When Yuguda Wielded the Big Stick  

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Two separate minor accidents occurred last week. EAS Airline overshot the runway at the Jos International Airport and barely 24 hours later, another plane belonging to Chanchangi also skidded off the runway at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos causing apprehension and holding up traffic for several hours. In this report, Ndubuisi Francis writes that the unprecedented action by Aviation Minister, Mallam Isa Yuguda that saw to the suspension of two airlines' pilots without recourse to procedure has again brought to the fore the need for the autonomy of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA)

Globally, incidents are part and parcel of the airline business. They are inevitable but minimisable. They occur almost as often as aircraft take off and land or even when parked at the apron or undergoing ground handling. Ramp problems affecting aircraft on ground (AOG), bird strike on aircraft engines and aircraft overshooting the runway or belly-landing fall among incidents witnessed in the airline business. They are usually called incidents because they are not tragic or major.

However, accidents occur in the airline business when a plane crashes or crashlands, particularly causing serious damage to the aircraft or recording casualties.

When incidents or accidents occur, appropriate agencies in the aviation industry play different roles ranging from ensuring the evacuation of passengers, evacuation of aircraft, inspection investigation and recertification.

In the case of Nigeria, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) which owns and maintains the airports is saddled with the task of ensuring the safety and evacuation of passengers and aircraft after accidents or incidents. The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) engages, in collaboration with other relevant agencies, including the National Emergency Managemnt Agency (NEMA), in search and rescue of passengers and aircraft, particularly when such accidents/incidents occur in difficult terrains.

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is involved in the inspection of the aircraft involved in an accident or incident to establish the cause and extent of damage to the aircraft. When established, it directs on the approprate repairs after which it either recertifies both the aircraft and the entire crew to resume operations or passes a verdict of no confidence.

The Accident Investigation and Prevention Bureau, a directorate of the Federal Ministry of Aviation is also involved in the investigation of incidents/accidents and makes its findings known to the minister who makes pronouncement on the cause of such occurrences.

Usually, the minister is expected to rely on professional advice from experts in the AIPB and NCAA before making a pronouncement on the cause of incident/accident.

On May, 4, 2004, an EAS BAC-1-11 aircraft crashed in Kano during take off killing about 100 passengers on board, including a serving minister.

The normal procedure was followed as all BAC-1-11 aircraft in the country were grounded for investigations to be carried out to establish whether the cause of the mishap arose from that aircraft type. However, before the AIPB could turn its report, the then Aviation Minister, Dr. (Mrs) Kema Chikwe slammed a ban on all BAC-1--11 aircraft in the country and further issued a policy directive that all aircraft in the country must not be older than 22 years.

Criticsm trailed these actions but they are today fait accompli. Critics particularly flawed the action of banning the BAC-1-11 aircraft since investigations did not establish any default in that aircraft type. Today, all BAC-1-11 aircraft in Nigeria are "forcefully" retired and are no longer used for passenger operations. Many airlines with that aircraft type dominating their fleet are yet to recover from that policy. Albarka Air is an exmaple.

The incidents that happened on Saturday, June 11 and Sunday June 12 involving an EAS B737-200 aircraft at the Jos Airport and Chanchangi B727-200 airplane at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos respectively have indeed brought to the fore, the glaring flaws in the nation's aviation industry. The EAS aircraft piloted by Capt. Ndubuisi Ekwueme reportedly took off from Lagos at about 10 am and headed to Jos.

On approaching Jos, the pilot was confronted with adverse weather situation, prompting him to divert to the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport Abuja and later to the Minna Airport were he hoped to land. The same situations were prevalent at these two airports.

Confronted with these realities, the pilot, from the accounts of passengers aboard the airplane also tried the Kaduna airport where luck did not smile on him.

The obvious decision he made was to return to Jos after a harrowing experience of hovering in the air for about two and half hours. He put his professional instincts on display and landed on the waterlogged runway and the aircraft skidded off before coming to a stop. No lives were lost and from accounts, the aircraft did not also record any visible damage.

Barely 24 hours later, a Chanchangi Airlines plane which took off from Abuja also overshot the runway as it it skidded off on landing on the waterlogged runway which resulted from a heavy downpour. Capt. Bala Ramalan was the pilot in command.

Some few hours later, the Aviation Minister, Mallam Isa Yuguda flew into Lagos and after inspecting the Chanchangi aircraft, addressed newsmen but his pronouncements have already unsettled the industry.

Highlights of his address were that the while the EAS aircraft overshot the runway by about 40 metres, that of Chanchangi was by about 100 metres, adding that investigators from the Accident Investigations and Prevention Bureau (AIPB) of his ministry and those of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) have already waded into the two incidents.

The two pilots that were in command of the two airplanes were therefore suspended for three months while all pilots, including the two suspended must undergo compulsory recurrency training.

All the airlines were directed to ensure the training was concluded within three months while NCAA was saddled with the mandate to ensure strict compliance.

