June 16, 2012

Nigerians Don’t Crash; We Bounce

Nigerians Don’t Crash; We Bounce

*Charred carcase of the aircraft after the crash

The question of Randomness and the crash of DANA Air flight 9J -992

By Yemisi Ogbe

Captain Bode Olubiyi was my Uncle. He died on the 20th of April 2012. He had been ill for three years. In the stretch of his career as an airline pilot, he had flown for most of the major airlines in Nigeria: Nigerian Airways, Okada Air, Chachangi Airways, Virgin Airways etc. His career spanned over thirty years in flying Nigerians on Nigerian planes. I was of the opinion that he had impeccable instincts where his job was concerned.

But from his change of employment from one airline to the other and his temperament, one could deduce that he was not the model employee. He was known for speaking his mind often to his own detriment. On various occasions, he refused to fly a plane because he knew the history of the plane and he resented being asked to risk his life and the lives of those in his care. He resented enough, was strong enough to refuse to fly and consequently bear seasons of unemployment.

On more than one occasion, he got the sack for refusing to fly an airplane. He was regarded as a crank, suspended often yet no one that knew him doubted for one second that he knew his job in and out and that he was a good pilot. It was a contradiction that his family was often impatient with. On the 29th of December 2004 on route from Port Harcourt to Lagos, the Chachangi Boeing 727 with registration number 5N BEU which he was flying developed technical problems. The nose wheel gear of the plane failed to eject.

There were 81 people on board as well as 6 crew members. His experience in both navigating the faulty 727 and checking the emergency situation, saved the lives of 87 people and earned him a commendation…a signed piece of paper from the Minister of Aviation. I saw it hang on the wall.

The plane crash-landed at Murtala Mohammed Airport that Wednesday night on its belly barely avoiding the usual sparks and fire.

The story was more glamorous than the shabby commendation hanging on the wall.There were many thanks given to God, many references to miracles. And above it all, the inevitable question-mark hanging over the condition of the airplane and whether the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority had its acts together.

I had known Captain Olubiyi for most of my life. He met and married my mother’s sister when I was a toddler. Our conversations about Nigerian Aviation began not because I was interested in airplanes but because Wings Aviation Beechcraft 1900D (5N JAH) belonging to James Ibori, managed by a suave Nigerian pilot Captain Nogie Meggison who had earned his stripes in the industry disappeared off the radar on the night of 15th March 2008.

*Charred carcase of the Dana aircraft after the crash

The plane was on its way to Obudu Cattle Ranch to pick up the Executive Council members of Cross River State Government. It was a private charter organised to take the Exco members to and fro their yearly retreat. The plane made the “to” leg, flew back to Lagos, and on its return at the end of the retreat to take the Exco members back to Calabar, it disappeared. The records state that it contacted Enugu ATC at 7:45pm and at 8:00pm on route to the Bebi Airstrip in Obudu. It had left Lagos at about 7:35pm.

Minutes after 9:00pm that night, I received a call from my Uncle, Captain Olubiyi. He wanted to know if my husband was with me. I responded that he was in Obudu at the retreat.

He asked if I had spoken to him. I said I had in fact just spoken with him. In that case he said, he could unreservedly tell me that the Wings Aviation plane that was on its way to pick up the Cross river state executive council members and the governor from Obudu had crashed. I argued with him that there was nothing on the news about the crash. It was a bit premature to conclude that it had crashed. We would have heard something. He became impatient with me. It was of course a naive statement. I allowed him to speak: To voice what at the beginning I classified as inordinate “allegedlys”: (1). The plane had crashed. (2). The wreckage of the plane had been sighted by helicopters belonging to the Accident Investigation Bureau. (3). The pilot was an old -hand. He had been coaxed out of retirement, offered a lot of money to fly the plane for Wings Aviation. (4). Wings Aviation had no flight plan for Obudu. (5). Obudu was not an area in which a pilot could rely on his instincts no matter how good they were.

