Capt. Chinyere Onyenucheya
In recent years, the issue of ageing manpower in the aviation industry has continued to cause apprehension with the first generation of trained Nigerian pilots, engineers, and other skilled manpower bowing out of active service without commensurate replacement by younger crop of professionals. Ndubuisi Francis writes that, among others, the quest to halt the ‘invasion’ by expatriates may have fired the zeal of the new management of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria to retool the college for effective manpower training
When it was established in the 60s, the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) in Zaria, Kaduna, was the quintessential training citadel for pilots, and sundry aviation professionals in Nigeria and the region. It bred the nucleus of what is now regarded as the first generation of pilots, engineers, and other technical personnel of the now defunct national carrier—Nigeria Airways. Because of the high standards it set at inception, nationals of other African countries passed through the tutelage of the over 50-year- old college in various fields aviation fields. But due to neglect and mismanagement during the military in the late 80s and 90s, the fortunes and standards of the institution began to dwindle. This came to a climax with its inability to graduate pilots for many years
Desirous of remaking the once vibrant institution, the government has embarked on a recovery plan for the once vibrant institution. The quest to transform the school has also culminated in the change of leadership of the college.
Change of Guard
Thus in October, 2011, Capt. Chinyere Onyenucheya Kalu was appointed the second female rector and the first rector appointed from in-house. Being very conversant with the terrain, Capt. Kalu immediately hit the ground running with her ministerial mandate and vision. She has refused to be encumbered by limiting factors and has trudged on with an uncommon zeal and determination to reposition the once enviable and prestigious college.
Even with what could be considered a shoe-string budget, Kalu, who has the distinction of being Nigeria’s first female pilot and captain as well as a 2007 African International Achievers Merit awardee, has not allowed her rescue mission to be hamstrung by the lean resources at her disposal. In her estimation, though the challenges are daunting, transforming her vision into concrete terms is not an option but an avowed creed. Prudence and transparency have remained the fulcrum of her management philosophy, and this has translated into visible and commendable results within such a short time.
In one of her first functions as rector and chief executive officer, she had held a town hall meeting where she dwelt on touchy issues, which had for too long agitated the minds of the workers. She declared that much as she would reward loyalty, dedication and hard work, she expressed her distaste for laxity, infractions, and rumour mongering. On that occasion, she offered to adopt an open approach to manage the affairs of the college that would make her accessible to the staff and students alike even as she promised to embrace a staff policy that would result in annual capacity-building programmes.
Manpower development programme for NCAT staff ranks high in her budget priority list. In her words, “For you to be an effective, respected and competent trainer, you must constantly update and broaden your knowledge above that of your trainees. Training the trainer is a commanding necessity for leadership”.
For this, almost all the staff benefited from NCAT 2011 capacity building projects for local and foreign courses. This feat, she attributes to getting priorities right.
As 2012 beckoned, she outlined areas of focus and assembled a purposeful, first rate management team to help her drive the vision.
House Committee: Aviation is Critical
When the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation led by its Deputy Chairman, Hon. Rufai Ahmed Chanchangi, embarked on an oversight function of the college recently, a clear verdict of progress and accomplishments was handed down to the management of the institution.
“Aviation is critical to the development of the nation’s economy. This is one industry that worries the government a lot and we are here today to find out how many projects have been executed and how much was spent on them. The committee is quite satisfied with the development efforts of Captain Chinyere Kalu led administration within a short period of time,” Chanchangi said.
The lawmaker had further assured that based on the right application of resources, the committee would ensure the college received the much needed financial backing considering the capital intensive projects being executed.
In recognition of research as a critical element of development, the college has established an advanced studies and research unit in the first few months of the emergence of the rector. The unit coordinates the academic research and development needs of the college.
The quest to provide opportunities for the development of manpower skills at all levels for the aviation industry, and broaden the scope of activities of the college has culminated in the introduction of a post graduate diploma (PGD) programme. This is in deed aimed at widening the academic horizon of the students, who commence their academic pursuit in the school and aspire to garnish it a PGD. The PGD programme is up and running. Already, the Lagos campus of the college is billed to throw its gates open in January 2013.
The Niger State Government has also gone into partnership with the college to establish the Minna campus. Governor Babangida Aliyu had at the flag off of the Minna campus recognised the need for the youths in the state to acquire skills capable of enabling them compete with their peers around the globe—outside the conventional tertiary education that has become an all comers affair.
A memorandum of understanding has already been signed between the state and the college to train and absorb students of Niger State origin into the NCAT Flying School. The rector has also since deployed men and material for the smooth take off of the Minna campus, which has further added to the school’s list of accomplishments since she assumed office.
