*The complex world of air crash investigations
By Jide Ajani
Against the backdrop of the hue and cry that reports of past investigations into air crashes are never made public, this report digs deep and discovers that the reason for this can be traced to the embarrassing disparity between the reports of the National Transport Safety Board, NTSB, of America, and those of Nigeria’s ministry of aviation.
It was all about reverse psychology. With more than 13,000 safety recommendations to more than 2,500 recipients in the world, the National Transport Safety Board, NTSB, established in the United States of America, USA, remains the global, authentic investigation agency regarding air crash matters.
Yet, the findings and recommendations of the NTSB appear not to have been taken seriously by the authorities in Nigeria.
Sunday Vanguard approached three former aviation ministers with a view to understanding why reports of past investigations into air crashes were never really made public. It was only Femi Fani-Kayode who agreed to go on record. The two others refused to go on record but agreed to speak on conditions of anonymity.
Interestingly, there appeared to be a convergence of independent views that “the aviation industry had been beset by large scale corruption and complicity”.
Added to this, some senior officials in the aviation ministry were said to have “constituted themselves into tin-gods and were calling the shots such that the sector was held hostage by them”.
Rewind to Saturday, October 22, 2005.
That fateful evening, Bellview Airlines Flight 210, a Boeing 737-200 aircraft, crashed shortly after take off from the local wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos.
All of its 117 human cargo perished. The NTSB was invited to assist local authorities in investigating the “immediate and remote causes” of the crash.
The findings by the NTSB were shocking.
A former aviation minister said the report of the NTSB was markedly different from the one presented by the aviation ministry.
Although the two reports were not readily available for Sunday’s Vanguard’s perusal, the minister swore that the NTSB concluded that the crash of the Bellview aircraft may have been caused by what was described as a “low incendiary device”.
Pressed further, one of the ministers explained that whereas the mention of the exact device was not in the NISB report, “there were strong indications that there was more to the crash”. Fani-Kayode hinted at this in the interview overleaf when he elaborated on the matter.
Asked by Sunday Vanguard to either corroborate or dispel this revelation, Fani-Kayode said “The NTSB report on te Bellview crash said some very interesting and disturbing things about what actually brought that plane down. It had nothing to do with any failing on the part of Bellview airline but there was definitely another factor which I will not go into here”.
Quoting another minister who had spoken anonymously, Fani-Kayode insisted that “all I can simply add is that the American FBI also did a preliminary report in which they even recommended a criminal investigation into the matter because it was clear that there was more to that crash than met the eye”.
Surprisingly, he added, “by way of contrast the reports filed by our own security agencies and the Ministry of Aviation under my predecessor in office omitted some things and contradicted it”.
Officially, the blame for the Bellview crash was put on cross winds and not the alleged “low incendiary device”.
Meanwhile, the report of the NTSB, which was “established in 1967 to conduct independent investigations of all civil aviation accidents in the United States and major accidents in the other modes of transportation, participates in the investigation of aviation accidents and serious incidents outside the United States in accordance with the Chicago Convention of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS)”, never saw the light of day because of the noted disparity.
That was not the only instance.
Sunday Vanguard was also reliably informed by another ministerial source that the “Sosoliso crash of Saturday, December 10, 2005, may have been blamed on weather but the real reason people died was because there was no water hydrant at the Port Harcourt Airport”.
The source added: “Contracts had been awarded but the hydrants were not in place and, therefore, when the fire began engulfing the plane there was no water to use in stopping the fire”.
In the instance of the Bellview crash report, it was learnt that “once President Obasanjo was made to understand that the preliminary report of the investigation into the crash suggested a “low incendiary device”, he insisted that further thorough investigations should be carried out for fear of creating panic.
In fact, the NTSB report was said to be immediately treated like a security document.
Again, the report by the aviation ministry contradicted the NTSB report.
Therefore, Sunday Vanguard was informed, “it became a bit difficult to release two reports of the same air disaster with different conclusions”.
In the area of complicity, it was gathered that most of the operating airlines in Nigeria today, “have the backing of very influential and powerful people and some of them are in government”.
In fact, prior to the multiple air crashes in the country in 2005, officials of the aviation ministry saddled with the responsibility of investigating air disasters “were not doing a thorough job hence the very poor state of safety standards in the country”.
Interestingly, President Goodluck Jonathan has set up a committee to probe the incident.
This may actually be a joke.
Competent sources in the sector told Sunday Vanguard that all over the world, platitudes and engagements that suggest mere posturing are not applied in getting to the root causes of an air disaster.
Rather, it is the Accident Investigation Bureau, AIB, seeking support of and working in collaboration with the NTSB, that is saddled with the effort.
The committee that has been set up has Group Captain John Obakpolor as chairman.
The committee, fears are already being expressed, would be operating under the shadows of the Aviation Ministry. The country awaits the report of the committee.
The 12 crashes that took place between 2005 and 2012 and which all resulted in loss of lives were –
1. 2005- Bellview Airline crash
2. 2006 Sossoliso Airline crash
3. 2006 Light aircraft crash
4. 2006 Crash of plane carrying senior army officers
5. 2008 ADC Airline crash
6. 2008 1st Light aircraft crash
7. 2008 2nd Light aircraft crash
8. 2009 Light aircraft crash
9. 2009 Helicopter crash
10. 2011 Helicopter crash
11. 2012 Helicopter crash
12. 2012 Dana Air crash
I should also mention the EAS Airline crash which took place in 2002 and which resulted in massive loss of lives. That was a particularly terrible crash and the Minister of Sports of that day, amongst many others, perished in it. If you add that one then you can conclude that we have had 13 major air disasters in the last 10 years in our country and this has resulted in the loss of over 750 precious souls. This is sad and unacceptable.
STANDARD PROCEDURE FOR AIR CRASH INVESTIGATION
The investigating Go Team’s immediate boss is the Investigator-in-Charge (IIC), a senior investigator with years of NTSB and industry experience. Each investigator is a specialist responsible for a clearly defined portion of the accident investigation. In aviation, these specialties and their responsibilities are:
OPERATIONS: The history of the accident flight and crewmembers’ duties for as many days prior to the crash as appears relevant.
STRUCTURES: Documentation of the airframe wreckage and the accident scene, including calculation of impact angles to help determine the plane’s pre-impact course and attitude.
POWERPLANTS: Examination of engines (and propellers) and engine accessories.
SYSTEMS: Study of components of the plane’s hydraulic, electrical, pneumatic and associated systems, together with instruments and elements of the flight control system.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Reconstruction of the air traffic services given the plane, including acquisition of ATC radar data and transcripts of controller-pilot radio transmissions.
WEATHER: Gathering of all pertinent weather data from the National Weather Service, and sometimes from local TV stations, for a broad area around the accident scene.
HUMAN PERFORMANCE: Study of crew performance and all before-the-accident factors that might be involved in human error, including fatigue, medication, alcohol. Drugs, medical histories, training, workload, equipment design and work environment.
SURVIVAL FACTORS: Documentation of impact forces and injuries, evacuation, community emergency planning and all crash-fire-rescue efforts.