There is a growing concern over frequent crashes involving military planes as no fewer than 223 military personnel died in noncombat crashes in less than 30 years, a figure experts say is too high by global comparison.
Stakeholders have raised the alarm over the frequency and advocated the need for thorough investigation to stem the tide and improve the safety record of the military. They also advocate for instituting proper maintenance culture to avert further disasters.
The latest crash, which claimed the life Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru onboard, and other senior military officers on Friday in Kaduna, was the second time Nigeria would lose an army chief in an air crash. An air crash had, in May 1968, cut short the career of then army chief, Joseph Akahan, exactly one year into his reign.
While there have been crashes involving Air Force planes from time to time, the frequency is now increasing, giving rise to concern within security and aviation circles. Since 2015, there have been eight accidents involving military planes, among them four in Kaduna, two in Abuja, one in Hong, Adamawa State, and one Alpha Jet in Borno State.
The 1992 fatal crash
The deadliest military plane crash was that of the Hercules C-130, which crashed shortly after takeoff in Lagos in September 1992, killing all 163 passengers on board, the majority being middle-ranking army, navy and air force officers on their way to a staff college course.
Many of the dead were said to be officers taking a course at the Nigerian Command and Staff College at Jaji, in Kaduna state.
10 generals lost in 2006
In 2006, the country was again thrown into mourning when another military plane crashed in Benue, killing 12 officers, among them 10 generals. The army officers were said to be on their way to a military retreat taking place at the Obudu Cattle Ranch.
Also, on September 28, 2018, a Nigerian Air Force F-7Ni aircraft taking part in the rehearsals for the aerial display to mark Nigeria's 58th Independence anniversary celebrations was involved in a crash, killing the pilot.
2021: Three crashes in 3 months
But 2021 will go down in history as the most trying year for the military after recording two fatal crashes in the space of three months.
On February 21, a Nigeria Air Force King Air 350 went down near the Abuja airport, killing seven people who were young officers on board. They were said to be embarking on a mission in Minna, Niger State.
Forty days later, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, NAF spokesman, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, announced that an Alpha-Jet aircraft on a mission against Boko Haram had lost radar contact.
Two officers were on board the missing jet which was later declared crashed. Days later Boko Haram released a video showing the crashed jet and the dead crew members.
Less than two months after, the country recorded another incident involving the same aircraft type, which went down in Kaduna, killing 11 people, including the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru. Three other generals, two majors and other army and flight crew officers also on board the ill-fated Beechcraft 350i.
How the plane went down with COAS, others - Airport source
Fresh insight was further provided on Saturday on the last minutes of the aircraft as an airport source in Kaduna disclosed that the plane actually landed at the Kaduna Airport runway before lifting up again and subsequently nosedived and burst into flames.
Daily Trust on Sunday had exclusively reported how the plane could not land at its designated aerodrome at the Air Force base in Mando due to bad weather.
It was learnt that the aircraft landed just a minute before 6pm at the Kaduna International Airport.
An air traffic official who spoke with our correspondent in confidence said, "The airport was fully in operation and the aircraft diverted to civil because of bad weather.
"The weather was approaching the civil, but the aircraft landed at 5.59pm but suddenly lifted off the runway and came down immediately near the perimeter fence and burst into flames.
"From the look of things, it was a weather issue, which could be either the passage of wind shear or line squall."
King Air's fleet records
The Beechcraft King Air 350 twin turboprop 11-passenger business aircraft first flew in 1988 and has been built in civil and military versions.
Over 500 King Air 350 have been delivered. The Beech King Air product line has been in continuous production since 1964, and more than 6,000 of 17 variants have been sold for corporate, commercial and special mission operations to more than 94 countries.
The King Air fleet has posted one of the best safety records of any business airplane, even as the 350, which is the newest version, stands out as the best.
But it has equally been involved in several fatal crashes. It was also said to be the second in the fleet of Beechcraft aircraft that would crash.
There have been eight crashes involving this brand of aircraft since 2015, though the manufacturers claim safety measures are in the plane.
However, since 2015, there have been worries in the global aviation sector over multiple crashes of Beechcraft KingAir planes, especially at takeoff.
On October 30, 2014, one crashed at Wichita Kansas, US. On December 22, 2015, another crashed in New Delhi, India. On February 21, 2017, another brand of the passenger plane crashed in Malbourne, Australia. On July 30, 2019, a similar brand belonging to Pakistan army, King Air 350i, crashed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, killing all five aboard.
On September 1, 2019, another one crashed in Calamba, Philippines. On July 15, 2020, another brand of this aircraft crashed on Mount Artos, Turkey.
Experts demand probe
With these crashes at takeoff and landing, aviation watchers believe the Air Force should properly investigate other Beechcraft King Air planes on its fleet in order to prevent further crashes.
An aviation expert and former managing director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Captain Ado Sanusi, stressed the need to take a holistic review of the entire operation of the Air Force, with a view to ascertaining if there are specific problems that need to be addressed.
"I think we need to look at the operations of the Nigerian Air Force to see whether there are specific problems that need to be looked into. We have to look at the machines, maintenance and technical capability," he said.
Asked whether the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority should be involved in the investigation, he said there was nothing wrong as far as it would help in boosting the safety of military operations.
Also speaking, Captain Alex Nwuba said the aircraft might not really be the problem but due to pilot error, saying the immediate and remote causes could be unearthed through a thorough investigation, which should involve the Civil Aviation Authority.
He said the decision to involve the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority depended on federal government's readiness to improve the safety of military operations.
The Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) said it was on standby to provide technical assistance to the Nigerian Air Force in investigating the ill-fated crash.
The Accident Investigation Bureau, Nigeria (AIB -N), said yesterday it has been mandated by the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) to lead the investigation into the crash of a military aircraft that occurred on Friday at Kaduna International Airport.
General Manager, Public Affairs of AIB, Tunji Oketunbi in a statement disclosed that the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from the accident Beechcraft 350 aircraft have been recovered.
"Investigators will download and analyse vital information contained in the recorders at the AIB-N's world class Flight Safety Laboratory, in Abuja," Oketunbi said.
Meanwhile, the Minority Caucus in the House of Representatives has called for an investigation into the cause of Friday's plane crash involving the army chief, as well as the last two crashes of military planes, which led to the loss of lives of gallant and promising officers.
The caucus, in a statement signed by Minority Leader Ndudi Elumelu on Saturday, expressed shock over the crash that claimed the lives of the Lt. Gen. Attahiru and 10 other officers.
The caucus stated that it was "grief-stricken by the huge tragedy that has befallen the country and demanded a full-scale investigation into the unfortunate incident."
"General Attahiru and the other officers were very courageous and patriotic soldiers who gave their all in the defence of our dear fatherland," the caucus stated.
They charged the military not to be weighed down by the tragic event but to remain focused and undeterred so as to ensure that the heroes did not die in vain.
"As representatives of the people we stand with the Army, the entire military, as well as the families of the Chief of Army Staff and other gallant officers and men who have paid the supreme price in service to secure our country.
"We urge the federal government to take urgent steps to ensure the safety of our men and women who are daily putting their lives on the line for the security of our country," the caucus added.
From Abdullateef Aliyu, Lagos, Itodo Daniel Sule & Balarabe Alkassim, Abuja