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When death lurks in Nigeria’s airspace

By Lawani Mikairu

TRAGEDY was averted recently as 94 passengers and six crew members of a plane operated by Air Peace narrowly escaped death after the aircraft almost crashed in Port Harcourt. The aircraft on flight from Abuja to Port Harcourt reportedly skidded off the runway at Port Harcourt International Airport in Omagwa, Rivers State, on Saturday June 22, 2019.

Nigerian airport

Speaking on the near-tragic incident, the General Manager, Public Affairs of AIB, Mr. Tunji Oketunbi, affirmed that the Air Peace Flight P47291 from Abuja to Port Harcourt overshot the runway while touching down at the airport during heavy rainfall. He said: “The aircraft skidded off the runway to the left about 1300m from the runway 21 threshold at the Port Harcourt International Airport.” It was said that but for divine intervention and the experience and expertise of the pilot the story would have ended tragically.

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Happily the passengers and crew were safely evacuated from the ill-fated plane. But a major talking point since the incident borders on the question of safety at our airports, many of which are said to have no instrument landing system, ILS, presently. This has been a source of concern for a long time given the danger an aircraft is exposed to during adverse weather conditions, especially heavy rain.

Indeed, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, had in a recent advisory circular, AC, signed by the Director-General, Capt. Muhtar Usman, warned pilots and airline operators against carrying out flight operations in hazardous weather conditions as the rainy season begins. In a statement last week signed by its General Manager, Public Relations, Mr. Sam Adurogboye, the aviation watchdog said: “The AC is a sequel to the Seasonal Rainfall Prediction released for the year 2019 by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency. NIMET has predicted March/April and May/June 2019 as the commencement of rainy season in the southern and northern parts of Nigeria, which is usually accompanied with turbulence.

“This is in addition to a micro-burst, low-level wind share and sometimes events that could affect the safety of flight operations. With this information, it is expected that Air Traffic Controllers may temporarily close the airspace when there are adverse weather conditions”.But the argument is that to guard against a worse case scenario arising from adverse weather conditions, an ILS is a must in all the country’s airports.

Indeed, there has been agitation among aviation stakeholders that flying in Nigeria could be safer and more pleasurable if most Nigerian airports have Instrument Landing Systems, ILS. Currently, only few Nigeria airports have ILS and those that have, are on Category 11 ILS with plans to upgrade Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos and Nnamidi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja to category 111 ILS.

An  Instrument Landing System, ILS, is an equipment that “enables pilots to conduct an instrument approach to landing if they are unable to establish visual contact with the runway”. It is defined by the International Telecommunication Union as a service provided by a station as follows:

“A  radio navigation system which provides aircraft with horizontal and vertical guidance just before and during landing and, at certain fixed points, indicates the distance to the reference point of landing. An Instrument Landing System is a highly accurate radio signal navigation aid consisting of two antennas which transmit signals to receivers in the aircraft cockpit – a glide path tower located next to the runway at the northern end and a localiser antenna at the southern end. These antennas provide the pilot with vertical and horizontal guidance when landing in low visibility. An ILS is not used by departing aircraft”.

The question is: how will an ILS improve flight reliability? It has been agreed that an ILS enables airlines and airports to continue operations in low visibility conditions, such as rain and low cloud. This will increase the reliability of landing at the airport. In any weather conditions, pilots must be able to see the runway before landing.

A major Australian airport located at the southern end of the Gold Coast, the Gold Coast Airport, is, however, said to be operating safely without an ILS.

“Installing an ILS at Gold Coast Airport will reduce the ‘decision altitude’ or height at which a pilot must make the decision to continue with the landing with the runway in sight or to go-around or divert because the runway is obscured by cloud. “An ILS will reduce the decision height, or minima, from 430 feet to 280 feet, improving the chance of landing in poor weather. However, an ILS will not guarantee a landing in all weather – the decision to land in poor weather is ultimately up to the pilot-in-command”.

When asked recently what the President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has done in the area of navigation aids across the airports in Nigeria, former Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika said: “We have completed the Kano Tower Automated Air Traffic Management and Meteorological Systems, installed the Instrument Landing Systems, ILS, Category II (CAT II), Doppler VORs, DVORs, Distance Measuring Equipment, DMEs, at four airports: Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Kaduna completed, while that of Minna, Jos, Yola, Maiduguri, Benin and Akure are still on-going and nearing completion.

