Insight

Flight 086: Scars still visible 25 years after

Twenty-five years after losing their breadwinners and loved ones in ADC Flight 086 inside the Itoikin River near Ikorodu, the pain is still very deep, the scare is still very visible as some families of victims of the 144 passengers and crew converged on the bank of the river where a cenotaph was erected to offer prayers. The sleepy Itoikin town came to life as hundreds of family members, children, and friends of the crash victims started thronging the venue as early as 9 am where a memorial service was held for the deceased.

The first thing they did was check the engraved names of their loved ones on a marble plaque, offer prayers for the repose of their souls. Many could not hold back tears as they were united in grief. On November 7, 1996, a Boeing 727 operated by Aviation Development Company – ADC – Airlines from Port Harcourt to Lagos crashed at Itoikin River, near Lagos, killing all 144 passengers and crew on board. The aircraft crashed after it lost control during an evasive maneuver to avoid a mid-air collision.

“The untidy traffic separation by the radar controller” was given as the immediate cause of the crash. Mrs. Uloma Babajide-Afonja, widow of the First Officer (Co-pilot) of the ill-fated flight, Capt. Babajide Afonja who organised the memorial service in conjunction with the former management of ADC Airlines and ex-workers of the airline and other family members of the victims spoke lovingly of her husband whom she described as highly professional and a great husband amid occasional tears dripping from her eyes.

Uloma who was barely two years into her marriage when the incident happened shares her plans, and travails following that incident. She further shares her love story, recalling memorable moments spent with her beloved husband She said the remembrance of her late husband who would have been 60 years brings fond memories to her and the lofty plans they had as a young couple. According to her, “Every November 7 is a sad reminder of the death of my husband, Capt. Babajide Afonja and a sad day for the whole family.

This morning, my mother-in-law sent a prayer message to me. I feel so sorry for her. You can imagine the pain they go through every time. The scar is still there. Live is too short. Let us share love and celebrate people when they are alive. We miss Jide very much. We shall be visiting my in-laws in Abeokuta tomorrow.” “Every time I board any flight, I remember the first day I met Jide.

You see, Jide told me that he saw me for the first time when I was boarding an ADC flight from Lagos to Calabar. I was at the University of Calabar at that time. “He told me he was looking at the passengers from the cockpit window and noticed me and said to his captain “Captain, that’s my wife”.

They both laughed about it, (and) then he requested a cabin crew to get my name which of course, I refused to give her. “As we were leaving the aircraft, he obstructed my way and took me aside to briefly introduce himself and get my name and hostel number.

That was the beginning of his visits to me whenever he had a night stop in Calabar.” A former Managing Director of ADC Airlines, Capt. Augustine Okon who could not hold back tears recalled the pain of the incident that happened 25 years ago. His words, “I stood here where this ceno-taph was erected.

I cried like a baby when the accident happened. As I was leaving home for this memorial service, I had a choice of two dresses; a black caftan or a white. I decided to wear white because I am coming to meet the Saints. “Friends have told me to move on, but it is very difficult for me.

As a young man, I had a mission to build the best airline in Nigeria, but things came crashing down. I was in Miami, United States when the crash happened. I was rushed to the hospital as my blood pressure rose so high. I was given medication to bring it down. I had to return to Nigeria immediately. “We had the best training as at that time, best maintenance and good management team. I have a copy of the accident report. It was one accident that was thoroughly investigated by the Federal Government, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). It was caused by air traffic error.”

Okon noted that the lessons from the accident were enormous, stressing, “We have learned a lot and we will continue to learn. It was totally air traffic error as they were trying to avoid another aircraft coming towards them. We have to get simulators to ensure that this does not happen again in the separation of air traffic.”

“There are changes, but a lot more can happen. We are talking about radar, the radar system has changed, but we can have tidier separations, good communication, very reliable form of communication because it was the failure of communication that was the major reason for the crash.” One of the brothers of Capt. Dafe Sama, Captain of the ill-fated flight, Urhobo Dafe eulogised his late brother for being an outstanding pilot, but regretted the demise of the airline, stressing, “Flight 086 is a very ugly situation.

