Pioneer Commissioner and Chief Executive of the Accident Investigation Bureau, Mr. Angus Ozoka, has explained why air accidents happen in Nigeria and what should be done to drastically reduce the frequency of accidents. He spoke to Chinedu Eze in Abuja. Excerpts:
Many people in Nigeria believe that there are so many accidents in the country, considering the number of aircraft we have and our level of operation. So how do we eliminate air accident in Nigeria?
It is never a good thing to have accidents. Air accident is a national tragedy and we are supposed to be in mourning and sympathise with those involved and their families and even sympathise with ourselves and Nigeria as a country.
Therefore, it makes me feel unhappy when there is an accident and people make all sorts of comments; sometimes we comment as if we are possessed. The comments, if there should be any, should be constructive, knowing that whatever we say or do after the accident will likely affect the nation’s morale, especially the travelling public and even make the bereaved unhappy. So I am not happy that whenever there is a crash people make unchecked comments.
I think we have to look at ourselves and think maybe there is need to do one or two things. There is need to be stricter in licensing airlines. We should intensify inspections of airlines; audit of airlines and surveillance of airlines. We should intensify all of those. And when I say we, I am saying the regulatory authority; all of us are involved in one way or another in influencing how airlines come on board. We should also maybe, update and make it stricter for airlines to be licensed.
This will make air operations safer because we are talking of an industry that is highly capital intensive, labour intensive, and subjects itself to competition within the industry. It is also subject to regulation both domestic and international. It is also sensitive to economic and technological advancement.
If an aircraft is involved in an accident that is not enough to rubbish the entire system; it is expected that people should be patient and let the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) do their work. Once they come out with their findings because a lot of people that say a lot of things now, by the time they know the truth; they will not take back what they have said and what they have said may have caused problem in different quarters.
So it is good for people to be patient and allow the accident investigators to do their work; just like medical doctors would be allowed to do their work and just like engineers doing road construction should be allowed to do their work. You don’t come out with statements that are counterfeit when nobody has known what the situation is that made the accident to happen.
A pilot, in fact, a captain who has been flying aircraft for many years in Nigeria, disclosed that sometimes an operator forces the pilot to take up a flight even when the aircraft may not be airworthy in the pilot’s judgment. How can NCAA put this into check?
It is recognised worldwide that accidents don’t just happen; that the system must have been breached before an accident happens. Part of the things that are traceable to an accident are latent issues because in accident we have active issues, the immediately cause of the accident, like pilot error; then the latent issue which you might see. It may be an issue that has to do with the board room; it might be that the airline culture is not suited to safe air operation; it might be that the airline may not have a good audit department. A good airline is supposed to have a good audit department and it should be alive to its responsibilities.
The NCAA will license an operator. He carries out certain functions as I mentioned before …the inspection audit and surveillance but the airline itself is supposed to ensure the continuous air-worthiness process because one accident can wipe out an airline, so they are supposed to be up and doing. So I will neither concur nor reject what the pilot said, but even the aviation world recognises that if an individual or an organisation decides to establish an airline it is doing so for commercial and economic consideration – profit. It is the regulatory body that is supposed to maintain a balance between the commercial activity of an airline and the safety and security aspect of the airline.
The first priority of an airline operator is profit and not safety and security, so somebody has to step in and make safety and security a priority for him. The regulator must also ensure that the operator makes money, because if he is not making money he will not be there, operating. So you allow him to make money and also control how he operates so that security and safety are not breached. So airlines that want to cut corner will be checked by strong regulations; strong monitoring; strong audit; strong surveillance.
What of a situation whereby the airline and the regulator are in cat and mouse game; a situation where the operator is not saying all the needed truth to the regulator?
The regulator is usually known as the policeman of the industry, but you know, the policeman cannot police everywhere; even if you have a million policemen in Abuja, they cannot police everywhere. If you have thousands of personnel in the office of NCAA, they cannot penetrate everywhere; so some of these things are also done in “trust”. That this man, we have examined him; we have scrutinised his papers and we have them suitable to be licensed as an operator. The operator has first responsibility to ensure he operates safely and in accordance with the law.