Inclement weather  conditions

“You will also recall that almost two years ago, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, installed CAT III Instrument Landing System in Lagos and Abuja, which has helped a great deal to improve operations during inclement weather conditions. Also, we have installed the Very High Frequency, VHF, radios for aerodrome and approach air-ground communication in 18 airports nationwide. The airports are Maiduguri, Enugu, Jos, Calabar, Yola, Ilorin, Sokoto, Lagos, Kano, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Zaria, Katsina, Owerri, Yola, Calabar and Kaduna.

“Besides, we have installed the high power Very High Frequency, VHF, stand-alone radios in Lagos and Kano Area Control Centres, ACC, as backup for air-ground upper airways voice communication and we also embarked on the deployment of Controller-Pilot-Data Link Communication, CPDLC, in Lagos and Kano to enhance communication in the oceanic region and the remote areas of the North.

“Commencement of Aeronautical Information Management Automation Project, which comprises a network of 26 VSAT facilities at all Nigerian airports as well as Search and Rescue, S&R, with coordination domiciled in Lagos. This will enable Nigeria to comply with the mandatory transition from Aeronautical Information Service, AIS, to Aeronautical Information Management, AIM. We also developed and published Performance-Based Navigation, PBN, Procedures for 18 airports across the country and also introduced Standard Instrument Departures, SIDs, and Standard Arrival Routes, STARs, at Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt as an improvement on the procedures”.

This has laid bare the state of navigational aids in Nigeria airports. Pilots and aviation instructors who spoke with Vanguard were unanimous that the airports in Nigeria need ILS.

However, they all agreed that the absence of ILS in some of these airports have not diminished their usage as pilots can use “visual contact” to operate aircraft into these airports. The only problem, according to them, is that in the event of adverse weather, like heavy clouded rainfall, fog and harmattan, flights might not be able to operate into these airports.

A senior Instructor and trainer with Nigeria College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, Wekkiben Calabar, in an interactive session with Vanguard stressed the need for Nigeria airports to be equipped with ILS as it makes flight safer and more profitable to airline operators as they can operate into any airport during adverse weather, unlike now that they have to cancel flights during severe harmattan weather.

According to Calabar: “It does not cost much to have these ILS installed in almost all airports, especially the very busy ones. In fact, the installation will make more airports to be viable as there could be 24 hours flight operations into the airports if passengers traffic is there. With the resources Nigeria has, the country can afford to install these navigational aids. ILS makes flight into any airport seamless.

Special training  on simulators

“Once the pilot is able to align his receivers with the ground signals from the ILS, he can fly ‘blindfolded’ into the airport. Even at zero visibility, planes can land in any airport equipped with ILS. Flight cancellations due to poor weather and visibility will be reduced to the barest minimum. However, the aircraft have to be equipped with the right equipment to receive these signals and direction from the ILS. Most modern planes have these equipment aboard.”

Speaking with Vanguard about ILS, a pilot, Captain Shuaibu Alfa, said the instrument enables the “margin of error” in landing at airports with ILS to be very minimal. The accuracy level is higher once the pilot aligns the plane with the signals from the ILS irrespective of the prevailing weather condition at the airport.

According to Captain Alfa: “The margin of error in non-precision instrument airport is higher than in precision instrument airports. Airports without ILS lose revenue if the weather is bad and planes cannot fly in and out of the airports. However, pilots need special training on simulators to be able to use these ILS. Adequate training is needed and the planes flying into these airports have to be equipped with special equipment to receive and use these signals from ILS”.

He further said that most of the planes flying into Europe have these instruments on board as most airports there are frequently affected by snow. He said: “Some planes operating locally in Nigeria don’t have the requisite instrument aboard to receive ILS signals, so they rely on other navigational aids to conduct their approach to airports. But planes operating into Europe must have these instruments aboard as most airports in Europe are frequently affected by snow and cloudy weather.

“However, Nigeria is lucky when it comes to weather. Most times, it is during harmattan season that most airports in Nigeria witness inclement weather. It is the period that flight cancellations are witnessed because of fogging weather. That and the rainy season are the periods that ILS are most needed in our airports. It makes navigation easy for pilots and flights safer for passengers.”

