Chiemelie Ezeobi writes on the tragic incident involving an Air Force pilot, Squadron Leader Mohammed Bello Baba-Ari, who lost his life in the preparations for the 58th independence anniversary
They were preparing for a happy and historic moment. But their plans went awry. Squadron Leader Mohammed Bello Baba-Ari and his fellow Nigerian Air Force (NAF) pilots had taken to the skies to rehearse their air display for the October 1 Independence Day celebration. But he never landed alive. His dreams were truncated in a freak accident that also left two of his colleagues injured. It was barely 26 days after his 32nd birthday and two years after his promotion to his present rank on September 29, 2016.
Fondly called “young Buck”, the deceased was one of the most prolific fighter pilots in NAF.
When the young Air Force pilots took to the sky that fateful day, there was no inkling that something would go wrong. But everything went wrong, and horribly too.
Prior to the rehearsal, the Air Force authorities had alerted residents within the vicinity of the base not to panic when they see aircraft flying low. So when the jet began to go lower, people’s initial reaction was to dismiss it as practice. That reaction changed for the worse when two of the aircraft collided.
In a short clip seen on social media, the seven jets were in formation with one leading and three at the port and starboard side each. Suddenly, the two on the port side collided, bringing them down on Katampe Hills in Abuja. However, the three pilots: Baba Ari, Squadron Leader Batuba, and Flight Lieutenant Andy, successfully ejected from the ill-fated F-7Ni aircraft.
While others survived, the 32-year-old Delta Major Force of the 55 Regular Course did not. He has since been buried according to Islamic rites at Gudu Cemetery in Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.
Although no one can really tell what his last moments were like, some comments on Twitter provided a sneak peek into that. According to one Ahmed (last name withheld), the late squadron leader had given him his gloves just before his flight. He wrote: “You gave me your gloves just before your flight. I still can’t stop crying. A warrior with metal wings.”
Another friend, one Hokage Tsunade said: “I got back home this evening, happy for the money I made from my craft, only to be given a sour news of the death of one of my close friends. Buck was and will always be a good man. Nobody understands the hurt i feel right now. Someone that viewed my status this morning, now he is six feet below. Why is life so unfair?”
Baba-Ari’s death drew reactions from many. Umar Kabo Idris said: “Bello Baba Ari was my roommate back in Nigerian Military School (NMS) and as reported by many of his NAF colleagues and the air chief himself, he was one of the best and most skilled fighter pilots in the NAF.”
T’Jay El-Badawy said: “I still can’t believe this. This officer was just exceptional. I remember when he was a POC, always reserved and too calm to join his course mates in their basks of euphoria.”
Dadi Yata said: “Even back in the academy as a cadet, Squadron Leader Bello Baba-Ari was a fine cadet. If BN lines of Abyssinia BN could weep, they definitely would weep for his demise. I pray God give his wife, parents and coursemates the fortitude to bear his painful exit.”
Bolaji Adepoju said: “Gentleman Officer! Supersonic Military Aviator! One thing I fondly remember about him was his writing prowess when we were still in NMS. He wrote beautiful essays I always looked forward to read. Adieu Bello Baba Ari.”
Corroborating, Oluwa Chux said: He really wrote beautiful essays. He made that ‘Best in English’ a really tough contest. All round excellent guy. Sorely missed.”
Former Air Force spokesperson, Air Vice Marshal Olatokunbo Adesanya, also said: “A huge loss indeed. I knew the late pilot personally; he was a fine, young and humble gentleman who contributed immensely to the counterinsurgency operations in the Northeast and the fight against other forms of criminality in Nigeria. May his supreme sacrifice not be in vain.”
One of the condolences was from the President, National Youth Council of Nigeria (NYCN), Bello Shagari. He said: “It is with great devastation that we recieved the news of the death of Sqn Ldr Baba Ari, who crashed during a drill in preparation for #NigeriaAt58.
“He was a young soldier full of life & promise. A good example of a true Nigerian Youth and Patriot. May His Soul Rest in Peace!”
Senate President Bukola Saraki, in a statement by his spokesman, Yusuph Olaniyonu, described the deceased and his colleagues who partook in the flying rehearsal ahead of the nation’s 58th Independence anniversary on Monday as true heroes dedicated to their national calling.
He said, “I am saddened over the tragic crash of two Nigerian Air Force fighter jets in Abuja that led to the loss of an officer and injuries on others. The affected officers are true heroes among countless other military personnel who continue to put their lives on the line to defend and make the country proud.
“Nigeria has lost a truly dedicated and patriotic Officer. The departed officer and his colleagues who survived the unfortunate crash deserve special recognition and place in annals of the nations’s military history.”
He, however, lauded the Air Force and other security agencies for the prompt and successful rescue mission which has helped to preserve the lives of other personnel on the rehearsal mission. He lamented the crash incident and called for special recognition for all the officers – both dead and alive – who partook in the unfortunate national assignment.