That is the reason I said each airline should have a good audit department and the people at the audit department should be bold enough to examine what is happening in the organisation, point out errors, point out shortcomings and ask the management to correct these errors and if at any time the aircraft is not in the best state to operate, there should be no half measures, once they are aware. It is criminal if they are aware that the aircraft is not airworthy and decide to operate.
Sometimes they may not be aware because a problem may just develop, but in aviation because of the monitoring, a lot of inspection and a lot of assessment, sudden problems rarely develop. So if all these are done the way they are supposed to be done and at the time when they are supposed to be done, the serious way which they are supposed to be done, it will be hard for problems to just develop.
The way aviation is, if the procedure is followed, it will be difficult for problems to develop all the time; they are supposed to develop infrequently.
People always say there is nothing wrong with old aircraft if it is well maintained, but now it is obvious that some of the airlines that operate old aircraft don’t properly maintain them, what action do you think NCAA should take?
First of all there should be no reason for not servicing and maintaining an aircraft; there should be no reason. The operator should not be in business. If they are all maintaining the safety standard required, then you can have as many, but here everybody wants to be known as an airline operator; everybody wants to be the chairman of his own airline, rather than pulling resources together. If they can pool resources together and halve the number of airlines in Nigeria they will be more efficient.
The fact that there is no maintenance facility or hangar in not a reason because the people going into the business ab initio knew that there is no hangar to maintain aircraft in the country. They knew that aviation is labour and capital intensive before they ventured into the business. If they didn’t know this it means that they did not do study before they went into the business. That is not excuse that people should not do what is expected from them. You must not start an airline if you are not going to abide by the rules and you can walk out of the airline business.
On ageing aircraft I will say that human being age; aircraft age. If something made by God ages, how much more things made by man. Aging aircraft is defined as at or near or above its designed year of operation. It does not mean that once it reached that designed year that it will stop operating, but what it means is that aircraft manufacturers, just like when you are designing a bridge, you say you designed this bridge for 40 years. It does not mean that after 40 years the bridge should not be used again; but that depends on the maintenance and usage.
I will prefer, from what I have known, I will like that if I am travelling by air as a passenger that the aircraft that I am using is relatively new. I will prefer that. There are two reasons for this, going by what I know as an investigator, newer aircraft can also get involved in accident, but let us say, if newer aircraft and the much older aircraft get involved in accident in similar circumstances and crash dynamics, which is how it crashed and the spread of the wreckage, there is higher possibility of survivability in the newer aircraft that in the older aircraft.
In recent years the aircraft seat has higher survivability during accident. The seat has been so modified and strengthened that they can take nine Gs to 16 Gs and everybody is supposed to have one G. A G is a force at which every object is attracted to the centre of the earth. It is the acceleration due to gravity. That is the definition of G in physics. So the seat of a newer aircraft has been constructed and designed in such a way that they are more survivable when there is a crash. This is more than in older aircraft where the Gs were, maybe Three Gs to six Gs, now it is between nine and 16 Gs.
If older aircraft and newer aircraft crash in exactly the same way, the passengers in the newer aircraft are more likely to survive the impact than the passengers in the older aircraft because the seats have improved greatly. That is number one. Number two, from the accident investigation point of view, the newer aircraft contains more variables, more information in the Flight Data Recorder (FDR). FDR will tell you the altitude of the aircraft, direction of the aircraft, height and hundreds of other variables.
If you get a Flight Data Recorder or Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from a newer aircraft, you are more likely to know where the problem in the aircraft is likely going to be. These two pieces of equipment which make up the black box don’t tell you what caused an accident but they are a guide to investigation; they point out for you to the direction where you are supposed to be heading to find out more information about what led to the crash. It doesn’t mean you will stop at the Flight Data Recorder. You are supposed to thoroughly investigate everything. But the help of the FDR will guide you to where you should concentrate now after looking at every other thing.
Don’t you think NCAA should be as relentless in enforcing economic regulation as well as safety regulation?
