18th February, 2012
Although the Accident Investigation Bureau, AIB, the agency in charge of investigating plane crashes in Nigeria, has continually released partial reports and mostly blamed weather for the three major plane crashes that occurred in Nigeria in 2005 and 2006, documents obtained by the Associated Press, through the Freedom of Information Act in the United States, show harrowing human errors contributed to the crashes that killed hundreds of people.
The U.S. became involved in those inquiries because the planes were manufactured by U.S. companies and because Nigeria requested the help of American investigators.
A report on the 22 October, 2005 crash of a Bellview Airlines flight that killed 177 people, showed the plane nose-dived into the ground at high speed.
The plane’s captain, a 49-year-old former pilot, had been hired by Bellview after he had been working at a dairy for about 14 years, the summary read.
The pilot also had been “shot in the head during a robbery attempt” during that break from flying, the report said.
“Interestingly, the Nigerian … medical records do not contain any medical or hospitalisation history of this event,” the report read.
The unnamed author of the report wrote that investigators would follow up on that detail, though no other documents released by the FAA refer to it again.
Harold Demuren, director general of Nigeria’s aviation authority, said officials have worked to ensure safety regulations were followed.
“Nigeria had a really woeful accident records and those were the results,” Demuren said. “However, you must add to it that things have improved tremendously since then.”
At the Bellview crash site, deep in rural Nigeria, villagers looted the few pieces of what remained from the plane, likely including its “black box” recorders, according to an investigation summary.
The 10 December, 2005 crash of a Sosoliso Airlines flight full of schoolchildren from Abuja to Port Harcourt, which killed 107 people, including famous cleric, Pastor Bimbo Odukoya, appears to have involved both pilot error and weather.
The US Federal Aviation Administration , FAA, report says that the pilot was “reportedly racing a thunderstorm” nearing the airport.
The inclement weather also forced the pilot to make an instrument landing — meaning that visibility had been reduced to the point the pilot needed to rely on instruments to make his landing, the report read.
The plane crash landed on the grass alongside the runway, broke apart and caught fire.
The third plane crash — a 29 October, 2006 Aviation Development Co., ADC, flight from Abuja to Sokoto — killed 96 people, including Muslim spiritual leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Maccido. The report says that the plane crashed 76 seconds after going airborne.
The report says that just before the crash, alarms began sounding in the cockpit and the pilots’ incorrect actions stalled the plane.
“Although bad weather may have created the situation, which the pilots reacted to, they reacted inappropriately,” the report reads.
Even more disturbing for investigators was the airline’s operation manual for pilots and cockpit staff, which “did not contain any information on adverse weather condition as that section was blank.”
The manual was duly approved by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, despite containing the blank section.
“The deficiency in the operation manual would probably make it difficult for pilots to take appropriate decision on when to go or not to go in (an) adverse weather condition,” the report said.
Many times, the ex-commissioner of the AIB, at conferences had claimed that the full report was not available.
“It takes many years to investigate plane crashes,” he said many times.
His spokesperson, Mr. Tunji Oketunbi, also in many interactions with journalists claimed the reports were not out as investigations were still ongoing.
“Even in the United States, plane crashes are investigated over a long period of time,” Oketunbi once said.
NCAA Director General, Dr. Harold Demuren, who is leaving the agency month ending never released the gloomy reports either.
The country was in the dark and those killed have not been compensated many years after.
A 2009 study done for the World Bank concluded the aviation authority spends more than 90 percent of its budget on salaries and cannot fund training or equipment needs.
The authority “is still struggling to enforce quality, safety, and security standards on federal agencies operating Nigeria’s airport and airspace systems,” the study said.
Demuren, the authority’s director general, acknowledges that challenges remain for his agency as it has an aging work force and old equipment but he insists things have improved greatly.
In the five years since the ADC crash, Nigeria has not had another major commercial airplane crash, something the nation’s leaders point to with pride. In August 2010, the U.S. announced it had given Nigeria the FAA’s Category 1 status, its top safety rating that allows the nation’s domestic carriers to fly directly to the U.S.
The Nigerian government said it also now has full radar coverage of the entire nation. However, in a nation where the state-run electricity company is in tatters, state power and diesel generators sometimes both fail at airports, making radar screens go blank.
Yet air travel has never been so popular in Nigeria, whose growing middle and business class rely on air travel to avoid the country’s poorly maintained and dangerous roads. The country had nearly 14 million air passengers in 2009, according to a December study by Lagos-based Ciuci Consulting and Financial Derivatives Co.
The nation’s largest carrier, Arik Air Ltd., soon will have a fleet of 40 aircraft, the study said.
Yet Arik, like the nation’s seven other domestic carriers, faces increasing economic pressure from rising jet fuel costs in a nation that must import the majority of its fuel despite being Africa’s top oil producer, said Fola Onasanya, an analyst at Ciuci Consulting.
Major maintenance must be done outside the country, as Nigeria does not have the manpower or capability to do it locally, Onasanya said. Government regulations and taxes also add additional burden on companies in a nation where airlines have scrimped on maintenance in the past to cut costs.
“There’s always been that pressure,” Onasanya said.
By Simon Ateba with AP report