Nigeria disaster from the skies: an air crash in Lagos, claiming over 150 lives, further exposes the underbelly and fault lines of Nigeria's aviation industry, as Osasu Obayiuwana, our associate editor, reports from Lagos.SUNDAY, 3 JUNE, WAS SUPPOSED to be like any work-free day--peaceful, uneventful and a time to gird one's loins for yet another busy working week that beckoned. But that was not how the day unfolded for residents of the Lagos suburb of Iju-Ishaga, as DANA Air flight 992 crashed into houses, killing all 153 passengers and crew on board, and an unknown number of people on the ground.
The McDonnell-Douglas MD-83 plane, belonging to the Indian-owned airline, was on a scheduled flight from the capital, Abuja, to Lagos--the country's commercial nerve centre, when its engines failed, as it approached the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos.
"There was a mayday call for engine failure at 1442 hours (1342 GMT). We don't know if it was one or two [engines that failed]," Oscar Wilson, DANA Air's director of flight operations, told journalists.
Peter Waxtan, the American pilot of the plane, had been given emergency clearance to land, following the distress call. But he was unable to reach the runway. The rest is tragic history.
"The pilot's mayday call, about the loss of his two engines, was at just 2,100 feet, on final approach into Lagos," a reliable and very highly placed source within Nigerian aviation regulation, who insisted on anonymity, told New African.
"Up until then, the flight appears to have been normal. Unfortunately, at that stage of flight, it was then too low and too slow to make it to the runway. The crash site is about a minute's flying to the runway threshold," he said.
Waxtan, a 55-year old from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who had two daughters and a fiancee, Lisa, was on his very last flight before returning home for a short break. He was scheduled to leave the country the following day and was reportedly booked as a passenger on a Delta Airlines flight, leaving Lagos for Atlanta, Georgia.
Crash photos, showing the plane with its nose up, indicate that Waxtan was trying to keep it in the air right until the end. Pat Squires, a pilot who worked with Waxtan for 15 years, described him as a "consummate professional" at flying. "He was the best MD-80 series captain I have ever seen," Squires, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, told New African in an interview.
"Peter was hardworking, the consummate professional and would have done everything to save the aircraft and the passengers. If he had a river to put the plane in [like the incident that took place on 15 January 2009, when a distressed US Airways 1549 flight was miraculously landed in New York's Hudson River by Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger], Peter would have done that successfully," Squires said.
Before Waxtan flew for DANA Air, he worked, alongside Squires, at Spirit Airlines, a low-cost airline operating within southwestern USA, Central America, and the Caribbean, from 1997 to 2009, and Falcon Air Express, a chartered air service based in Miami, Florida, which organised a memorial service to honour Waxtan on 9 June.
"Three weeks before his death, we were talking on the phone and he was trying to convince me to join him in Nigeria ... He was the friend everyone would love to have and I hope that I never forget him," Squires said.
David Chukwunonso Allison, whose wife, Joy, was one of the 153 passengers that perished, clearly disagrees with Squires' assessment of Waxtan's piloting skills. On 7 June, he filed a lawsuit against Boeing McDonnell Douglas, the makers of the ill-fated MD-83 plane, as well as the estate of the late pilot, in the US District Court for the Northern District of the State of Illinois. Boeing is headquartered in the Illinois capital, Chicago.
The lawsuit states: "As a direct ... result of defendants' design, manufacture, sale, shipment, distribution, maintenance, service, operation, ownership, leasing, and transfer of the subject aircraft and its component parts in a dangerous and defective condition ... Joy Chiedozie Allison was killed."
It blamed the pilot for failing to "properly execute landing of the subject aircraft", which it said was the result of "negligence and carelessness".
Gary Robb, the lead counsel, said Allison was the first to file a lawsuit arising from the death of a relative in the crash. "He did so because he wants answers, and he believes that the United States court system is far preferable to fairly and justly arrive at a resolution," Robb told Reuters. Squires is furious about the lawsuit against the estate of his late friend and colleague. "It's a slap in the face, because I am very sure that Peter did all he could to save that aircraft. To my mind, it's offensive. I was at the memorial service that Falcon Air organised for Peter and I was with Lisa, his fiancee, who is completely heartbroken over all of this."