In appreciating this populist gesture of the Niger State chief executive, Kalu has launched an appeal to other state governors to follow suit in extending scholarships to their indigenes to surmount the high cost of Aviation trainings especially the flight training cost.
NCAT is currently in talks with Arik Air to consider scholarship grants to some indigent students. The fact that the airline had done it before and has remained unwavering in repeating the gesture has been commended by the rector.
The Education Trust Fund (ETF) has also been very committed in bridging the sponsorship gaps in the college.
Before now, cabin crew students had mostly restricted their studies within the confines of a classroom, with little exposure to actual aircraft. This rather unsavoury state was occasioned by the fact that the college’s fleet of trainer aircraft cannot be used for commercial operations, which is required for cabin crew training. Such students need sufficient exposure in on-the-job training with wide body aircraft that have the attributes of a commercial aeroplane. When such wide body aircraft are lacking, students are consigned to a near impossible task of comprehensively assimilating the processes and functions
In bridging this gap, a B737 aircraft has been acquired by the college for the purpose of training cabin crew students. The newly acquired aircraft is configured in business and economy class cabins with emergency and life saving devices—facilities needed to provide real situation scenarios during training. Students are now exposed to actual interior training—once considered a luxury.
NCAT has also diversified training from fixed wing airplanes to rotary winged aircraft (helicopters). Two new Bell 206 helicopters have been acquired and billed for delivery soon for an effective commencement of helicopter training.
The thinking of the management is that it would provide the much-needed capacity for the oil exploration industry as well as help emergency rescue disaster management agencies. Besides, NCAT has also purchased and installed a second virtual training simulator – ALSIM AL-X simulator. This has greatly shortened and enhanced the length of training of student pilots.
Turbine Aerodynamic (wind tunnel) trainers have been installed and put to use while the construction of the Aviation Management School has been completed. The remodeling and equipment of students hostels are on-going.
A three–dimensional (3D) Visual Tower equipment to aid Air Traffic Control and Communication students is also in the bargain. Academically, the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) is directing the college on the necessary steps to get accreditation for the award of Higher National Diploma (HND) certificates. The management believes these efforts and acquisitions are essentially meant to shore up NCAT’s competitive edge in a highly dynamic and sophisticated aviation industry.
NCAT has also been admitted into the International Aviation Accreditation Board (IAAB) and the Train Air Plus, and was only recently commended by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which rated it the best aviation training institution in Africa. These are the consummate fruits of team work among the entire management, staff and students’ population of NCAT as been coordinated by this Jewel of the Aviation Industry, Capt. Chinyere Kalu.
Being an insider— the first rector of the college to be appointed from NCAT, Kalu appears to know the problems of premier aviation institution, and how to confront them headlong. But the most limiting factor is the paucity of funds.
The rector summed these challenges thus in an interview: “Inadequacy of fund in the face of myriads of hugely sophisticated needs in a cost intensive industry is about my most humbling and challenging experience. The college is in dire need of revenue to re-fleet her comparatively obsolete equipment. The college is almost 50 years old, yet, we still service and manage some equipment procured at inception of the college.”
The rector also posits that the fuel and handout used by the college’s aircraft are very expensive and difficult to procure, which pushes operating cost to the roof.
What is the way out of this? “We definitely need an aircraft or jet that use either diesel alone. This is much more affordable and less prohibitive on our running costs. The college has a hangar that is meant as a regional maintenance centre for aircraft,” the rector affirmed.
The Rector assures its students and prospective student population of adequate security on campus. Specially trained Aviation security officers dot every length and breath of the College armed with most sophisticated gadgets. In fact, the College is in the process of being fully covered with CCTV cameras. The presences of large military formations and Institutions around the Zaria environs have been to a great advantage for NCAT. The Rector exclaims thankfully that the commanders of all the military and police has been most helpful to the College. They deploy some of their officers on a standby duty within and outside the prescient of the College.
Again, due to paucity of fund to equip the college’s hangar, it has been lying fallow in the past 20 years. “Were this hangar to be functional, Nigeria would be saved a large chunk of her capital flight as most aircraft maintenance works and servicing would be done here thus conserving our scarce foreign exchange. It would also create more jobs for our citizens. In a nutshell, inadequacy of structural infrastructure, and equipment coupled with the ever dynamic trend in the aviation world and market pose major hindrance and challenges to our meeting set goals and ministerial mandates,” she said.