Dousing initial speculations after the crash, the Director of Public Relations and Information (DOPRI), Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, had in a release admitted that there was an accident but that they were still investigating. While the world waited with bathed breathe on the outcome of the investigation, the spokesperson came back with the news of the death of one of the pilots and the injuries sustained by two others.
He also divulged that the two NAF F-7Ni aircraft were taking part in the rehearsals for the aerial display to mark Nigeria’s 58th Independence Anniversary Celebrations. He said the air mishap necessitated the three pilots to eject from their aircraft, which subsequently crashed in the general area of Katamkpe Hill, adding, “Regrettably, however, one of them later died due to complications from injuries sustained upon impact on the ground. Thankfully, there were no civilian casualties.”
Describing the deceased as a gentleman officer, distinguished pilot, dedicated patriot and irrefutable hero of the war on terror, he noted that he would be sorely missed by the entire AirForce family.
In the same vein, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, tweeted to express regret over the loss of the young officer. Abubakar commiserated with the family of the deceased, while noting that the pilots were among the most skilled and experienced on the aircraft type.
He also stressed that the three pilots involved in the accident were able to eject before the planes crashed, but Baba-Ari later died from injuries sustained from the mishap. To this end, he vowed to investigate the cause of the accident in order to avoid recurrence.
The NAF boss tweeted: “It is with a heavy heart that I commiserate with officers, airmen and airwomen of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) over the unfortunate incident involving two F-7Ni aircraft earlier today. The aircraft were flown by three of the most skilled and experienced pilots on the aircraft-type.
“They had indeed been programmed for training on a higher performance aircraft that the NAF is about to acquire. All three were able to eject from the aircraft before the crash. Regrettably, however, one of them later died due complications from injuries sustained from the ejection.
“The officer, Squadron Leader Bello Baba-Ari, has been buried in accordance with Islamic rites. We pray the Almighty grants his soul eternal rest. The NAF, which has flown over 30,000 hours in the Northeast in the last one year, will painstakingly investigate the cause of the accident in order to avoid a reoccurrence.”
Afterwards, the spokesperson revealed that the CAS paid a visit to the deceased’s family where emotions ran high. The CAS, who was received by the deceased’s father, Alhaji Abu Baba-Ari, lauded the sterling virtues of the late senior officer, stating that he was an exceptional officer who excelled in virtually every area of his career. He further described the deceased as an intelligent, articulate, hardworking, resourceful and dedicated officer who was well liked and respected by his peers, subordinates and superiors alike.
He stated that Baba-Ari had distinguished himself as an outstanding combat pilot who had made tangible contributions in the counter terrorism operations in the North East. He urged the family to take solace in the fact that their son was a hero, who had made the supreme sacrifice in service to the nation.
The CAS was accompanied on the condolence visit by a team comprising all 10 Branch Heads from NAF Headquarters as well as the Air Officer Commanding Tactical Air Command and Commander 101 Air Defence Group, where late Baba-Ari previously served as acting Commander. The CAS also later undertook a follow up visit to the Defence Intelligence Agency Medical Centre to check on the two surviving pilots, who are recuperating extremely well.
The Senior Special Assistant, Media and Publicity, to the president, Garba Shehu, in a series of tweets said: “President Muhammadu Buhari has commiserated with the Nigerian Air Force on the air accident which involved two fighter jets in the fleet in Abuja earlier on Friday.
“The president wished them quick recovery, assuring them the hearts of Nigerians are with them and are praying for them as they make a quick return to good health. He assured that the country will do whatever it takes to ensure that they are back on their feet in excellent state.”
Upon return from his trip to New York, President Muhammadu Buhari, also visited the two survivors at the military facility where they were being treated m at the Defence Intelligence Hospital in Abuja.
About Late BaBa-Ari
Born on September 2, 1986, in Maiduguri, the Fika Local Government Area of Yobe State indigene attended Crescent Nursery/Primary School, Lagos from 1991 to 2002. He was admitted into the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) as a member of the 55th Regular Course on September 29, 2003 and was commissioned to the rank of Pilot Officer on September 29, 2007.
He held a Bachelor of Engineer in Mechanical Engineering from the NDA. He was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader on September 29, 2016. He attended several courses, some of which include: Abi-Initio Flying Training on Air Beetle-18 at 401 Flying Training School, Kaduna, Undergraduate Pilot Training Course, Lackland Air Force Base, San-Antonio, Texas, United States of America, Simulator Training for F-7Ni Pilot in Pakistan, Pilot Life Support and Personnel Protection Equipment on F-7Ni aircraft at AVIC Aerospace Life-Support Industries in China.
On appointments held, he was the Squadron Pilot at Air Task Force, Operation Lafia Dole, Acting Commander 101 Air Defence Group and Squadron Pilot at 101 Air Defence Group.