My prayer is that we will never experience Flight 086 again.” The crash of ADC B737-200 in Itoikin near Ikorodu and subsequent one including that of Bellview’s B737-200 Flight 210 that crashed in Lisa, Ogun State on October 22, 2005 and Sosoliso Flight 1145 in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State jolted the authorities to actions as the Federal Government made sweeping reforms in the sector that have improved the sector remarkably.

Part of the reforms was getting the right personnel in critical areas of aircraft airworthiness, provision of essential equipment like Doppler weather radar which perhaps could have to detect wind shear, and what many people say could not have happened if Doppler weather radar were available as reports of the Sosoliso crash attributed the cause of the accident to wind shear. Wind shear, sometimes referred to as wind gradient, is a difference in wind speed or direction over a relatively short distance in the atmosphere.

Atmospheric wind shear is normally described as either vertical or horizontal wind shear. Aside from that, many of the airports particularly, the Port-Harcourt International Airport, lacked critical equipment like fire-fighting equipment, good medical facilities, perimeter fencing, personnel and the general state of the airport was appalling.

Despite the cheery news of improvement in many areas in the sector, there is a serious shortage of core aviation personnel with only aging local manpower such as pilots, licensed aircraft engineers, and licensed avionics engineers. This situation has negative effects on a sector that is safety-driven. The Managing Director of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Capt. Fola Akinkuotu at a forum organised by air traffic controllers jolted the nation when he said in a bid to address the issue of shortage of air traffic controllers, the agency “converted non-technical staff in the system to technical staff while most of the retired ATCs were also engaged after their retirement.”

The dearth of air traffic controllers and other factors may have exposed the manpower deficiency in the agency. He disclosed that his agency was worried over the death rate recorded among controllers in the last few years in the country saying that the management was alive to its responsibility in areas of workers’ welfare.

Akinkoutu explained that a lot has been done by the present management of NAMA, adding that the government had provided funds for the upgrade of safe towers in the country. He noted that NAMA was unrelenting to achieve its goals. The NAMA boss while commending members of NATCA for their selfless service, pleaded for dialogue always to amicably address all pending NATCA issues.

Spokesman for Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), the body responsible for probing plane crashes in Nigeria, Mr. Tunji Oketunbi told New Telegraph that some lessons have been learnt. His words, “We may not be there yet, but we are definitely not where we were before. This particular ADC Flight 086 accident, which occurred on November 7, 1996, was traced to an air Traffic controllers error.

Since then, efforts have been made to increase the number of air traffic Controllers even as their remuneration have greatly improved. “If you read the accident report, you would also note that at that time there was no national emergency or disaster management agency. Today we have National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). As regards infrastructure, there has also been a lot of improvement.

I agree we can still do better. “You would also recall that the spate of accidents that occurred between 2005 and 2006 led to a lot of reforms in the industry, one of which was the establishment of Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) and the repackaging of the regulatory body. “We have been a Category One country in aviation for many years now even as we have not recorded fatality by any scheduled carrier in the last five years. Wind shears no longer cause accidents in Nigeria because safety recommendations by AIB advised the government to purchase a Wind shear detector and ensure that pilots were trained on how to manage the Wind shear phenomenon.

However, it is a work in progress,” he added. Whatever the deficiencies, they are made most manifest when an airline crashes, killing passengers in an accident that could have been avoided. One issue that agitates the minds of many Nigerians is that over 90 percent of crashes between 1997 and 2006 happened on weekends. Could it be said that air traffic controllers under the management of NAMA do not take airspace regulatory oversight seriously? It began back in 2001 when Executive Airline Service (EAS) aircraft owned by a former Governor of Kogi State, Capt. Idris Wada, crashed on May 4, 2002, in Gwarmaja, near Kano, resulting in the death of 78 passengers. It was on a Saturday.

The Bellview and Sosoliso airlines that crashed in Lisa, Ogun State, on October 22, 2005, and in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, on December 10, 2005, respectively, killing a combined number of 225 people, also took place on Saturday. An ADC plane crashed in Abuja on October 29, 2006 (a weekend), killing 106 passengers. An aircraft belonging to Harka Air crashed in Lagos on June 24, 2005, losing all on board. This equally took place on a weekend. A Nigerian military plane crashed in Oko village, Benue State, on September 17, 2006, with the loss of 15 very top Nigerian Army officers. It occurred on a weekend.

