Nigeria’s accident investigation gets a boost as Sao Tome engages it to help unravel plane crash, sign posting the country’s capability in regional aviation. WOLE SHADARE writes
Zero tolerance for errors
Aviation itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect. Air travel today remains safe, thanks in part to accident investigation. Findings from accident investigators pave the way for important safety improvements in aviation, like the recent changes to pilot duty and rest requirements that address pilot fatigue problem that was a factor in so many accident reports.
All over the world, countries spend enormous amount of money to develop their accident investigation capability to rise to the occasion of thoroughly investigating planes crashes. Accidents do happen even in the best of environment.
The cost of investigating just one plane crash could be as high as $2 million depending on the nature of the crash. Any plane crash affects quite a number of nations. In the case of MH370, one can think of several that had strong interest in investigating the case: Malaysia as the main shareholder of Malaysia Airlines;
China since most of the still missing passengers were Chinese; several Asian countries that could have been the possible crash site; countries that might be active in the Indian Ocean where the wreck was assumed to be, due to the proximity this seems to be mostly Australia even though “only” 6 Australian nationals were involved in the crash and perhaps the US if a technical fault of the Boeing could be suspected.
The search efforts however, were run by up to the 26 nations at its peak and the circumstances make the investigation a very lengthy and costly operation. Who exactly is going to pay for all that?
Facilities in limbo
Nigeria’s Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) for many years was in limbo. Serious efforts were put into establishing accident investigation laboratories were crashes can be investigated. Some few years back, the government invested $5.8 million to build a world class facility. The tragedy of that investment is allowing the facilities to rot away until the Commissioner AIB, Akin Olateru was early this year appointed to oversee the agency
Back from the dead.
Since his assumption of office, Olateru began a resuscitation of the unserviceable Flight Safety Laboratory equipment at the Abuja airport.
The AIB management had signed a contract with a Canadian firm, CEA/Flightscape in 2011 to install state-of-the-art equipment in its new laboratory. The laboratory was designed to download information from Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), among others, which are necessary requirements for a thorough and accurate accident investigation.
The facility was used to download the flight recorders of Associated Airline’s aircraft crash of October 2013 with the assistance of the manufacturers of the laboratory despite the fact that the agency not effected full payment. But sadly, since the single usage in 2013, the facility had not been put to proper use due to lack of human capacity in-house to manage the laboratory, just as there were also challenges from the manufacturer’s end.
Olateru made it a priority to resuscitate the laboratory considering its importance to its discharge of AIB’s responsibilities by galvanising all the necessary quarters to achieve the mission with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the Singaporean government coming to help.
He mandated the ICT to get the laboratory running, which was successfully done with ICAO undertaking training of accident investigators to effectively man the system.
Before now, Nigeria had spent several millions of dollars to offshore firms such as the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) when actually the country could easily undertake decoding plane black boxes. They have always come to the country’s rescue each time there is a major accident.
The turnaround of once moribund agency got Nigeria a huge global recognition when a team of accident investigators from AIB left Lagos for São Tomé to commence investigation into the crash of An – 74 aircraft, which occurred penultimate week on the West African Island.
The invitation to Nigeria’s AIB came from São Tomé and Principe through the Banjul Accord Group Accident Investigation Agency (BAGAIA), which is an arm of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
All costs and expense associated with the said investigation would be borne 100 per cent by the government of São Tomé and Principe.
Spokesman for the agency, Mr. Tunji Oketumbi said: “This is a first of its kind in AIB’s history, and coming on the heels of the rising performance profile of the Bureau and its determination to be pre-eminently relevant as a leader in accident investigation across the Sub Saharan region.”
The An-74 was performing its take-off run in favourable weather on runway 29 at Sao Tome when at some point one or multiple birds collided with the aircraft.
The Russian aircraft, whilst doing an aborted take-off reportedly ran beyond the end of the runway where it fell down an embankment and was damaged beyond repair. Although the aircraft was badly damaged, all the six crew members survived with injuries. The accident aircraft was on a return flight to Europe after it arrived at Sao Tome from Stavanger (Norway), Luxemburg and Ghardaia (Algeria). The only runway at Sao Tome is 2,160 meters (7,087 ft) in length and has only limited overrun capabilities.
Speaking with tour correspondent recently, Olateru said: “We have two laboratories. One is the Flight Safety Laboratory where we do a lot of downloads of Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and Flight Data Recorder (FDR). It is where we analyse them, including creating animation of the flight.
“This is a very important laboratory to any reputable accident investigation agency anywhere in the world. It forms integral part of what we do. We have what we call material science laboratory. It is where we examine metal called metallurgy. This is advanced stage of accident investigation where you want to determine the state and condition of the material. Some material failures can be examined in this laboratory to ascertain the failure of the metal; was it before the accident or by the impact of the accident. This is one that is yet to be functional. The contract was executed about four years ago”.
The agency’s turnaround has also led to its partnership with the University of Ilorin. In its drive to ensure safety in the aviation industry, the agency under the Federal Ministry of Transportation sealed a partnership agreement with the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN) on the training of its personnel in capacity building and development on materials failure analysis.
With the partnership agreement, the nation’s aviation industry personnel will be able to undergo training in capacity building and development using their world class Accident Investigation Laboratory at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
Lamenting that both private and public business organisations expend little or no resources to fund researches and projects in the country, Olateru, an engineer, said that Harvard University in the United States alone has a budget in excess of $30 billion for research purposes.He enjoined other academic institutions in the country to take a cue from the University of Ilorin by looking inward whenever they are conducting researches, stressing that this would also go a long way in curbing capital flight out of the country.
Since the optimum performance of the laboratory was central to the Bureau’s contribution to safety in Nigeria and the sub-region, the AIB should maintain the requisite standards.