The mountains over that whole area, the wind strength and velocity, the unpredictability of the
weather, necessitated a flight plan. It was a necessity. Your instincts would fail you. It was mostly about the mountains: One minute you would be comfortably flying the plane, and the next you would be slapped against the side of a mountain, and there the story would end.

This was the long and short of it in layman’s terms. (6). Aero contractors “were” (are possibly) the only fliers who have a legitimate flight plan for the Obudu terrain. They paid good for it and in the Aviation sector it is an edge. The “allegedlys” became more terrifying. (7).      The pilot’s body had been sighted outside the plane.The other two were probably inside the plane. I called my husband to give him the details. He made some calls. Then he called back. It was a fantastic story.

The Nigerian Aviation Authorities could confirm that the plane had gone off the radar but
suggesting that they could confirm that the plane had crashed and that they were covering up a crash was going too far. It was out of the question. Matter closed. For the next couple of hours, I occupied the tense space between the two people; calling one, and then the other. Trying to tie the possibilities into something coherent. With every detail my uncle offered, my husband became more annoyed and impatient. My uncle on the other end was giving out information that you didn’t offer, not ever in a country like Nigeria. A country of intrigues.

7.The plane was owned by James Ibori and James Ibori was a powerful man. He was one phone call from the NCAA and a good friend of the president. As fantastic as the story was, he could indeed buy a whole industry’s silence with the promise of a few hundreds of thousands. What is the price of a live person in Nigeria?What is the price of someone who has died? What is the price of three crew members who are already dead anyway? My uncle stood his ground, so did my

Our conversations continued over the next couple of days. On the night of the 15th, the media conceded that the plane had disappeared. On the next day, the 16th of March, the NCAA confirmed that the wreckage of the plane had been found at a village in Yala Local Government in Cross River State. Later, the confirmation was retracted. It was some sort of mistake. A strange sort to my mind. But we continued to follow the media. My uncle insisted that the plane had in fact been found the night it crashed.

On the 19th of March, The Daily Sun reported that the search for the plane had moved to neighboring Cameroon. On the 24th of March, ThisDay newspaper’s special feature headline read: “Famous Missing Aircraft…”It continued… “The disappearance of Wings Aviation’s Beechcraft 1900D is not the first mystery in the aviation industry.

For ages, there has always been one mysterious incident or the other. Here is a list of 20 famous missing aircraft…” Even if it was just nine days later, the writer of the feature thought the circumstances warranted a comparison to Amelia Earheart’s disappearance in the South Pacific in 1937.

The media it seemed was anxious for whatever reason to prematurely conclude that the plane was in Cameroon and not in Nigeria and that the crew were alive and well. It seemed to be a good point to go to the commercials. Captain Olubiyi related the circumstances around his refusal to fly and his suspension from work: “I came out ready to fly the plane but there was a boy sitting in the engine of the plane. I asked who he was. I didn’t recognise him. He wasn’t an engineer. I walked away in disgust.

My employers demanded to know “why” I had refused to fly the plane. I motioned to the boy sitting in the engine of the plane as if that was not good enough reason. Why would I risk my life and the life of the people that I was responsible for by flying such a contraption…”

From my uncle’s employers’ point of view, who the hell was he to refuse to fly. Pilots didn’t refuse to fly in Nigeria because the Nigerian Aviation industry was one of the safest in the world. Nigerians never crashed! We bounced! We had both providence and sagaciousness on our side. We are a country that turns its nose up at M.O.Ts and Sell-by dates. If the car breaks down, you stop it, get down and put two wires together. Nigerians are so smart, mechanics don’t have to go to school or meticulously and efficiently learn how to handle an engine. They don’t even need to know how to read.

Handling an engine is pure inspiration. It is done as instinctively as praying or for those who learn slowly by apprenticeship. Nigerians scoff at manuals and insurance documents and drivers licenses. It is the way we have lived for decades and we like to think that it works for us. My uncle had battled this mindset for most of his career. He was progressively more impatient and brash. In his day, you couldn’t just pass the examinations to become a pilot. Many of his colleagues flunked, and if you handled the technicalities perfectly, you would still need to face to psychological evaluations to determine that you had the strength and presence of mind to responsibly bear the weight of people’s lives. All these examinations and tests mattered because flying a plane, handling it was a science, not a providential exercise. It was not “If God wills we will land!”