Answers are what the bereaved families are desperately looking for, as the Nigerian federal government suspended DANA's operations--which, according to the airline, will cost them over $300,000 per day in losses--pending the conclusion of an investigation into the causes of the crash, as well as an examination of their overall safety standards.
"It needed to be done," the chief executive of one of Nigeria's aviation regulation arms told New African in an off-the-record conversation. "Once they demonstrate that they are fit and able to fly safely, they will be allowed to operate again. Nothing short of that will assuage Nigerians," he added.
But he went on to make what the families of the victims will certainly regard as a rather surprising statement: "I feel totally sorry for them [DANA]. They have been totally vilified by Nigerians ... Not that they are angels but they are nowhere near how they are being made out to be," the man said.
The high-level source was at the accident and admitted that the scenes were haunting. "From my arrival at the scene of the accident, till about half past To on Sunday (3 June), I was present when about 43 bodies were pulled out of the wreckage. The fire was still smouldering hours after the crash. I did not leave the scene until nearly midnight. I have to admit that I was traumatised by what I had witnessed," he said.
Three children--11-year-old Joel Okwuchukwu and his two siblings, 9-year-old Chisom and 7-year-old Esther, were orphaned by the crash. Their house, at 12, Olaniyi Street, within the Iju-Ishaga crash vicinity, took a direct hit from the plane.
Their parents, Jeremiah and Josephine Okwuchukwu, according to newspaper reports, had sent them on an errand, and they returned only to find a pile of rubble where their house stood. Both parents have not been seen since the crash and are suspected to have died in the inferno.
"Our father sent Esther to call an electrician. When she did not return on time, he said Chisom and I should go and look for her," Joel told The Punch newspaper. "When we were coming [back], we heard a loud noise but we did not know where it was coming from. When we got to our house, we discovered that our flat was no longer there, [as] an aeroplane had entered it."
State governor intercedes
The children's plight moved the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, to direct that the Okwuchukwu children be moved to the State House, where they will be cared for in the meantime. No relatives, at the time of filing this report, had come forward to claim the children.
According to Nigeria's Civil Aviation Act of 2006, the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), headed by Muhtar Usman, is the body charged with the sole duty of finding out what led to the crash. But the federal government, on 6 June, appointed a separate nine-man "technical and administrative" panel, led by John Obakpolor, a retired Air Force officer and former chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, to carry out a "comprehensive review" of the civil aviation sector. They have six weeks within which to complete their report.
Stella Oduah, the country's minister for aviation, was reported as saying the panel would work in cooperation with the AIB. But the decision to appoint the panel has been met with deep anger from some key members of the aviation fraternity.
"We are strongly objecting to it," said Mohammed Joji, the general secretary of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), the umbrella body of the domestic airlines operating within the country.
"They should allow the commissioner of the AIB to investigate the accident with his team ... What experience does Obakpolor have [to investigate the causes of the accident]? It is an insult to us," Joji fumed.
But a government official, who spoke to New African, disagreed with Joji's stand. "The Obakpolor panel is not to look into the crash. It is to review the operating and managerial practices prevalent in all domestic airlines, in order to find any 'blindsides' and make recommendations to improve the overall safety of the system. It is separate from the investigation into the crash and is a good complimentary step," he argued.
With the Nigerian public desperately short of detailed information on the causes of previous air disasters, not to mention the seeming lack of transparent and confidence-building measures to radically improve the policing of aviation safety, there is, with reasonable cause, a large dose of scepticism that anything will be learnt from the latest tragedy.
When the Asaba Airport in Delta State--which has not been fully completed-was cleared to operate daytime flights by the relevant aviation authorities, a top-level source within the industry confided in this writer, in August 2011, that he had serious concerns about the airport commencing operations.
"It is nowhere near ready for operations ... The Delta State government thought an airport is a terminal building and a runway. There is absolutely no fire cover because they bought town fire trucks instead of airport fire trucks. if anything happens to a flight, they will just watch it burn, God forbid," the source said.
Reviewing the post-accident response to the DANA crash, he admitted that the management of the crash site, which has been examined by relevant American and Nigerian experts, could have been done better.
"The [lesson] from the emergency response is the need for effective crowd control. The entire Agege [the local government area where Iju-Ishaga is located] converged on the accident scene, even at great peril to themselves ... They were in the way of the emergency services, to the extent that had there been any survivors, it would have been impossible to evacuate them to a hospital quickly," he lamented.