The regulator at the time of licensing an operator should carry out a thorough assessment to know if he can effectively operate, carry out scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. The airline must present convincingly how it is going to operate; the number of staff members it will have and the salary they will pay them. This is because the regulator has to balance both the economic and commercial interest of the operator and safety and security aspects of the industry. Where the regulator feels that the operator is not measuring up to standard, he has the right to step them down. I am using step down instead of saying revoke their licence. They should be stepped down until when they are ready, they can be stepped up again.
I don’t think we will be talking of over regulation if we do the right thing and until the people start taking their responsibilities seriously. There was a time I was chairman of a committee in the Ministry of Aviation. Nigeria and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) were going to develop jointly a civil aviation master plan for the country. ICAO formed its team; Nigeria formed its team. I was the chairman of the Nigerian team.
That document was developed, although before it came out I had left the Ministry. There is strong recommendation for an economic regulation of the industry. As a matter of fact, apart from the civil aviation authority, which is supposed to take care of the technical aspect of the regulation, economic regulation is supposed to be strictly monitored now.
This is because of the airline is not healthy, the industry is not healthy, so I won’t be surprised if in the near future there is an agency for economic regulation. I support that. The act has to be amended for the changes to be made. It is important to do that because it will be an overload for NCAA to do economic and technical regulation. This will give one person too much power when he is to regulate this and regulate that.
Let us go back to accident investigation, what are the benefits of the laboratory government established for Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB)?
This laboratory made it possible for Captain Muktar Usman and his team to in one week produce a preliminary report, which was made public to Nigerians. Without the laboratory AIB would have been heading to Canada or Brazil because the Embraer was manufactured in Brazil. This flight investigation laboratory came from Canada. If it was a Boeing aircraft that was involved in the accident AIB would have been heading to National Transport and Safety Board (NTSB) of the US without the laboratory to do the analysis. I have been there twice.
So this lab shortened the time of preliminary investigation. I must say that I am really sad because when there is a crash people make comments as if they are possessed. Yesterday I read a newspaper report where somebody is saying, I don’t trust what the preliminary report has stated. When you didn’t have black box they will say there is no black box. And when you have black box and you analysis the black box, they will say, I don’t trust what the black box is saying. This means that something is wrong with us.
The AIB Commissioner and Chief Executive made it very clear; that this information he passed to the public are factual information, which means that this is exactly what we have got from the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder. Journalists asked him, tell us why this happened and he said, no we have not reached there. We have just given you factual information.
Accident investigation involved collecting of information and data both from the site, the aircraft, including the black box. You analyse the data. After analysing the data, you draw conclusions from the data and the analysis and then after that you make safety recommendations. There are these four steps; they have not even started. The requirement is that maybe in the next two weeks you come out with preliminary report. In the past it was not easy to do that, but now because of the laboratory they were able to come out with it in seven to eight days.
For somebody to criticise that report means that something is wrong with us. If it is where they have interest, they will keep silent; they will not say anything. Let me give you example, when I was in AIB investigating that fatal crash in October 22, 2005 that killed 117 people. I was forced to hand over to somebody who was the Director of Air Worthiness at NCAA when the crash happened. He was advised not to allow the plane to fly and he defied the advice. When the crash happened he was removed, only for somebody that called himself a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to bring that same person and appointed him to head the investigation into that crash as Commissioner of AIB.
And none of these people that are talking now saw anything wrong with that appointment; none of them said anything against that. If they said anything let them produce what they said. So I don’t take their criticism seriously. To me, that is the height of hypocrisy. The people who are criticising now knew what happened. They were in the system; none condemned that action. I don’t take them seriously and that is why I said a lot of people go to the TV to make noise. Aviation is not where you go and make noise. Plane has crashed; we are supposed to be in mourning.
Why were you removed suddenly as Commissioner of AIB?
