NIGERIA: The Man behind the TRACON Project

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Modesty emits its own peculiar charm. Otherwise, the slight-build man poring over important-looking documents on a conference table in this expansive office could have easily passed for any other staff member of the National Airspace Management Agency. He was sporting a blue-themed print shirt.

Of course, the visitor from THISDAY knew who he was: Elder Mazi Nnamdi Udoh, the managing director/chief executive officer of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, better known by its acronym NAMA.

This man, who holds the traditional title Ugwu Aro, is a scion of a First Republic senator, Senator Henry Nwafor Udoh and his spouse Madam Uzoma Udoh. With his enviable credentials and pedigree much should be expected from him.

Since joining the agency in 1980 – following his graduation from the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology in Zaria – he had not only distinguished himself but also burnished his credentials by obtaining an Air Traffic Safety Electronics Licence at the School of Aviation in Langen, Germany. This is in addition to an MSc in air safety from London’s City University.

His eventual appointment on October 5, 2011 as the NAMA MD/CEO should really have surprised no industry-watcher. For he had prior to this appointment been the executive director for electronic and engineering services, the general manager of project and surveillance, the special adviser on projects monitoring to the Aviation Minister and once the airspace manager of the Ilorin International Airport.

But the name Udoh has become synonymous with the multi-billion naira Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) project, which delivers modern Air Traffic Systems at all Nigerian airports nationwide. On October 18 2010, while he was still the NAMA’s acting managing director, he was praised by President Goodluck Jonathan for his enviable record in the industry during the commissioning of the TRACON. TRACON, since its launch in Abuja, has tremendously improved the quality of air traffic services in Nigeria’s airspace and has since recorded more over flyers.

The project also earned the endorsement of the Senate Committee on Aviation, which was on a tour of airport facilities and project. The committee had indeed lauded the project as the most modern system for airspace surveillance.

Even with the arrow darts of criticisms trailing the project in the form of petitions, the committee’s chairman, Senator Hope Uzodinma had acknowledged that TRACON “is a project that has been justified.” The senator, however, scored the management of the project low “in terms of public perception”.  TRACON, according to Uzodinma, currently remains the most sophisticated system in the world.

A maintenance arrangement has been sealed with Thales ATM of France for multi-million naira project. This agreement, which involves the training of the NAMA officials and unlimited repairs, would last for five years. Also under this agreement, Thales ATM has trained over 100 agency officials on the use of TRACON and would be training 12 of its engineers every year.

The TRACON project, which as its name implies guarantees a total coverage of the country’s airspace, comprises four Primary Radar and five Secondary Radar Heads. These are co-located in Nnamdi Azikwe, Murtala Muhammad, Malam Aminu Kano and Port Harcourt International airports. There are also five relay stations which serve as standalone Secondary Surveillance Radar located at Talata Mafara, Maiduguri, Numan, Obubra and Ilorin.

President Jonathan has hailed the commissioning of the project as another stride of his administration’s endeavour to “overhaul the aviation system from its past state of disrepair to conform to international standard.”
The president continued: “Coming on the heels of the country’s attainment of the USA International Category 1 Safety Assessment Certificate, the feat today is an attestation of the country’s unwavering commitment in ensuring a safer, more secured and more efficient and reliable flight operations.”

It seemed to be one of those favourable twists of fate that the TRACON project had come at a time Nigeria had chalked up a category 1 status award by the international aviation community.  He also saw it as a befitting gift for the country’s 50th anniversary.

Back in his office at the NAMA Headquarters, Udoh told his visitor from THISDAY that the project is more than just about total radar coverage. Among its other benefits is flexible route system, which enables a pilot flying from Lagos to London to independently choose the route he wants to fly from. “Following the route selection, the pilot would then input all essential flight data (such as the aircraft type, speed, altitude, ETD) into the onboard computer and inform the air traffic controller (ATC),” explains the NAMA official brochure. “The ATC would then open the airway for the flight, communicating with it only when it is necessary.”

There are also the integrated aircraft billing systems and spares, voice communication systems, display consoles, voice recording systems, very high frequency transceivers, voice recording systems and fibre optics.There are also both primary and secondary radars at the international airports.

In matters of air safety, the project makes Nigeria a force to be reckoned with and the third African country after Egypt and South Africa to attain this status. The project enhances both civil and military surveillance of aircrafts operating within the country’s airspace.  The nine radar projects guarantee a combined coverage of 315 nautical miles.

The agency, according to Udoh, is equipped to handle about 500 aeroplanes and 3oo helicopters daily. Numerous foreign aircrafts overfly the country’s airspace en route other countries.

An increased number of aircrafts in the country’s airspace, he explained, had obliged the agency to take steps towards improving air navigation infrastructure. This includes the total radar and radio coverage of Nigeria and the performance-based navigation, which makes Nigeria the first country in Africa to implement it.

The influx of more foreign airlines into the country’s airspace is, no doubt, a tacit endorsement of its improved safety.  Then, there is also the increasing demand by several airstrips and aerodrome operators for the agency’s assistance in air traffic services.  Udoh dispelled the notion that the Nigerian airspace is unsafe since no airline should embark on any flight without receiving air traffic instructions from the control tower.

The secret to this vote of confidence is the agency’s training culture. The training of its personnel in different areas of traffic management has continued to hold in the US, South Africa and Egypt. According to Udoh, this investment in the training of its personnel has ensured that Nigeria meets the minimum internationally acceptable standards in air traffic services.

During a recent facility tour of the TRACON sites, newspaper editors were able to watch a live coverage of the country’s airspace. Signals were intercepted from moving aircrafts and were relayed to the air traffic controllers for the tracking of the aircrafts.

The 67 million-euro project, whose contract was awarded during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration to Thales ATM of France, has helped burnish Nigeria’s sullied profile in international aviation safety. This is after the country’s airspace was blacklisted in 2005. It is understandable therefore that the Jonathan administration is celebrating the fact that the project has re-launched Nigeria into global reckoning.

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