painful enough not to talk of lives of officers on whom the nation has spent millions of Naira. We pray that God consoles them and let the souls of the dead rest in peace.”

Afenifere, however, said incessant plane crashes were raising a lot of questions with three incidents in four months, emphasizing that it is totally inexcusable and unacceptable.

“Afenifere is however not comfortable expressing sympathy over avoidable deaths. The incessant plane crashes are raising a lot of questions. Three high-level crashes within four months? That’s totally inexcusable and unacceptable.

“The Defence Spokesman, Onyema Nwachukwu, while announcing the constitution of a panel to investigate the crash, said that the crash was caused by bad weather. It is amazing that a reason for the crash could be so quickly given even before an investigation was conducted.

“Assuming without conceding that the cause of the crash was bad weather, where were various government agencies responsible for smooth operation of air transportation? What about the technical officers within the Air Force who are supposed to ensure that crafts are airworthy before being allowed to fly? We in Afenifere are deeply concerned about the avoidable losses of lives not to talk of billions of naira being wasted.”

While saying the frequency of the unfortunate incident is difficult for one not to smell rat, Afenifere called on the military leadership to check its folds.x

SPEAKING on constant crashes, former naval boss, Rear Admiral Godswill Siempre Ombu (rtd) said: “Firstly, we must call for an independent audit of all our operational NAF aircrafts. For the recently crashed aircraft, we must get the black box and get reputable aircraft technicians to inspect them and find out the root cause of the accident. Until these steps are taken, whatever anyone says is merely speculative. From my special privilege as the team leader of the Salvage Operation of the ADC Airlines aircraft that crashed into the Itoikin River in 1996, only the black box of the damaged aircraft can give us the true cause of the accident.”
 
The Airforce high command has however described the crashes as unfortunate. According to Airforce spokesman, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, “the last air crash involving a NAF Beechcraft and indeed all the other crashes were unfortunate and deeply painful. It is therefore understandable for Nigerians to worry about the frequency of the crashes.
 
“Without pre-empting the outcome of the investigation board, it is safe to say that NAF pilots are some of the most experienced and well-trained military pilot in the world. The NAF will continue to take the best precautionary and safety measures to safeguard the lives of its pilots and ensure the aircrafts are in the best state of ready as has always been the case.
 
“As stated earlier, NAF pilots receive the best of trainings. Recall that only about two weeks ago, the NAF winged four pilots trained at some of the best facilities in the U.S. All our aircraft also undergo maintenance as and when due and our technicians are all up-to-date and speed with regards to their proficiency.”

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