An OAS service helicopter crashed in Warri, Delta State, on November 10, 2006 – a weekend – with the loss of four lives. On March 15, 2008, a Wings Aviation airline crashed in Cross River State killing six people. It was a weekend. In 2009 and 2010, there were a series of small, light aircraft crashes, an Airforce jet, and helicopter crashes that all resulted in the loss of souls. They mostly took place on weekends.

An OAS helicopter crashed in Ife Odan in Osun State on July 29, 2011 – a weekend – resulting in the loss of three lives. On June 2, 2012, a Nigerian cargo plane shot off the runway into the highway behind Accra’s Kotoka International Airport, killing eight Ghanaian nationals that were working on the apron of the airport. Curiously, this, too, occurred on a weekend. The next day, to the shock of Nigerians in what remains the worst air accident in the country, a Dana MD 83 aircraft with 160 passengers, crashed into a residential area in the outskirts of Lagos, killing all passengers on board, the crew, and people on ground.

The accident happened on a Sunday. Apart from commercial aircraft, military aircraft have also had their own share of accidents occurring on weekends. Since September 26, 1992, when a Nigerian Air Force C-130 crashed in a swamp near Ejigbo, killing over 100 young, top military officers, the military has been involved in many crashes that took place at weekends. Other accidents included the September 12, 1997, NAF Dornier 228-212 crash, January 28, 2005, Nigeria Air Force fighter crash, and the September 17, 2006 crash of an 18-seater Dornier 228 Air Force transport plane flying 15 senior army officers and three crew members, with only three survivors who sustained serious injuries.

The plane crashed in the northern part of the country at Oko village in Vandeikya Local Council of Benue State. On March 14, 2012, a helicopter belonging to the Joint Task Force (JTF) crashed in Jos, Plateau State, killing all occupants on board. The occurrence of crashes at weekends has raised concern over whether there is laxity in air traffic control or a mere coincidence.

There are indications that controllers are in short supply, coupled with the moribund communication gadgets that make pilot-controller communication very difficult most times. Air traffic controllers’ error showed in the crash of ADC plane in Itoikin, Ejinrin, near Lagos, in 1996. The investigative reports of February 27, 1997, ADC crash into the swamps of Lagos indicated that three times the Air Traffic Controller directed pilots in two planes – one taking off, the other about to land – into each other’s paths. The ill-fated ADC aircraft was equipped with a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), which made its pilot realise the error of the ATC.

The other plane was not so equipped. The plane so equipped made a sharp turn away from the other that was not so equipped. The ill-equipped (with Capt. Dafe Sama, one of Nigeria’s most experienced pilots in control), upon discovering also that the air traffic controller had misdirected him, made a turn away but into the path just turned to by the other plane.

The pilot then executed a sharp turn away from the new path of the oncoming plane. This was too much for the elderly plane and it plunged into the Itoikin River. Could it be human error, to which has been attributed 90 percent of both commercial and military airplane crashes? Could it just be a coincidence that airplanes dropped from the sky most frequently only on weekends – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays? Often referred to as “honest mistakes,” experts said these unsafe acts typically manifest as poorly executed procedures, improper choices, or simply the misinterpretation or misuse of relevant information. Oftentimes, the substandard practices of aircrew will lead to the conditions and unsafe acts described above. For instance, the failure to ensure that all members of the crew are acting in a coordinated manner can lead to confusion (adverse mental state) and poor decisions in the cockpit.

It was curious and no one can decipher that. One thing is certain. It was a period Nigeria’s radar system malfunctioned every now and then until the country installed the multi-billion Naira Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria, otherwise known as TRACON. A former Assistant Secretary-General of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Mohammed Tukur said that humans, by their very nature, make mistakes, therefore, it should come as no surprise that human error has been implicated in a variety of occupational accidents, including 70 to 80 percent of those in civil and military aviation.