"However, the response itself was very good. The fire trucks were there first, 20 minutes after the accident, closely followed by a National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) team a few minutes later. Within the hour came lots of ambulances and other responders. But the scene was now covered by a sea of people."
A commercial pilot who flies around the country expressed concern about the state of instrumentation across Nigerian airports. "Generally, Nigerian airspace is quite safe to operate in, as the radars are high-tech and working. En-route navigational equipment also works," he said. "But I must tell you that some local airports' landing equipment does not work. We all use GPS and auto pilot."
"I must highlight, as important, that in Osubi Airport (located on the outskirts of Warri, again in Delta State) the VOR and ILS are not working."
VOR is shorthand for VHF omnidirectional radio range, which enables aircraft to determine their position and stay on a planned course; while ILS (Instrument Landing System) is a ground-based instrument approach system that provides precision guidance to an aircraft approaching and landing on a runway.
The pilot said the faulty equipment had been reported to the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), but "nothing has been done for four years now".
But a government official claims the pilot's assessment is inaccurate. "The airport is owned by Shell, so I seriously doubt [his statement]. But in general, navigational aids work very well across the country," he insisted.
Barely a week after the DANA crash, the incessant power outages at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja were making night flights increasingly dangerous, as the runway lights were known to fail, forcing several airlines to divert flights to relatively safer airports. With little or no power supply from the national electricity company, the Abuja airport relies on generators, which break down at the most inopportune moments.
In February this year, there was an incident in Abuja in which a British Airways flight from London (Professor Bartholomew Nnaji, who, ironically, is the country's minister for power, was a passenger) made a touchdown in complete darkness.
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the regulatory authority headed by Harold Demuren, has been under fire since the DANA crash. In reaction to the public outcry over the DANA tragedy, the upper house of Nigeria's parliament, the Senate, demanded that Demuren, respected by some knowledgeable industry insiders as a hardworking and competent CEO, be suspended, pending the conclusion of the investigation into the crash.
The challenges ahead
But the pilot who spoke to New African insisted that the NCAA was being unfairly made a scapegoat for what happened.
"The criticism of the NCAA is quite harsh," the pilot said. "They actually carry our a Jot of spot checks and try, as much as possible, to make sure that regulations are followed. I believe that if the operators' licences are suspended, with regard to most offences, they will definitely give the regulations more importance. However, some regulations are not stiff enough ... For instance, I think the NCAA allows too much time for [aircraft] maintenance to be done."
Concerning the ill-fated DANA plane, the pilot confirmed that there were allegations within the industry that the MD-83 plane was not fit to transport passengers. "I heard that any time the aircraft was to fly, maintenance would fix its problems temporarily and then inform the crew that it was now fit to fly."
But speculation that the plane was the same one that previously had problems in the eastern Nigerian town of Uyo, was denied by our government source. "The aircraft that had a problem in Uyo, a couple of weeks before the DANA crash, was in Turkey, on a 'C' check, as at the time of the crash."
He continued: "In general, the industry is nowhere near the same as it was five years ago. It has come almost full circle and has become much safer. But this accident is a painful reminder that you cannot get too safe."
That's a truism the bereaved families are painfully aware of, as they seek answers to an unforeseen event that has left them grappling with tragic, life-lasting consequences.
RELATED ARTICLE: Aircraft accidents
There have been 110 recorded air crashes in Nigeria since 1943, killing nearly 1,500 people. The most notable ones include:
* An ADC Airlines accident, just after take-off from Abuja on 29 October 2006. 96 people were killed.
* A Nigerian Air Force plane carrying high-ranking officers crashed in Benue State on 17 September 2006. 6 were killed.
* A Sosoliso flight crash-landed in Port Harcourt on 10 December 2005. 106 were killed, including more than 50 secondary school students returning home for the Christmas holidays from Abuja's Loyola College.
* A Bellview Airlines jet crashed just after take-off from Lagos on 22 October 2005.117 killed.
* An EAS Airlines accident on 4 May 2002.148 were killed.
* A Nigerian Air Force C-130 crashed, just after take-off from Lagos, on 26 September 1992. More than 150 people perished.