Suntai’s flight of doom as regulator’s albatross

The Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB)’s report of the accident involving late former Governor of Taraba State, Danbaba Suntai, brings to the fore the weak regulatory oversight of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), writes WOLE SHADARE

The long wait
It took seven years for Nigerians and all those associated with aviation whether in Nigeria or elsewhere to know exactly the circumstance that led to the crash of ex-governor of Taraba State, Danbaba Suntai’s Cessna 172 aircraft.
When the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) decided to release the damning report and five others that had remained on the shelf for many years, Suntai’s decision to operate an aircraft he was not rated on, amounted to a suicide.

The flaws, deception
Suntai’s case exposes the flouting of aviation regulations by pilots, especially those on Private Pilot Licence (PPL). It also brings to question the role of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to guarantee safety at all times.
Agreed that PPL allows one to fly himself, which Suntai did, but equipment that he flew, according to the AIB report, had no documentation with the aviation regulatory body. If it had no documentation, how come it was allowed to operate?
The airplane was even granted permission to take-off and land, possibly because Suntai was a governor and must be accorded all the ‘courtesies’ due a governor even when he constituted danger to himself and other users of the airspace.
According to the report released by AIB’s Commissioner, Akin Olateru, an aircraft engineer, the aircraft had no record of registration with NCAA and had no record with any aircraft maintenance organisations, an indication that the airplane could have been ‘smuggled’ into the country without certification by the aviation regulatory body.

The late governor obtained a Private Pilot License (PPL] but was not type-rated on the aircraft he was flying.
Suntai’s decision to operate a Visual Flight Rule (VFR) after sunset, coupled with inadequate oversight by the aviation regulatory authority, (NCAA), conspired to cause the accident.
He suffered brain injury after the crash and went through rehabilitation at home after a long medical stay abroad before he died in June 2017.

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The damning report further stated that the pilot was not qualified to fly Cessna 172 and had total logged flying hours of 58 hours and 40 minutes, just as the pilot had no relevant endorsement to fly the aircraft type.
He was said to have reported an incorrect estimated time of arrival (ETA at Yola as 10; 01 UTC as against the time 17: 19 UTC). The report equally reported the number of persons on board as six to the control tower as against four actual persons found after the accident.
According to the report, “the control tower was notified about the flight departure by phone call from Jalingo after the aircraft was airborne. AIB was unable to interview the pilot as he was flown out of the country for further medical treatment.”

It could be conveniently said that pilot (Suntai) engaged in a violation of controlled airspace (VCA). This occurs when a pilot enters controlled airspace without a clearance occasioned by the inaccurate information he was said to have given air traffic controllers when they sought to know his position. Unauthorised aircraft in controlled airspace present a potential collision threat to other aircraft.
It is a section of airspace surrounding an airport with a tower, and/or airspace up to a certain altitude overlying Nigeria. This airspace may or may not be radar monitored. The controller needs to be aware of all aircraft within his/her section of controlled airspace so as to provide a complete traffic service. Pilots are required to request a clearance before entering the airspace.
It is a known fact in many places including Nigeria that many pilots who do not intend to enter controlled airspace do not apply sufficient track tolerance when tracking near a controlled airspace boundary. Increased track tolerances by such pilots would help to limit the consequences of navigation errors.
A significant minority of incidents were those where pilots entered controlled airspace as intended but failed to obtain a clearance before doing so. While most of these pilots requested a clearance, it was apparent that many of them were not allowing sufficient time to obtain a clearance as they approach the airspace boundary.

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Expert’s view
Former Commandant, Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd) described the action as criminal.
“I just read the report of the Suntai plane crash; is that still one accident when you should not apportion blame,” he quipped. “You can imagine if he had run into another flight with an unlicensed aircraft that he was not qualified to fly.”
Ojikutu stated that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Annex 13, which stipulates: “Don’t apportion blame is minimum standard. Then, let us draw up a national standard.
“By the way, why has the NCAA been sanctioning airlines and pilots that breached regulations such as the pilot of FirstNation Airline and others with expired medical certificates? In a sane country, NCAA and the controller who cleared the aircraft would be in serious trouble by now.’
He said it was easy for them then to stop former Governor Rotimi Amaechi’s aircraft from taking off from Akure, Ondo State, about five years ago because of what he termed flimsy excuses that the airport was closed and the aircraft had no licence to fly commercially, stressing that nobody bothered to check the impunity and excesses of a pilot/governor.
Besides, he said that if the Suntai’s case were to be in the military, he would have been tried dead or alive for culpable negligence.

A test case
Not a few believed that it would have been a test case for NCAA to see if it would act beyond the lip service it pays to regulations by prosecuting Suntai for endangering safety of an aircraft and the occupants had he not died from injuries he sustained in the accident five years after.
This brings to fore a case of February 25, 2019, when a British private pilot was convicted for operating an illegal charter flight and a flight that was unsafe, following a trial in Manchester, England. He was convicted for acting as a pilot without holding an appropriate license and flying outside the flight manual limitations.
Robert Murgatroyd commenced a flight in a Piper Cherokee from Barton Aerodrome, near Manchester, to the Isle of Barra, Scotland, on September 9, 2017. He had taken payment of £500 from each of his three passengers, who were bird watchers hoping to see the American Redstart, which had not been seen for 30 years.
He was found to have been making a profit from the flight, rather than it being a cost-sharing flight as currently permitted under EASA regulations. Thus, he should have held a commercial license and the aircraft should have been included on an air operator certificate (AOC).
After departure in poor weather from a wet runway at the small general aviation airfield, the aircraft struggled to get airborne and crashed shortly afterward close to a major highway. The pilot suffered a broken nose, while the passengers also suffered minor injuries.
The CAA and Greater Manchester Police mounted a criminal investigation, separate from the UK AAIB’s accident inquiry. Investigators found that the Cherokee was 426 pounds over the mtow of 2,150 pounds.

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Last line
Suntai’s case was a very serious incident that could have ended with fatalities. He and other occupants sustained serious injuries. It is hoped that the revelations in the report will deter other rich men and influential people in the society as well as pilots from ignoring regulations for selfish interests.

Wole Shadare