“In fact, while the number of aviation accidents attributable solely to mechanical failure has decreased markedly over the past 40 years, those attributable at least in part to human error have declined at a much slower rate,” he said. In an effort to improve the country’s airspace as one of the fall-outs of the numerous accidents reports, the Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari has committed over N30 billion to airspace infrastructure as part of continuous efforts to make Nigeria’s airspace safer. Director of Operations, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Lawrence Mathew Pwajok made the disclosure amid complaint about challenges faced by air traffic controllers and pilots while navigating the country’s airspace.

Not a few believe that the present administration had spent more than any other government in the provision of air safety tools to make the country’s airspace safer. For many years, the story had been the same: Poor communication between pilots and air traffic controllers occasioned by outdated radios had raised concern over the danger of flying in Nigeria’s airspace. Aside from that, many of the control towers lacked good facilities and one that conspired to make the work of controllers tedious. This is coming against the backdrop of complaints by air traffic controllers that the nation’s airspace safety needed to be enhanced amid gaps inherent in the system.

Pwajok stated that while NAMA takes note of the complaints of the umbrella body of air traffic controllers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), wishes to itemise the several ongoing and completed projects across the country’s airports aimed at safety, efficiency, capacity and environment. The NAMA chief stated that there is the ongoing deployment of surface movement radar and ground control system at Lagos and Abuja scheduled for completion by first quarter 2022, ongoing deployment of three-dimensional virtual tower simulators in Lagos and scheduled for completion by December 2021. Also ongoing are deployment of traffic sequencing manager – arrival manager and departure manager with automated clearance delivery system at Lagos and Abuja scheduled for completion by December 2021, ongoing deployment of Wide Area Multilateration Surveillance System for low flying helicopters in the Gulf of Guinea scheduled for completion by February 2022.

This project he said is worth over N3 billion. Others are procurement of two new mobile control towers delivered for Lagos and Abuja and commissioned in June 2021, worth over N1.7 billion, procurement of two additional mobile control towers for Kano and Port Harcourt scheduled for delivery by December 2021, also worth over N1.7 billion for contingency use. Equally provided according to Pwajok are the automation of Katsina control tower completed in September 2020, automation of Zaria Control Tower completed in October 2020, procurement of new flight calibration aircraft delivered in August 2019, upgrade of Safe Tower Project at Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and Port Harcourt worth over N13 billion, that would provide software and hardware upgrades including new voice communication and control systems and furniture, is in progress. He reiterated that the project for the upgrade and automation of 12 control towers nationwide is also expected to provide voice communication systems, ATC electronic strip management systems in progress and expected completion is in 2022.

Procurement of control tower cabins for five new control towers including Kaduna and Enugu airports are scheduled for completion by December 2021 with the factory acceptance test of the equipment scheduled for 20th – 24th October, 2021 to be conducted in the United Kingdom by the Ministry of Aviation, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and NAMA officials. His words, “NAMA has successfully Installed Cat III ILS systems at Lagos 18R and Abuja Runway 22 in February 2020. The same thing has been done for Lagos 18R, Kano, Kaduna, Benin, Jos, Enugu, Port-Harcourt, Minna, Maiduguri, Sokoto, Yola, Akure, Ilorin, Zaria between 2020 and 2021.

There is also successful installation of new Doppler VOR at Lagos, Kano, Jos, Maiduguri, Benin, Ilorin, Yola, Minna, Port-Harcourt between 2020 and 2021”. “We concluded the recruitment of 40 air traffic control cadets in two batches currently undergoing ATC training at the Nigerian College of Technology (NCAT), Zaria.

There are ongoing recondition and rehabilitation of the Total Radar Coverage (TRACON) expected to be completed by December 2021. Ongoing AIS Automation Project scheduled for completion by December 2021 with the VSATs installed in 24 airports and the ATS Message Handling System (AMHS) fully installed at Lagos and Kano to replace the old AFTN.” Pwajok equally disclosed that Performance- Based Navigation (PBN) had been successfully implemented in 32 airports with RNAV approach flight procedures just as PBN Standard Instrument Departure Routes and Standard Arrival Routes (SIDs and STARs) have been implemented at Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and Port Harcourt.

 

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