If the United Kingdom hoped in 2011 during a global recession that Rolls Royce manufacturing of aeronautical engines would save the economy it was because they had created a precise intelligent correlation of circumstances and brilliant minds and environment that was creating such engines. There is a science to whether a plane will take off or land. There is a science to how airports are built and how proximal buildings are to runways, and fire extinguishers to lavatories. It is not providence, or prayers or mechanics putting two wires together.

Nigerians love to talk about randomness because it is a psychological space within which they keep their family safe without being responsible. In that space, if you are good, or a good Christian or a good Muslim or you’ve paid your tithe or your trousers are the right length, you survive plane crashes. It really has nothing to do with whether the piece of equipment that you are riding in is taken care of. It is the story of our lives. The boy who plays truant in school is popular, admired for breaking the rules and getting away with it but in the end the admired truant leaves school without an education. The end inevitably justifies the means.

My uncle’s point of view was that in no other country would this be happening in broad day light. Would a man with no identification be sitting in an engine of an airplane purporting to be an engineer? In no other country would he be expected to then get into that airplane and fly one hundred and fifty people to their destination with a clear conscience.

My conversations with my uncle on the Wings Aviation plane ended on two stern warnings. “Yemisi. I have been in this industry for all my life. Tell your husband that the next time someone charters a plane to put your governor on it to Obudu, they better have insider information about the condition of the plane; on the Insurance up-to-dateness of the plane; on the pilot flying the plane… go and write it down, only a fool in this country will just step out on a plane without having information about that plane especially if you have the wherewithal to buy knowledge
The pilots who have spent long enough in this industry and know its ins and outs and are not just cowboys in it for the money will never put their families on some of these planes carrying people. No pilot in his right mind will put his family on a plane that he knows has a history and“we know’ the planes with histories even if it isn’t recorded on a piece of paper. It is unfortunate for the man on the street because he doesn’t have the information and can’t pay for it.”

“…Tell your husband that if they must fly to Obudu, they had better use Aero contractors. They are the only one with a legitimate flight plan for that area” We waited and nothing concrete or intelligent came from the media. The plane had begun to disappear from the radar of Nigerians’ minds even if not off the minds of the families of the crew members. I sat in a group with friends who insisted that the plane must be in Cameroon in the hands of Gendarmes who had detained the pilot and crew members in a dingy room and denied them phone-calls. It was that kind of conclusion no matter how unintelligent that allowed you to go back to living your life without thinking too much about any of it. It was that queer Nigerian brand of providence at work. These were the questions that my uncle had insisted that I must answer.

They resonate even today: “Was it possible that the plane had not in fact disappeared?’ “Was it possible that the plane had no insurance? or had some other outstanding paperwork issues that its owners had hoped to resolve over time and with the plane’s earning of income” “Was it possible that because the owner of the plane was so powerful he was the first phone-call from NCAA authorities especially the Accident Investigation Bureau who had in fact discovered the crash site on the night of the 15th of March?” “Was it possible that the plane would turn up when its insurance issues had been sorted out and when all those details of whether or not there was a legitimate flight plan had
faded with time?”

If one answered all these questions with a Yes then one had to look to the Accident Investigation Bureau, an autonomous agency reporting to the President of Nigeria. The Bureau’s two main functions are to investigate and prevent airplane crashed. On the 16th of March 2008, Thisday online quoted Mr. Nogie Meggison, the Managing Director of Wings Aviation as having confirmed that the wreckage of the aircraft had been found in Yala, Cross River State, but apparently there was no expert identification on the crash site by that date. The Bureau claimed that they could not confirm the exact location of the plane in Yala. How had they learnt that the aircraft wreckage was there? Yala by the way is the second most populated local government area in Cross river state.

It is not a village in the remote sense of the word. The average man on the street probably has a mobile phone. It was either an aircraft crashed in Yala on the night of the 15th or it did not.

