A few years ago when the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) completed its Accident Investigation Laboratory, it was opened with great fanfare.
The euphoria over the lab was again heightened when the initial report of investigation into the cause of the Associated Aviation Flight 361 crash was made public within a very short period of time because it was conducted in the lab was used. An elated Captain Muhtar Usman, who was the Commissioner of AIB then, noted that such investigation that hitherto took a longer time was completed just in weeks, using the AIB laboratory.
It later emerged that the flight recorder had been taken overseas for further investigation, a development, which elicited reactions from different quarters.
In the case of the recent controlled ditching of Bristow Helicopter 75 nautical miles off Lagos in the Atlantic Ocean, the voice recorder was also dispatched to the UK for investigation.
Apparently irked by the report, the former Commandant of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu described it as “a huge shame”, insisting that the AIB should tell Nigerians what has happened to the data analysis laboratory installed in Abuja two years ago at the cost of $5 million.
“I think some aviation agencies are yet to be in touch with the reality on the ground and are therefore not in tune with the government spending policies. This is nothing but another financial recklessness”, Ojikutu was quoted to have said.
Some industry observers are of the view that the laboratory project was a huge scam because there was nothing in it but a façade of deception. When journalists were conducted round the facilities in the lab, after completion, there were visible equipment demonstrated with end result. And when the initial investigation into the Associated Aviation flight crash was conducted, AIB showed enough demonstration that it used the lab.
However, there were allegations that AIB did not train enough personnel to effectively man the lab. So when the Bureau announced that it would take some equipment of a crashed plane overseas for more investigation, Nigerians were irked because the AIB has a laboratory that ought to be provide such service.
But the image-maker and spokesman of AIB, Mr. Tunji Oketunbi, told THISDAY on Tuesday that the Bristow equipment that was taken to the UK needed a special kind of lab analysis because of the peculiarity of that equipment, which the lab in Abuja does not have the benchmark to interpret.
Oketunbi said the one single lab AIB has might not be used to analyse all voice recorder and other equipment because there are different types of aircraft with their attendant peculiarities, adding that the helicopter equipment system could not dovetail with that of the lab and it had to be taken overseas.
“The helicopter has cockpit image recorder; we have cockpit voice recorder in our lab. The United Kingdom has the lab that will be able to analyse the equipment; that was why we sent it to them. They even had challenges analysing the equipment so they called us and told us before they contacted the manufacturers of the equipment,” Oketunbi said.
He also explained that the lab AIB cannot solve all the problems in accident investigation given that there are different types of aircraft with different types of equipment, noting that there are also different sizes of labs; some big, some small and some could cost as high as $20 million, some $10 million, while the AIB lab cost $5 million.
Furthermore, he said the company that built the lab for AIB is in the process of technology transfer to the Nigerians, who would fully take over, so there is still a challenge in the manpower aspect of the arrangement. He disclosed that the company was still owed some money, as the fund for the project was deposited with the Central Bank of Nigeria but with a new government and new policies, things could take a different turn and what is needed was time to ensure that everything was completed as planned.
He said: “They have come and trained our people but the training is in stages. We still have to make financial commitments so that the company will complete the content of the agreement they have with us”.
He added that the helicopter cockpit image recorder was sent overseas quickly because it was immersed in salty, Ocean water when the chopper made controlled ditching in the Atlantic so as to secure the delicate content in the equipment that would tell what actually happened.
“If it was not taken away quickly the salty water would have damaged the content.” Oketunbi said.