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Aged Aircraft, Maintenance and Air Crashes

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IRS plane crash in Niger Republic

IRS plane crash in Niger RepublicThe crash of IRS aircraft in Niger Republic while returning to resume service after maintenance checks brings to the fore the need for proper maintenance of aged aircraft and why the regulatory body should be stricter to ensure accident free flight operations in Nigeria, writes Chinedu Eze.

An aircraft, a Fokker 100 with registration number 5NSIK, belonging to IRS crashed last week at Ganla in Niger Republic, some nautical miles outside the Nigerian airspace. The captain and the co-pilot, the only two persons on board the flight survived and there were indications that the pilot crash landed the aircraft for reasons which are still under debate. But many Nigerians are happy for three reasons. One, the crash did not take place in Nigeria. Two, the aircraft did not have passengers on board. Three, no life was lost in the crash. But Nigerians are also wondering why an aircraft that went for major maintenance check, known as C Check, should crash on its way to resume operation after it had been certified and tested after the checks. What happened? Many more people have become sceptical and apprehensive about aircraft that operate in Nigeria. 

Cause of the Crash

THISDAY gathered that the crash was caused by navigational systems failure in the aircraft. The aircraft was said to have developed the problem while flying back to Nigeria after the maintenance. The pilots claimed they arrived at Kano’s airspace but the weather was bad and they returned to Niger and started looking for where they could land while their fuel was running low, so while scouting for where to land, the fuel in the aircraft was exhausted. But an inside source said that the explanation had flaws; that it was unbelievable because if there was system failure in the aircraft, how did the pilot know they arrived Kano airspace and that there was bad weather? how did they know that they had moved away from Kano airspace? “The aircraft came out of a major C check. There was test flight in which some problems were identified and corrected and it successfully flew before the final flight. So the suddenness with which another fault developed in the aircraft is worrisome,” said an insider from the regulatory body, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). THISDAY also gathered that the fault knocked out two flight management systems and that made some engineers privy to the workings of the aircraft to insist that there was something wrong somewhere. “There is something wrong that we don’t know. Proper investigation has to be conducted. I stand to see things done right,” NCAA insider said.

THISDAY learnt that an NCAA engineer that approved the flight also directed the test flight and was satisfied before allowing the aircraft to be brought back, but did not accompany the flight back to Nigeria; rather, he chose to fly commercial plane. The aircraft was said to have been maintained in a facility in Latvia, Eastern Europe. “Occasionally, our people follow the aircraft certified after maintenance back to Nigeria but sometimes they fly commercial, especially to insulate themselves from any influences by the airline operator,” explained a source from NCAA. Wondering why the airplane could have developed fault after a major check, another NCAA source said, “A lot of this depends on how a pilot handled it. If you don’t know how to do the job when a problem comes you won’t know what to do. It is true there are processes, procedures and checklist, but you have to have good knowledge, experience and background. It is during emergency that you know a good pilot.” IRS Airlines which is one of the indigenous carriers that has operated for a long time stopped scheduled services last October due to technical problems with its fleet. The airline which operated three Fokker 100 aircraft stopped operation when its aircraft developed hydraulic problem while landing at the Kaduna airport last year, prompting the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to ground its operations.

No Speculation

Responding to THISDAY enquiries on whether IRS Airlines had been recertified by NCAA to resume operation after it was grounded last year; the spokesman of the regulatory body, Sam Adurogboye, said IRS Airlines has not recommenced operations. “They are currently undergoing recertification. The crashed plane was meant to join their on-going recertification exercise. The plane had undergone maintenance. It was monitored by our inspectors while the maintenance lasted.

“Note: a maintained plane is issued with Certificate of Release that will indicate the type of maintenance carried out and the next due date.”

Adurogboye said since the golden principle of air plane incident or accident investigation is, “do not speculate, but to wait for the outcome of the investigation to determine what went wrong that led to the accident”; therefore, there was no need to speculate what happened until after investigation.

“I would at this point appeal that we should wait for the outcome of the investigation.”

Aged Aircraft and Lack of Indigenous MRO

Industry experts and seasoned pilots have said that as long as the country operates old aircraft without maintenance hangar domiciled in the country, there would continue to be air crashes in spite of the efforts to improve safety in flight operations. A pilot once argued that because old aircraft needs constant maintenance, the operators cannot keep to the maintenance demands when there is no maintenance facility in the country, adding that to ensure that an old aircraft is worthy all the time, the operator must have to carry out scheduled maintenance, unscheduled maintenance and preventive maintenance. He noted that while the regulatory body, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, monitors the regulated maintenance, it does not monitor unscheduled maintenance which is left at the discretion of the operator and preventive maintenance, which should ensure that the aircraft is air worthy every morning before it begins service. According to him, the operator can compromise on unscheduled and preventive maintenance when there is no local maintenance facility because as an old aircraft, maintenance could be a daily routine, especially as the aircraft is flogged daily, so the operator would have to compromise this important aspect of maintenance because of the time and cost of ferrying the aircraft overseas.

“Operating old aircraft in an environment where there is maintenance facility is not a problem, but if it is in a place where there is no maintenance facility it is dangerous because old aircraft needs regular maintenance and monitoring; if not it will endanger safety of lives. “A simple analogy is a new car and an old car. An old car normally is taken to the mechanic more frequently. Imagine the challenge if you are driving an old car and you don’t have a mechanic in your area. You would prefer to manage some problems in the car till when you will have time and money to take it to the mechanic a distance away.” The pilot also observed that Nigeria does not have the culture of maintenance so an airline operator may choose to carry out the scheduled maintenance that is in NCAA log book and defer unscheduled maintenance and of course will not carry out preventive maintenance until the next scheduled maintenance.

“The lifespan of an aircraft is average of 25 to 30 years. At 22 years about 80 per cent of the aircraft life is spent. The aircraft needs regular maintenance at that age and close monitoring by the NCAA, so we expect the regulatory body to have greater oversight, overseeing how snags (technical problems) are cleared to make sure that the aircraft remains serviceable, not only for scheduled maintenance like A check, B check, C check and D check, but also for unscheduled maintenance.” The pilot also said that in spite of all the arguments about old and new aircraft, to ensure that there is safety in Nigeria air transport, the country should do away with old aircraft or urgently establish maintenance facility for regular maintenance of these aircraft. “If there is local maintenance hangar, an operator after the day’s flight can take his aircraft to the hangar, examine it and prepare it for tomorrow’s flights.” The sudden development of mechanical problem after the IRS aircraft had gone through a major check shows the inherent problem with old aircraft and explains the need for Nigeria to ensure that there is local maintenance facility in the country.

The acting Director General of NCAA, Benedict Adeyileka, last Monday said that it was the responsibility of airlines to ensure the air worthiness of their aircraft; that the function of NCAA is to carry out oversight functions, but it has been established that airlines cut corners; not only in Nigeria, but in other parts of the world, so the regulatory body may not repose any trust in the airlines but should ensure that regulations are strictly followed by the operators. In Africa, Nigeria is ranked second as the largest country with aircraft fleet above 15 years of age, while Ethiopia, Morocco and Egypt seem to have smaller number of aircraft above 15 years and these countries have also benefitted from strong national/flag carriers and also government support. These countries have significantly smaller domestic traffic compared to Nigeria.


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