The ThisDay online report which was the most extensive of all the media houses went further to say that the National Emergency Management Agency had also joined the search. The Cross River State government had also supposedly dispatched land search parties.

Harold Demuren, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, supposedly confirmed to ThisDay that the Bureau and NCAA had taken over the papers of the airline to scrutinise them. It was he who was also quoted as saying that the Accident Investigation Bureau had mobilised a team to the site of the accident. It was either there was a site of the accident which people were mobilised to or there was none.

Some unnamed aviation experts also lent their voice to the report: They claimed that the ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) which triggers off Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon either was not present on the plane or it was not working.

It was the same ThisDay newspaper that had gone out of its way to provide all this information that rushed to a conclusion on the 24th of March by drawing parallels with Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.

A similar crash to the Beechcraft 1900D 5N JAH one had occurred in the early hours of the morning of September 17th 2006. A Dornier 228 twin – turboprop utility aircraft carrying fifteen Army officers and three crew members on it had crashed on its way to Obudu. It might be relevant that the aircraft was being maintained by DANA Aviation company. The company also sold the aircraft to the Nigerian Air Force. No parallels were drawn between the two crashes as a pointer to what could have gone wrong. At least the public were not informed of the conclusions.

On the Aviation Safety Network, the accident description for the March 2008 Wings Aviation aircraft reads:
Probable Cause:  A lack of situational awareness which led to a controlled flight into terrain, and the inability of the crew to identify their position while navigating to their planned destination.

Contributory factors to the accident according to the report were: the flight crew’s deviation from initial filed plan to Bebi, poor Cockpit Resource Management and the crew’s inability to respond promptly to several EGPWS warnings.

Anyone reading these words can safely conclude that the pilot’s reasoning and instincts had failed him. The contributory aspect mentioned only holds water if in fact there was a flight plan.

The Beechcraft 1900D re-surfaced six months later. We were presented this news by the media. It was found in “thick rain forest of Besi in Obanliku local government area” by Hunters who presumably never went that way before. As my uncle had indicated six months earlier, the pilot’s body was outside the plane, the other two crew members were inside the wreckage.

It is Sunday evening on the 3rd of June 2012. Dana 9J-992 has crashed into a building in Iju-Ishaga in Lagos. One hundred and fifty three passengers have crashed with it. They sit suffocating in the wreckage waiting and praying for rescue workers to arrive. The minutes draw out. In twenty minutes there is an explosion and everything is presumed lost.

The crew warned of an emergency 11 nautical miles to the Murtala Mohammed Airport. Rescue workers could have been sent out to to cover the remaining distance and check the explosion. The locals in Iju-Ishaga attempt to put out the wreckage of a burning plane with pure water sachets and buckets of water.

On December 10 2005, Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145 crashed at the Port-Harcourt International Airport. There were 61 Loyola Jesuit school children returning home for the holidays on the airplane. In a similar scenario, children were heard outside the plane screaming as they suffocated and were burnt alive. In a similar scenario, the system failed. The failure of Aviation safety in Nigeria is not random.

“…the question remains as to whether the problems of this aircraft were resolved satisfactorily and whether the eventual buyers of the plane (Dana Air) and the Nigerian Ministry of Aviation were aware of this fact and took necessary measures to ensure that the aircraft was safe enough to operate within Nigeria’s airspace.”

It is not arbitrary. It is systematic. The Aviation industry in Nigeria is built and sustained to fail. The number of airplane crashes over the last ten years is proof of this. There is a lack of accountability. There is no expertise. Crucial managerial roles are not in the hands of experts nor competent personnel. Those who are in charge are too cocky to hire consultants but are shrewd enough to protect their own families from the system. The commercial enterprise is overseen by diplomats, autocrats and people who have difficulty just simply telling the truth. The system is corrupt in and out but this is not a car that we can jump out of and put two wires together. As we speak the Accident Investigation Bureau is on its way to the United States with the Black box. If that does not spell disaster, I don’t know what does. Worst of all the media is a tool in the hands of blatant corruption.
Even God knows we are not in his hands.