Air accident investigation’s very challenging, says Ajayi, first female investigator

 

Taiwo Ajayi holds the record of being the first female accident investigator in Nigeria. In this interview with WOLE SHADARE, the University of Lagos biochemistry graduate, who first employed by Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) and scheduled by the organization to undergo air traffic control training to enhance her air accident investigation job in the organization Excerpts…

How did you get into aviation? What was the attraction?

That is where I found work. When we got in here, looking at how the sector works, I had to go in for training which included air traffic control training. I noticed that a lot of them were flight engineers. They know about air traffic control but were not very deep. Going there to learn how air traffic works and other basic things.

I just want to know the motivation because most times people look at aviation differently from other endeavours. What are the things you saw to say you want to take this as a profession?

First of all, when I was growing up, I observed that a lot of crashes were happening in Nigeria. As a young person, I was concerned and I asked myself why they were happening. I did not know then that the AIB existed.

It was only when I got the job, that I started understanding what the job entails and promised myself to be good at what I do while waiting for an opportunity to come my way and be able to make good use of it.

I got interested in how the engineers were doing their things, how the pilots work. That was how I knew that aviation is highly regulated industry.

 

What was the training like?

For the air traffic control which I participated in, it was a whole lot of rigorous training. You are required to do a lot of practical, a lot of reading because you know that lives are involved in air traffic control. You handle over a thousand people as an air traffic controller which a doctor cannot handle because you have an aircraft carrying about 250 passengers and you have to give them the right direction, the right path for them to pass through. So, if there is breakdown in separation that is a huge problem.

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You have to be very strong with your emotions. At times, some of my colleagues would break down and cry in the simulator especially when they are told that they had just crashed 200 souls on-board due to an error on their part.

After the simulator, one goes to the flight line to learn how to fly a plane; though you have an instructor on-board. After that, you can now proceed to on the job training where you go to a facility to put into practice what you have learnt.

For you to come out of NCAT, Zaria, and they give you a certificate shows that this person is trainable and able to handle the traffic; this person is able to persevere on the job.

You going to the field is about a year duration and in between you will be doing a whole lot of checks to know individual progress. If you have not progressed, they will tell you that you still need to stay back to strengthen your skills and all the rest of that. It is interesting but demanding

It is safety dependent and if you are not properly trained, you can kill hundreds of people in one day. It is a privilege to work in this environment. It gives you a high sense of responsibility because you don’t take things for granted.

 

Taiwo Ajayi at NCAT during her training

 

You started as an air traffic controller and later as safety investigator, does this put you at an advantageous position. Before an accident happens, it is possible the air traffic controllers have an idea of what has happened and now you are a safety investigator, how do you marry these two?

It is an advantage. Like I said, when I joined the AIB, when reports were being written, we did not have full-fledged air traffic controller to be able to guide us with the report. Now, being an air traffic controller and an air safety investigator, whenever it comes during the duration of the flight where the air traffic controller is speaking with the pilot, if the pilot gives you a concern , that might be a leading trail to what happened and also to know if the air traffic controller said the right thing to the pilot, you will be able to know and might be a leading trail to what happened to know whether the air traffic control gave the right direction, do what he was supposed to do and this helps you with the job.

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What is you background academically?

I studied Biochemistry in the University of Lagos. After that, I proceeded to Jos, Plateau State for my Youth Service (NYSC).

What is next for you?

We want to have a 100 per cent safe sky in Nigeria and Africa as well. Every report you want to write is not to indict anybody or to apportion blame but to forestall future occurrences. With the management we have in AIB, we can get there.

 On manpower in AIB and enough capacity in its safety investigation

Right now, we have 34 safety investigators both third generation and us and there is a good succession plan. We believe that once everybody is well trained for the job, we will be able to manage any situation.

 

Taiwo Ajayi

 

You are in a male dominated industry, how do you feel about it and how it make you feel as the first female air safety investigator in Nigeria?

It was just a perception that aviation is a man’s world. Maybe it was so for many years, but now women are breaking the barrier. Now, you have female pilots, female air traffic controllers, female dispatchers and even female maintenance engineers. The women are taking their place in the industry.

What accident investigation that is very challenging to you among the many planes crashes you have investigated? No two accidents are the same. Tell me, the one that shook you most and proved challenging to you.

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Like you said, no two accidents are the same. I have participated in a couple of accidents and serious incidences. When I just got in, we had senior colleagues who wanted us to get used to the job. I remember that there was an accident here in Lagos and I was drafted to the site. It was a horrible sight. I could not get over it for about a week recalling the mangled human bodies I saw at the crash site.

I saw what can be described as total destruction of people and equipment by fire. You begin to ask yourself, is this drama? You have to take up evidences so that they won’t be lost so that you can use them for your report.

After that, we also went for other ones we also investigated. All of them bring a whole lot of challenges. When you go for an accident investigation, you look for the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and at the end of the day, they both might be overwritten. Then that is the first frustration you have. You begin to ask yourself what next? You now have to look for other readingsdetails for you to know what really went wrong and collect your evidences from other units like air traffic control and if the crew is alive, you get their statements.

The pilot would be able to tell you exactly what transpired during the flight. There is a whole lot of frustration; especially if you are trying to get a document and you are not getting response, you have the timeline to meet up. There are frustrations but you have to keep your emotions under control.

 

Wole Shadare