Revealed: The shame of Kenya's unsafe airstrips
Story by NATION Team
Publication Date: 4/15/2006

The unsafe state of many of Kenya's rural airstrips has been highlighted as investigations continue into the Marsabit plane tragedy that claimed 14 lives.
A man walks behind his cows on the runway of the Busia airstrip yesterday as he took them to graze in fields set aside for the airstrip.
For few, if any, of the safety recommendations made after a previous deadly plane crash at Busia in 2003 have been implemented, investigations by the Nation have revealed.

And the families and friends of the Marsabit victims are now asking themselves: If those recommendations had been put into effect, would our loved ones be alive today?

In focus now are the 145 small unmanned airstrips, like Marsabit and Busia, scattered throughout the countryside. 

Previously the responsibility of the Kenya Airports Authority on these so-called Class 4 airstrips was put under direct Government control and district officers were made responsible for their upkeep.

However, funding was limited and in 2002-2003, for instance, of the Sh50 million requested by the Provincial Administration (responsible for the DCs) for their upkeep only Sh12.5 million was forthcoming.

One result was that no air traffic control or navaids was available at Marsabit to help guide in the pilots of the plane carrying Government officials including MPs on a mission to bring peace to warring clans in the area.

The landing strip at Marsabit was unmanned and the pilots were attempting to land in heavy mist without guidance and help from ATC or navigation aids.

They aborted their first attempt to land, circled the town for a second try, then in the enveloping fog flew straight into a hillside some three kilometres from the strip.

Burst into flames

The plane burst into flames and in spite of heroic rescue attempts by local people, 14 of the 17 people on board lost their lives. The victims included six MPs, an Anglican bishop, a police chief and other senior government officials.

The town of Marsabit sits within a ring of four hills and a mountain, Mt Marsabit, and landing there is never easy. 

One pilot who has flown from Nairobi to Marsabit many times said the town's topography made landing difficult even in best of weather.

Information from the Kenya Meteorology Department covering last Monday indicated landing would be difficult. It reported significant rains and mist pervading the town from its tropical forest.

When pilots fly to unmanned airstrips they are left to use their own judgments.

Marsabit offers permanent barriers in hills and the fog that make landings a nightmare.

Survivors' accounts point to bad weather and the location of the airstrip as the main reasons for the crash.

The Chief Inspector of Accidents with the Transport ministry, Mr Peter Wakahia, said this week that 80 per cent of accidents were caused by human error, rather than mechanical failure, which accounted for 10 to 15 per cent.

The Busia accident took place when high-powered guests went to the Funyula constituency of Vice- President Moody Awori then Home Affairs minister to celebrate the National Rainbow Coalition's victory in the General Election.

Those killed in the crash were Labour minister Ahmed Khalif and pilots Abdikadir Mahat and Samuel Mungai. Ministers Martha Karua, Raphael Tuju and former minister Linah Kilimo were injured, among other dignitaries.

The report blamed potholes on the runway for the disaster and also said the strip was too small to land a big plane.

The report on the crash found among other things that most rural airstrips were unusable because they were either too short, too rough, or were in a state of complete disrepair.

It urged that the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority should strictly enforce air traffic regulations to avoid future accidents.

In addition the report, by a commission of inquiry chaired by senior counsel Lee Muthoga, noted that most of the airstrips lacked computerised and up-to-date weather reports and in addition some were near high-rise buildings, tall trees and slums.

A man grazes grazes his cattle in the field set aside for the Kakamega airstrip. Although it is in relatively good condition, the airstrip is seldom used because it cannot accommodate large aircraft.
Others were like open fields where residents grazed their animals without fear of the risks they were exposing themselves to, or the danger they were creating for those using the airstrip.

The report recommended that district commissioners should ensure that airstrips were maintained and fenced and that obstructions to the airfield removed, especially tall trees.

With the disclosure that the Government has not implemented the Muthoga recommendations to make rural airstrips safer, fears were growing that with a General Election in the offing, and politicians criss-crossing the skies on the campaign trail, more accidents could easily occur unless the airstrips were quickly equipped with navigational aids.

The Muthoga report was released two years after the Busia accident, by Internal Security minister John Michuki when he was Transport minister.

He promised action to make the unmanned airfields safer. His permanent secretary, Mr Gerishon Ikiara, explained that it had taken two years to release the report because the ministry had to prepare a Cabinet memo for appraisal.

Kenya Airports Authority was asked to provide technical guidelines on airstrips to DCs to enable them take the corrective measures. The Office of the President was to issue instructions regulating group travel by senior Government officials and an independent accident investigation team was to be established.

In the report, the commission said of KCAA: "In general, evidence was given to the inquiry that the authority had failed to execute its responsibilities effectively and of the many lapses that had occurred in its oversight functions, leading to a serious decline in aviation standards." 

It also emerged that three safety oversight audits conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation in 1997, 2001 and 2002 made recommendations to correct the lapses identified. 

The lapses were yet to be corrected by the KCAA at the time the Muthoga Commission was conducting its inquiry.

Staff shortage

The State corporation was found depleted of employees, having lost many of their experts to the private industry without anything having been done to correct the serious staff shortages.

The authority's operations division is the one charged with the responsibility of flight safety as required of international standards, inspection of airfields as well as calibration of ground navigation equipment.

At the time, the inquiry found: "While some airfields are inspected regularly, others have not been inspected for a number of of years. The aircraft used for inspection of airfields has been out of service for two years. This has led to non-calibration of Air Navigation Aids (Navaids)."

The Muthoga team also found out that some of the aeroplanes operating in the country did not meet air worthiness. 

The Kenya Airports Authority is the body vested with the responsibility of the development, maintenance and management of airports in the country. It was established in 1991 from the Aerodromes Department.

The now-defunct department was in charge of maintenance, development and management of all airstrips owned by the Government.

When KAA was formed, the responsibility legally remained with Kenya Civil Aviation, which later transformed itself into KCAA.

KAA successfully applied to Office of the President for relief in maintenance of some of the airstrips that were of minimal commercial value.

There are 156 government airstrips in Kenya.

After the KAA was formed on May 31, 1991, the functions and powers exercised by the Aerodromes Department were given to the new body, which accepted responsibility for:

*Three international airports Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi, Moi in Mombasa and Eldoret Airport ranked as Class One;

*Three medium-sized domestic airports in Malindi, Kisumu and Nairobi (Wilson), ranked as Class Two;

*Six semi-manned provincial airstrips at Garissa, Kitale, Eldoret, Ukunda, Lamu and Kakamega, ranked as Class Three;

*The 145 smaller airstrips spread all over the Republic, ranked as Class Four.

The Commission of Inquiry into the Busia air crash stated in its report: "Thereafter, the Authority successfully requested that the Central Government take over the management of the smaller Class Four airstrips since they were not financially self-sustaining and could only be justified on security, strategic and government administrative purposes."

It is then that the Government directed that that DCs should take charge of the management and maintenance of Class Four airstrips as it sought ways and means of maintaining them, the report states.

In 2004 the Provincial Administration asked for Sh50 million for the financial year 2002 to 2003 but only received Sh12.5 million "for the maintenance of these airstrips, which his office contested to the Treasury but to no avail."  from link