In handing down the sanctions to the pilots, Yuguda said they flouted instructions by air traffic controllers not to land at the respective airports considering the state of runways. In other words, the pilots were expected to suspend the aircraft in the air ad infinitum.

According to Yuguda, who was flanked by the chief executives of NCAA, Fidelis Onyeyiri and his NAMA counterpart, Emperor Onasanya, during the session with newsmen, the pilots were supposed to use alternate airports filed in their flight plan instead of landing at the waterlogged runways against air traffic instructions.

The first question that arises from this is how did the minister know that the pilots defied air traffic instructions? Was he informed by the air traffic controllers or Did he listen to the cockpit recording before arriving at this conclusion? Beyond this, did he get the report of the AIPB before drawing his conclusion?

From the accounts available from passengers aboard the EAS aircraft, the pilot made an attempt to land at about four airports and was confronted with the same runway flooding and adverse weather as the Jos Airport. Where does the minister's argument on using alternate airports come in here?

Was the EAS pilot expected to hang in the air forever or should he be applauded for taking a sound professional option of landing and controlling the aircraft that overshot the runway without recording any casualty?

Then, to the Chanchangi aircraft and pilot. From the account given by the Lagos Coordinator/ Public Relations Manager of the airline, Alhaji Mohammed Tukur, the aircraft was cleared to land, adding that the landing was normal but the aircraft skidded off the slippery waterlogged runway. The aircraft, he said skidded off until it ended up in a ditch, noting that all the 129 passengers onboard were evacuated safely.

According to Tukur, as soon as the incident occurred, officials of NCAA and FAAN were on hand to ascertain if there were damages at the runway facilities or the aircraft.

Tukur who said no damage occurred to the aircraft however appealed to FAAN to expedite action on the completion of the 19R runway which has been undergoing resurfacing for about nine months now, forcing both local and domestic flghts to be shifted to 19L which hitherto was reserved for domestic flights.

Following, these wherein lies the offence of these pilots? Were the pilots the architects of runways that were obviously not well planned or maintained? Did they flout air traffic instructions as claimed by the minister? Were they not supposed to land at all when other alternate airport runways were submerged in flood? Above all, where did Yuguda derive his powers of suspending pilots? Why did it take him several hours to address newsmen on his action if he was acting in good faith?

What is the penalty for FAAN which has failed to maintain wholesome airport runways? Why is it taking eternity for the completion of the 19R runway at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos?

It is instructive that the sack of the former Managing Director of FAAN, Engr. Sani Baba, believed to be highly industrious and principled was partly because of his stance on the resurfacing of the runway? What is the place of FAAN in aqua planning at the airports?

Then to the most critical question. Where did the minister derive the powers to suspend pilots and why did he not wait for investigations to be concluded before taking decisions?

Last year in the United Kingdom, an air traffic controller was suspended after two aircraft almost collided at Manchester Airport. A MY Travel jet carrying 220 passengers was forced to abort take-off when a Ryanair plane crossed the airport runway. The plane had reached 120mph when the pilot made an emergency stop, but the pilots of both aircraft appear to have been acting in accordance with air traffic instructions.

The pilot of the MY Travel Airbus A321 believed he had been given clearance to take off. Ryanair said the pilot of its Boeing 737 had also been given clearance to cross the runway. The Ryanair flight had just landed from Dublin and was crossing the runway to reach the terminal.

The My Travel jet flew off 90 minutes later after engineers carried out safety checks and tested its brakes. Nobody was injured in the incident. A National Air Traffic Services (NATS) spokesman said: "The air traffic controller's suspension is an entirely routine standard procedure while the AAIB investigation continues. "He will remain suspended until the investigation is complete. His suspension suggests no guilt whatsoever. I can confirm the incident did take place and is subject to the AAIB investigation".

In the case of Nigeria, it is the NCAA that is supposed to sanction pilots after investigations and not the minister. By usurping the powers of NCAA, he has again given further impetus to the belief that the quest for NCAA to gain autonomy is being delayed to serve the whims and caprices of officialdom.

The minister's action wouldn't have happened in an autonomous NCAA. But a more significant point must be made here. The NCAA boss who is a professional did not behave like a thoroughbred professional. Why did he not advise the minister about his action?

During the time of the pioneer director general of NCAA, now late, Engr. Zakari Haruna, this would not have happened. Chikwe respected him for his principled professional stance on such issues.

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Another man that commanded respect in issues like the suspension of the pilots was the former NAMA boss, Yusuf Mohammed. He would not have allowed any minister flout the rules. Let's look at the suspension of the pilots again and the implications. The minister had after the Chanchangi aircraft incident on December 29, 2004 praised the professionalism of the pilot who belly-landed the aircraft which had landing gear problem.

The same minister is today passing a vote of no confidence on all the pilots instead of praising them even when they have not been found deficient.




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