At a time everybody knew they were singing a song that it was bomb that blew down the aircraft. So when somebody was appointed Minister in 2006, he said to me, call a press briefing and announce that it was bomb that blew down the aeroplane. We were still investigating the crash then and he said that right in his office with his permanent secretary, with his aides and other staff members. It was not one on one, everybody was there. And I said I would not do it. I was still standing up; I said, Hon. Minister I will not do it. It was not a bomb I will not do it. Then he said I hope you know I can remove you. I said you are the Minister.
Those who don’t want to hear the truth will tell you the rest is history. The rest is history in the sense that when you want to remove somebody you can concoct something against that person. Fortunately I rose in the civil service from the graduate level to the highest level. So when the thing was happening I wrote and informed all the security agencies and told them that they wanted to manipulate the investigation.
I copied the Inspector General of Police, State Security Service (SSS), National Security Adviser, Senate Committee on Aviation, Secretary to the Government, Head of Service and Civil Service Commission and said they wanted to manipulate the investigation. It was only the Secretary to the Government then that wrote a letter to the Ministry of Aviation and said, why are you doing this? Nobody else said anything.
Was that the reason why there were two reports about the accident?
There were no two reports. I submitted preliminary report, submitted interim report; submitted update report. We had not gotten to conclusion and safety recommendation before I was removed. I spent over two years there. When the person that took over from me came in it is possible that the report that I submitted wouldn’t be in tandem with what he wanted so it was delayed until luckily, God in His own way made it that the person was removed and Captain Usman was appointed and completed the report, following the footsteps of what I had laid down.
Let me say this also, in Nigeria we have to understand one thing. Once there is an accident, everybody says he wants to investigate. AIB will not tell them not to investigate, but ICAO recognises only accident report and that is the one from the authentic investigating body, AIB. That is the only one ICAO recognises. Anyone can investigate what they want to investigate but the investigation must be in accordance with Annexe 13 of ICAO and Annexe 13 is holy book of AIB which they must follow religiously. One they have done that they send it to ICAO and ICAO recognises that.
If an airline has a record of its aircraft suffering engine failure more than once in a short period of time, what do you think the regulatory body should do?
If the engine failure is not due to bird strike then there is something wrong with the operations and maintenance of that aircraft. First of all it is either the engineers are not monitoring, servicing and maintaining the engine; the regulator has his responsibility to monitor but the basic daily responsibility of the airline is to ensure that the aircraft is airworthy. Even if the regulator is short of staff, he may not be responsible for the fact that there is not enough personnel in the organisation to regulate the industry.
One of the reasons is this, we have the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria (NCAT) and they carry out ab initio training pilots, engineers and other technical trainings, but there is no single university in Nigeria that offers degree programme in aviation.
There is none. So the manpower that is available in Nigeria are those that have gone to NCAT and then the airlines take them and give them further training in-house, on the job training and then later on, outside.
But if you have institutions offering degree programmes on aeronautical engineering, aircraft maintenance engineering, aeronautical operations as basis; then you can start building up the manpower needs of the industry in the country. So if there is lack of manpower in aviation, the entire country has to look at itself why is it that no Nigerian university that offers degree programme in aviation courses. The issue of manpower should be looked at holistically.
Finally, what is the advice you will give Nigerian airlines?
Nobody asked the operators to establish an airline. They established the airlines on their own, but since they decided to establish an airline, they must maintain the standard.
Angus Ozoka hails from Nnewi, Anambra state, Nigeria. He attended Presbyterian Ikom for his primary education and Hope Waddell Calabar and Christ the King College, Onitsha for his secondary education. He trained as a private pilot before his university education in the US and UK and obtained a degree in Aeronautics (Operations) from San Jose State University, California in 1974, having initially enrolled in the Aeronautics programme at Ohlone College, Fremont.
He also obtained a Masters degree in Civil/ Transport Engineering with specialisation in Airport Engineering from same university in 1980. He returned to Nigeria and worked with the Federal Ministry of Aviation in 1983 and between 1986 and 1988, he pursued and obtained a Masters of Philosophy (M.Phil) in Air Transport Technology/Aviation System Planning at the University of Technology, Loughborough, UK. Ozoka had a distinguished career in the Nigerian Ministry of Aviation between 1983 and 2008 when he retired from government service.