Besides human error, the weather has been identified as major cause of air accidents. Chinedu Eze writes that recent weather-related incidents in flight operations call for another review of agencies and airlines collaboration on flight safety.
Recently there was a virile video where passengers who disembarked from one of United Nigeria Airlines flight knelt down at the foot of the aircraft to thank God for saving their lives.
At first, many industry observers saw it as the usual exaggerated reaction of passengers who tend to go over drive over air incidents. But THISDAY investigations revealed that bad weather gave rise to severe turbulence that might have led to accident if not for the dexterity of the pilots.
While some of the passengers who reacted publicly on the incident on social media could not explain exactly what happened, a statement issued by the airline indicated that the flight was exposed to severe turbulence and was lucky to make air return and landed safely to the excitement and relief of the passengers.
The statement signed by United Nigeria Airlines Head of Corporate Communications, Achilleus-Chud Uchegbu explained that on June 4, 2021, a United Nigeria flight from Port Harcourt to Abuja, departed the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa with "clear and good weather forecast," but on approach to Abuja, the flight experienced moderate turbulence, which necessitated diverting back to Port Harcourt, "as weather conditions were below our operating requirements. The crew took the required and correct decision to return to Port Harcourt."
The statement also said that there was no time the flight was in any danger because, "our experienced crew acted with utmost professionalism, which the passengers highly and profusely commended and complimented."
But further investigation disclosed to THISDAY that what happened was more severe than the statement painted and that the claim by the passengers who said they feared there was going to be an accident if not for the experienced management of the emergency by the pilots should not be dismissed.
So the question that arises is: was the flight crew not updated on the weather situation en-route and at destination? THISDAY learnt from informed source that the pilot in command of the flight said he followed the advice of the air traffic controllers in his effort to avoid the turbulence, but the severity of the turbulence forced him to return to base.
The Director General of the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NIMET), Prof. Bako Matazu, told THISDAY in a telephone interview that he was aware of the United Nigeria Airlines incident from what he read from the media, as there was no official report about the incident.
However, he said NIMET Annual Prediction for 2021 issued in February, had already alerted that starting from April to June, weather in the Central area of Nigeria would be characterised by adverse weather, including thunderstorm, lightening, high winds, hail, downburst and rain with attendant low visibility for flights.
He said NIMET has offices in all the airports where pilots take weather briefing and updates are done every 30 minutes, noting that like driving automobile, flying depends on how the pilots manage it.
Matazu said there could be localised and widespread rainfall, which also affect flight operations.
"While approaching landing, pilots can experience turbulence during the rains and every cloud can potentially cause turbulence and there is also clear air turbulence, but pilots collect briefs from our offices and these are updated for them by NIMET. We are relating effectively with the control tower and working effectively with our sister agencies. So we advise that pilots should be cautious and passengers should have patience in case of delays caused by bad weather," he added.
Air Traffic Control
Some industry sources told THISDAY that at a critical point the pilot in command of a flight should take his final decision, relying on his own judgment, not on the advice of the traffic controller, for example.
This is because pilots, controllers and others constitute the human error attributed to be responsible for the many accidents in air transport.
For example, the crashed ADC Airlines Flight 86 on November 7, 1996 was attributed to controller's error. The crew of the Boeing 727-200 operating the flight was reported to have lost control of the aircraft while avoiding a mid-air collision (with Triax Airlines' flight) on approach; the aircraft crashed at a very high speed, killing all 144 passengers and crew on board. Investigators determined the primary cause of the accident was an air traffic control error.
Also in 2008, this writer was in Afrijet flight from Enugu, which was about to land at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos Runway 18R when the domestic runway was still under rehabilitation. As the flight approached to land, the pilot saw Arik Air flight taking off and he quickly powered the aircraft, disengaging the landing mode and gained altitude immediately and suddenly, banking away from the take-off position of the Arik Air flight. The passengers were gripped by fear, some cried and one of the passengers regretted why he listened to his relation who advised him to travel by air. When the flight stabilised and repositioned its approach to land, the Ukranian pilot in his smattering English explained that the controllers directed Arik Air flight to take off while also directing his to land.
But reacting to the incident, the President of the Nigerian Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Mr. Agoro Yomi told THISDAY that the Air Traffic Controller by his training and the rule that governs his operations might vector the pilot to a location, taking cognisance of the traffic in the airspace, but pilots have the right to either accept or reject, but the controller must agree with the pilot on the decision taken and it is his responsibility to give the pilot the level or altitude to fly.
"In case of emergency, the pilot takes the final decision," the NATCA President said.
He went further to explain that controllers may not even have knowledge of the weather situation at the upper airspace at that point in time, adding that it is the duty of the controller to advise the pilot.
