Captain John Obakpolor (rtd)
Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers argue over runway incursion, forcing pilots to abort landing, an action that is a threat to safety. But an aviation expert and consultant, Group Captain John Obakpolor (rtd), speaks with Chinedu Eze on the issue
In spite of the progress made in airspace surveillance through the completion and operation of the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON), there are still incidents of air misses and runway incursions which could lead to aircraft collision with the attendant tragic consequences.
Although the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) said airspace safety had improved significantly in recent times, there are indications, however, that near mishaps still occur in the airspace and many attribute this to conflicting signals by the Air Traffic Controllers to the pilots, but sometimes pilots may decide to abort landing when there is a missed approach.
Below is the experience of a passenger who witnessed the near tragic incident of aborted landing on board Nigerian flight.
“I was on flight 316 Aero which left Port Harcourt at about 4:00 pm for Lagos on the 10th of November, 2012. The flight was smooth but when we were about to touchdown, probably at a height of about 3m or at most 5m, the pilot aborted the landing. We were no more than 1 or 2 seconds from touch-down. The runway was already visible through my window.
“The plane suddenly took off again with the wing swinging from side to side violently. When the pilot had gotten control of the aircraft and gained altitude, he announced that he had to abort because there was another plane on the runway.”
The passenger alleged that, “relevant authorities have swept this under the carpet. I think the public needs to know. We were probably five seconds from a fatal collision. Obviously the air traffic controller made a mistake and needs to be reprimanded and measures put in place to avoid same.”
Another passenger recalled how he boarded Afrijet flight (which has now gone under) in Enugu to Lagos in 2009 and after the pilot announced the flight was landing and directed the cabin crew to sit down for landing and at almost touch-down on the runway it took off again with so much power, tore through the clouds and went up again.
“Because the pilot took time before telling the passenger what happened, everybody in the plane was petrified, some started crying, some were praying and one of the passengers started lamenting why he boarded the flight, saying that he was advised by his wife not to travel by air.
“Then the voice of the pilot came up and he explained in his half-hearted English that another aircraft, Arik flight, was directed to take off at the time he was asked to land. The aircraft hovered round for some minutes before it landed to the relief of everybody.”
But that was about four years ago. The airspace has improved since then but from the Aero incident above it is obvious that such incident still happens and it is very dangerous because it could lead to the most tragic accidents.
Industry expert and consultant, Group Captain John Obakpolor (rtd), explained to THISDAY that although TRACON is effectively covering the nation’s airspace and could identify aircraft anywhere in the airspace, it cannot capture aircraft at a certain level of the airspace below its scope, so it may not pick aircraft that is taking off or landing on the runway.
“Any aircraft below a certain height in the airspace may be under the scope of the radar and will not be located by TRACON which mean that the aircraft is under the range of the radar. Before the Air Traffic Controllers hand over the aircraft to approach on its way to landing the aircraft must have gone below the radar’s range. But the Controller and the pilot should know that another aircraft is on the ground so it would not get to the extent that the pilot should abort his flight,” Obakpolor said.
He identified some factors that could be responsible for the pilot to abort landing like the experience that was narrated earlier. It could be a misapproach, whereby the pilot missed the right position to land on the runway and “instead of acknowledging his error chose to blame somebody else.”
The controller may mix the heading he gave a pilot and gave the same to another pilot. Heading means direction and when this happens this kind of thing could happen but Obakpolor noted that this rarely happens in the Nigerian airspace now.
He said that sometimes there may be disagreement between the pilot and the Air Traffic Controller that “sometimes there may be altercation between them. The controller should realise that the pilot is carrying many people on-board and has very little time to take decisions.”
Obakpolor said, “The airspace has improved. Most of the time the problem we have is human error and from what the information we are getting from the US, the company that manufactured the Dana Air aircraft, MD83 has said that the engines of the aircraft were clear before the crash. So this could be attributed to human error. There are maintenance human error, administrative human error and pilot error. ”
The former president of Aviation Round Table also noted that since NAMA completed its VHF coverage of the airspace that Air Traffic Controllers have been very effective in terms of communication with the pilots.
“Ask any pilot, communication has improved. NAMA has improved on communication system. Pilots should own up if they abort flights.”
How can such incidents which can lead to disaster be eliminated? Obakpolor said that the role the regulatory body could play is to ensure that the aircraft is properly maintained when it is due for checks; that the pilots should go for their simulator training when it is due. He remarked that with the improvement made by NAMA in terms of surveillance and communication with the establishment of TRACON and VHF projects, the airspace could be described as very safe now.
“Training should take care of such human errors in aircraft operation. The regulatory body must ensure that the pilot goes for training when his simulator training is due. There should be no cutting corners and no extension. Reflexes on the side of the pilot can deteriorate but the sim training will improve this.”
Obakpolor insisted that on the Aero incident both the pilot and the Air Traffic Controllers must have seen the aircraft on ground so the blame should go to the pilot for aborting the landing because he should have known that the aircraft was on ground.
“They should have known about the aircraft on ground. He was already at touch down. Such thing has never happened for a long time,” he insisted.
Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers are also blamed for aborted landing and runway incursions. The reason is that the Controllers communicate with the pilots and the pilots may miscalculate their approaches on the runway. Such runway incursion had led to many accidents in the past which claimed many lives. Proper action should be taken by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), NAMA and the airlines to ensure that runway incursion and near misses do not happen again in the country.
It also has to be noted that some of the accidents that happened in Nigeria were caused by mixed information given to the pilots of the ill-fated flights. It is also true that besides low level wind shear and misinformation by ATC, some of these accidents were also caused by pilot error or other human errors, so the two should be held responsible for runway incursion and near misses in the nation’s airspace.