Authorities should look closely at airworthiness issues and the liability of those performing scheduled aircraft maintenance

Two pilots believed to have been on a training mission died recently when a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) plane crashed in Kaduna State. This is the latest in a series of accidents involving military aircraft. While we sympathize with the families of the deceased pilots, the frequency of these accidents should draw the attention of authorities beyond the routine investigations whose reports are never made public. The need for a real interrogation of accidents is to draw lessons that can be useful for the entire aviation sector but especially for the armed forces.

Between 2015 and 2021, Nigeria suffered 11 military aircraft crashes, killing at least 33 military officers. In 2021 alone, the Air Force lost three jets, including the February 2021 Beechcraft King Air B350, which crashed on its way to Minna, Niger State, after the pilots reported engine failure. Seven servicemen died in the crash that occurred around Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja. But perhaps the most devastating accident happened three months later around Kaduna International Airport. Then the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, and 10 other senior officers perished in the accident. This tragedy echoed the September 1992 crash of the C-130 Hercules transport plane at Ejigbo, Lagos, which claimed the lives of all 158 mid-ranking officers on board. Seemingly responding to these developments, Air Chief of Staff Air Marshal Oladayo Amao told his officers to view the latest unfortunate accident as “once again a tragic reminder of nature peril of the pilot profession as well as the risks that NAF pilots continually take on a daily basis to ensure the territorial integrity of Nigeria.

However, deeply shaken aviation stakeholders believe the crash sequence raises a ‘red flag’ to warrant precautionary measures to avoid further disasters. There is indeed an urgent need to examine a combination of factors. The two most important are asset maintenance and the relative age of the fleet. The plane that just crashed in Kaduna is part of the set of Alpha and Jaguar planes that were acquired by military regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were first forced to active combat roles in Liberia and Sierra Leone during their civil wars. Since then, they have remained the backbone of counter Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency combat efforts. At one point, it was reported that the series in our inventory had become unserviceable due to spare parts scarcity as manufacturers phased out this generation of aircraft. In a very famous deal, the Air Force is said to have hired Innoson Motor Manufacturing in Nnewi to locally manufacture parts for some of these jets. It was only with the recent purchase of Tucano fighter jets from the United States that Nigeria embarked on a major renewal of its combat air fleet. Similarly, the maintenance schedules for these aircraft would have been observed in violation. Thus, some of the issues involved are primarily related to asset age, material fatigue, and instrumentation failures. This combination is guaranteed to compromise the operational reliability of military air assets.

In the meantime, authorities should never lose sight of the fact that an airplane is not exactly like a car. Once airborne, the extent to which a pilot can safely maneuver in the event of an accident is limited, regardless of dexterity and skill. Amao promised that the NAF would thoroughly investigate the cause of the Super Mushshak training plane crash. Unfortunately, military aircraft accident reports are classified, so there is no way for the public to learn from these events. But in most past incidents, leaked reports have placed little blame on human error, perhaps because our combat and airlift crew undergo some of the best training, both at home and abroad. This then suggests that the problem may come from the fleet.

We therefore hope that the federal government will again look at the issues of airworthiness and the accountability of those responsible for scheduled maintenance and the supply of spare parts for aircraft. We’ve had enough of these accidents.

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