Role of the Aviation Ministry
The rector has commendations for the Federal Government. Amid pressing national needs, she believes that “the government has been very kind to us in the allocation of values.” NCAT, she said, has remained in the forefront of beneficiaries of government patronage. “Yet, government cannot do it all for us. Hence, our determination to expand our internal revenue generation base.”
Like many stakeholders, the NCAT Rector effusively applauds the strides of the Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah, describing her as “a priceless gift to Nigeria and the aviation world in particular.”
To her, what has provided a valid parameter for gauging the minister’s performance is the level of decadence and rot in the aviation industry prior to her appointment.
“The revolutionary steps being taken by her administration to retrieve the sector from total collapse is indeed a stitch in time. Today, the Nigerian aviation industry under Princess Stella Oduah proudly and aptly epitomises the Transformation Agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Never have the Nigerian air travellers been more proud of their airports than now. Our airports now stand shoulder high among other world class airports, courtesy of the on-going airports’ remodelling and restructuring programmes across the country’s airspace.”
The Rector affirmed that the minister has impacted the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) Zaria in particular and the aviation industry in general. This position is occasioned by what she considers the minister’s policy thrust, which places greater premium on capacity building for the industry.
Her words: “She has been most tolerant of our endless needs and requests. I guess among her chief executive officers, I rank first in besieging her with official requests for ministerial interventions, approvals, directives and supports. An Oliver Twist kind of disposition... In the face of all these, she’s been most indulgent and patronising.”
According to her, the minister has her transformation agenda and Aviation Roadmap well cut out and being clinically executed. “In spite of the unfortunate recent plane crash, the air transport remains the safest, fastest and most convenient means of transportation. Deliberate steps are being taken to further strengthen our regulatory laws and its agencies and then its capacity building arm. The different agencies of government on aviation are adept and vigilant in beats under their watch,”.
n the area of capacity building for the industry, which is NCAT’s core competence, the rector says: “We insist on churning out the best of Aviators. “We insist on churning out the best of aviators and are irrevocably committed in meeting the ministerial mandate and target given to us. We are also very clear and convinced of the Honourable Minister’s vision for the industry.”
She offers a plausible underpinning for the insistence of high standards:“A split second negligence in aviation can result in a devastating consequence. Hence, standards can never be compromised under any guise. The travelling public should therefore be consoled and reassured by this sobering and enduring fact of the aviation practices.”
Canvassing More Support for the Airlines
“Our airline operators definitely are disadvantaged in competing with other foreign operators. We still send our aircraft abroad for maintenance checks and servicing. The cost of aviation fuel is still very prohibitive and even scarce in the country. There is a brain drain syndrome now pouching our best technical expertise,” Kalu declared.
Beyond the support already extended to the airlines, including the N500 billion intervention fund and tax-free policy on aircraft spare parts from next year, Kalu is canvassing more governmental support by way of credit facilities and pool to draw from. In order to check possible abuses in such an arrangement, she canvasses due process and diligence to ensure that such credit facilities are not drawn and then diverted to other ventures.
She believes that “the seemingly difficult times” facing the aviation industry is nothing but “a phase preceding the desired destination. It is akin to the strain on an engine while ascending height. The reverse is the case when it attains required altitude and cruising level. The Nigerian Aviation is ascending heights and would soon arrive at its cruising level and we shall all be happier for it. No reformation process goes without some sacrifice of pleasure, resources and comfort zone.”
Kalu is not hesitant to attribute her modest contributions to the unwavering support of the Minster of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, the entire Aviation Ministry and all its agencies. “The aviation family empathises with us on our lean fiscal state and is passionate about helping us to dare the odds and succeed, and we must succeed by dint of hard work, budgeting prudence and support of our stakeholders. Again, the effusive candour and fervor of our honourable minster is so infectious that we have all been greatly inspired to brooch no excuses in delivering our mandates.”
So far, the rector sees her experience as a mixed grill. “There has been very tough and traumatic times when one must stay afloat by overdrawing from a pilot’s bank of guts and determination. Yet, it has been more of salutary and fulfilling experience. For you to remain a pilot, you must in all intent and purpose, live out the ideal life of a pilot. You are expected to maintain the highest level of discipline and alertness. You must be meticulous, responsive and responsibly take charge of your flight. A pilot must be mentally and physically fit. The vagaries of life take a toll on man hence, advancement in age hastens the winding up of a pilot’s career. This is a profession that ranks among the tops in careers with shortest life span,” she concludes.
With this stoic philosophy, an attribute that pilots like her are wont to possess, there is growing confidence that in spite of the daunting challenges, the foremost aviation college is bouncing back to its once vivacious era.