Speaking also with Vanguard, Group Captain John Ojikutu, (retd) a veteran pilot, said the presence of ILS at airports enhances safety. According to him, ILS are needed at every airport because they are navigational aids that complement other landing aids at the airports. The absence of it means pilots can only conduct visual flights into the airports.

Ojikutu said: “The lack of it means you may not be able to land at night, reduced visibility and in inclement weather. When there is poor visibility at the airport and the “minima” is below accepted level, planes will not be able to land at such airports. They are essential navigational aids”.

He also said for the ILS to be very effective a strict maintenance schedule has to be adhered to as they are highly sensitive navigational instruments. “This ILS needs mandatory periodic maintenance every six months unlike others like the VOR and DME that their periodic maintenance is once every year,” he added.

The Nigeria Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, an agency that is saddled with the responsibility of providing these ILS also gave Vanguard an update on installation of these navigational instruments in airports across the country. NAMA’s Director of Safety Electronics and Engineering Services, Mr. Farouk Umar, while responding to an allegation that Nigeria airspace was not safe for flight navigation said Nigerian airspace is safe for both local and international flights.

Speaking about Nigerian airspace and available navigational aids in the country, Farouk said all the agency’s ILS were on Category Two, lamenting that most of the aircraft in the country did not have the facilities to fly Cat3. According to him: “This is because the aircraft needs to be equipped with Cat3 facilities to be able to land in zero visibility, just as pilots themselves need to be trained on Cat3. The truth is that with the ILS that we have, you need other facilities at the airport and in the aircraft to complement them while the runway and the airfield lighting are not within the control of NAMA. Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, are responsible for the provision of airfield lighting.

“Our ILS is Cat2 and the visibility minimal is 800 metres which is okay.” He also gave assurance that the Nigerian airspace was as safe as it could be anywhere in the world, stressing that the relative safety in the nation’s airspace over the last few years was indicative of the fact that NAMA was alive to its responsibilities.

The General Manager, Public Affairs, NAMA, Mr. Khalid Emele in an interactive session with Vanguard, revealed that the agency is currently upgrading ILS in some airports and installing and replacing existing ones in others. He corroborated that most Nigeria airports are currently on Cat2 ILS with Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, and Nnamidi Azikiwe Internatiomal Airport, Abuja being upgraded to Cat 3.

Upgrading of ILS in some airports

Emele also revealed that the federal airport in Benin City, Edo State will have two Cat 2 ILS installed at both end of the runway. This will enable planes to land at both ends of the runway in the event of change “in wind direction” at the airport. This is a big boost for the airport as cases of flights not landing due to dangerous wind movement will be drastically reduced.

According to him, other federal airports with cat 2 ILS are: Maiduguri,Yola, Katsina, Kebbi, Gombe, Ibadan, Dutse, Ilorin,Enugu, Calabar, Kaduna, Owerri, Jos, Minna, Sokoto, and Bauchi airports. In the case of Maiduguri airport, the ILS there was destroyed by insurgents in the North East and a brand new one has just been installed there by NAMA.

Explaining why Cat 3 ILS is not yet in most Nigeria airports, Emele said Cat3 has to be complemented with other facilities at the airports. He said Cat 3 has three groups: ABC, and any airport that has a C group of Cat 3 ILS must have a perimeter fence which will prevent any object or human being from straying into the runway as pilots tend to land in airports with Cat 3, C group ILS without paying visual attention to the runway. Their focus is always on the instrument aboard their aircraft that guide them to land.

So, the only way to prevent fatality at the runway is to make sure they are well lit with airfield lighting and there is high security alert that will prevent unauthorised person from walking across the runway or any animal straying into the airport and dashing across the runway.  The NAMA spokesman also revealed that there are plans to commence the upgrade of the Cat 2 ILS at the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano and the Port Harcourt International Airport, Port Harcourt to Cat 3 ILS as this has been included in this year’s budget. With the approval of the budget, it is expected that Kano and Port Harcourt airports would have Cat 3 ILS before the end of the year.

There was a general agreement among those who spoke with Vanguard that for Nigeria to have a safe airspace the availability of ILS at our airports have to be complemented with other navigational aids and good constant airfield lighting. This means that there must be constant power supply at the airports.

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