Yomi also explained that there could be projections in weather situation because the weather condition at any moment could change in the next few or more minutes.
For example, if there is a flight from Lagos to Kano and at the time the flight is about to take off from Lagos it might be raining in Kano but by the time the flight would reach Bida, the rain might have stopped and the weather very clear for landing, "So such weather situation ought not discourage pilots from flying. You cannot say because the weather is like this at the beginning of the flight you decide not to fly," he said.
On collaboration among agencies in the delivery of safety in the airspace, the NATCA President said the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NIMET) and other agencies are culpable in the challenges facing the sector because old equipment is not replenished, the right personnel are not employed and the necessary upgrades are not done, adding that industry stakeholders have allowed politicians to hijack the sector.
"NIMET and other agencies are culpable because the industry is not improving. Stakeholders are leaving the industry to politicians, so the system is not working optimally. We need certain workers who are skilled but instead of such skilled personnel, you are bringing people the agencies do not need. The kind of personnel NIMET needs is not the people they are bringing to the agency. You have to put the right people in place if you want the agencies to grow and improve," the NATCA President said.
Vagaries of Weather
Industry operatives said in the past, thunderstorm usually characterise the beginning and end of the rains, but due to what they attribute to global climatic changes, weather has been changing so unpredictably and in the middle of the year, the weather has remained unstable, causing disruptions to flight operations.
Although bad weather if not well managed could lead to accident, but so far pilots have said that the NIMET has effectively been delivering accurate weather reports that have helped airline to operate safely. Airlines also explained that delays and diversions occur during sudden weather changes when the flight is already airborne because weather could change suddenly without notice. A major example is the low level wind shear, which is known as very devastating to flights, could occur suddenly within few minutes.
On Wednesday, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) cautioned all pilots over severe thunderstorms and other hazardous weather, which hampers flight operations, now that the rainy season has set in. NCAA said this warning was a follow up to the Advisory Circular (AC) with reference no AC: NCAA-AEROMET - 31 addressed to all pilots and airline operators and signed by the Director General, Capt. Musa Nuhu.
"This is coming on the advent of the Seasonal Climate Prediction (SCP) released by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) for the year 2021," NCAA explained.
It noted that NIMET had predicted early/late March as the commencement of rainy season in the Southern states while late April/June 2021 was the commencement of rainy season in Central and Northern parts of Nigeria.
"Consequently, this weather advisory circular is necessary to bring forth the evolving weather information associated with commencement of rainy season and the effects on safety and efficiency of flight operations; and to elicit cooperation of the following stakeholders to ensure safety air transport at all times," NCAA said.
So the regulatory authority cautioned pilots, airline operators and Air Traffic Controllers and directed to observe series of responsibilities which include that Air Traffic Controllers might temporarily close the airspace when any of the severe conditions are observed or forecast by NIMET; flight crews/operators and Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) must ensure adherence to published aerodrome weather minima; pilots must exercise maximum restraint whenever adverse weather is observed or forecast by NIMET and pilots/flight crew members to obtain adequate departure, en-route and destination weather information and briefing from NIMET Aerodrome Meteorological Offices prior to flight operations.
"While the authority enjoins all passengers to exercise patience and understanding during this period of heavy downpour, strict compliance to this warning is expected from all stakeholders as maximum sanction shall be imposed for non-compliance," NCAA said.
Airlines told THISDAY that they have stuck religiously to their standard of operation on issues relating to weather and safety, noting that most often when flights are delayed due to weather, many passengers express anger, but now they are beginning to understand that it is for their safety.
The Head of Communications, Dana Air, Kingsley Ezenwa told THISDAY that although the airline has not recorded any incident due to weather recently but the airline's pilots take precautionary measures in accordance to its standard of operation to ensure that its operations are safe.
"We have not really have much delays occasioned by bad weather. We take precautionary measures to ensure we fly safely. We also have not recorded many delays due to bad weather. Our pilots take safety issues very seriously. We communicate to our passengers and I am happy they are now beginning to understand that whatever we are doing is for their safety and comfort," Ezenwa said.
In 2019, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency decried escalating weather conditions, which it said, had been ravaging the country as a result of climate change.
The agency, however, said it would install additional 100 weather stations across the country to reduce the consequences of escalating weather conditions.
THISDAY gathered that in the last seven years, NIMET has enjoyed good reputation for being accurate in its weather forecast. Before that time, foreign airlines used to rely on satellite and weather forecast from agencies outside Nigeria that provided weather reports to flights going and leaving Nigeria.
But it is expected that aviation agencies and airlines must rally together to ensure that the current weather issues are effectively managed.