The Rector of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, Captain Muhammed Abdulsalam, in this interview with Chinedu Eze, says the institute has been recognised as an excellent aviation training institution by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to serve the entire West and Central Africa. Excerpts:
How many new aircraft have you acquired and what are your plans to add more to the training fleet?
On the issue of aircraft acquisition, the approval we have from the government is to acquire 20 Diamond aircraft; five of which are the two engines DA42 and 15 Assembly engine DA 40 aircraft. When I assumed office in 2017, we took delivery of one DA 42 aircraft in the April of 2017. The college placed orders for additional aircraft, but we were informed by the contractors that the Diamond Aircraft Company was bought over by another company and that new owner decided to relocate the production place from Austria to Canada and they told us that they won’t be able to produce another aircraft until nine to 10 months, which is when the assembly line would have been completely relocated. That is what affected the delivery of the additional aircraft because we asked for additional four DA 40 aircraft, which is what we have on order now. That company is up and running in Canada presently and we expect to take delivery of those four DA 40 aircraft before the end of this year. We also have additional DA 40 aircraft that was given to the college by an insurance company as part of an insurance settlement. So, by the time we have the four aircraft delivered, we will have one DA 42 and five DA 40.
As of today, we have eight aircraft that are serviceable. These aircraft are not the same, we have the basic, advance and some that have two engines. So, depending on the stage of training of students, some of the aircraft that are serviceable may not be useful to students, for instance, who are starting afresh that need the basic and less complex aircraft and then they advance to more complex aircraft, with more instrument flying, before they now go into the multi-engine aircraft.
Sometimes, when you start with the new students, the multi-engine aircraft is actually parked and not doing anything until the students reach that time where they can now start multi-engine training. During that period, we use that for our instructors to maintain their proficiency. We encourage them to fly such aircraft.
NCAT was recently named as the Regional Training Centre of Excellence by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, how has this impacted on your operations?
The Regional Training Centre of Excellence (RTCE) has given NCAT more visibility worldwide. For instance, I was in China last December and a Chinese man asked me where I worked from and immediately I mentioned NCAT, he said ‘Oh, RTCE’. There are just few RTCEs in the world and it takes a lot of efforts and process before any institution is recognised as an RTCE. Now, when you have this status, it affords you the opportunity to develop courses in all the ICAO Annexes. We can also import courses from any part of the world that are ICAO approved courses and conduct them here. With RTCE, the sky is actually the limit for us as we can run any course. Right now, we have some foreign students in the college; some from Cameroon, some from The Gambia who are doing training and we expect more. I am supposed to meet with the representatives of the West and Central African Region of ICAO. The countries that are in this region have headquarters in Dakar.
They have indicated interest in whatever NCAT is doing. I am supposed to have a meeting with them on the training opportunities here at the college. A lot of them that I met recently, had this misconception that Zaria is insecure and that is the main reason they are reluctant to come. We have gone to great length to convince them that Zaria is totally safe. We have had a lot of foreigners come and go. Some of these people claimed that it is their embassies that tell them that Zaria is not safe, but we are making efforts to disabuse people’s minds in this regard.
What is your collaboration with Babcock University and other institutions in the country offering aviation courses?
We don’t have any collaboration with Babcock University, but we are making a lot of efforts to collaborate with some of the universities around. I just returned from Tunisia and I was actually asked to join the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) team between Nigeria and Tunisia, at the request of Tunisia. Tunisia wants a representative of NCAT to be part of the team because the country wants to collaborate with the institution. So, we are making efforts on this issue. We have the Vice Chancellor of Madonna University with us in 2018 and it wants to set up an aircraft maintenance engineering school there and they have approached us for help in seeing this dream come to reality.
How far has NCAT gone to reclaim its land from those who encroached into it?
This is a thorny issue for us. When this administration came into power, we approached the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam El- Rufai on this issue and he swung into action with the officials of Kaduna State Urban Development Authority, which came into the area and started marking the houses for demolition, but these illegal occupiers ran to the court and got court injunction to stop the government and you know how our legal system works.
Right now, we are still fighting it; it’s a legal battle. There is nothing else we can do for now until the court determines the real owners of the land, but we are very confident that this issue would be resolved very soon.
NCAT attempted to acquire an aircraft simulator, Boeing B737, how far has the institution gone with this process?
The initial plan for the Boeing B737 simulator aircraft was for it to be based in Lagos when the contract was awarded, but when this administration came into power, they took the decision to relocate it to Zaria. As we speak, the simulator is being installed in Zaria. So, when that decision was made, we had to move because the contract did not include the housing of the simulator. The contract was for acquisition and installation of Boeing 737GN simulator.
So, we looked at our existing facilities to see if they were adequate enough to house the simulator, but the simulator manufacturer after seeing the dimension, said the building was inadequate and when we looked at the cost of modifying and building another one to accommodate the simulator, so, we now had to make an arrangement to build a new complex that will house the simulator. So, we have to now start the process from the scratch; we have to get consultants, get the plan approved by the manufacturer before we could go forward. We had to go to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) for the contract to be awarded.
It was only last year that we got FEC approval for the building. We have awarded the contract and it is our belief that the building would be completed and the simulator would be installed this year.
The simulator has been constructed, but it is there waiting for shipment; it is too big to enter a container. So, when they bring it in the counter, they won’t be able to cover it. So, if they bring it in and the building is not ready, it would be exposed to the elements and that is why the manufacturer advised us not to expose it until the building is ready. This simulator is very sensitive to temperature and humidity. The parts were made by Boeing. We believe that the stimulator would be installed this year.
In addition, we also have another simulator that is being installed in Zaria for this year. The simulator is for firemen. It is automatic fire simulator. As you may be aware, we have never had fire simulator in Nigeria in spite of the number of firemen that we have in this country, all these years, we have been sending our firemen to Cameroon for training. So, this administration felt it is more economical for us to have our own simulator here in Nigeria and this decision was taken to house it here because we have the land. The simulator is being built in the United Kingdom.
As you know, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has gotten firemen in every airport and you can imagine the number of firemen that require training and retraining. We also expect people from the Federal Fire Service to make use of this simulator. We also intend to incorporate some of our cabin crew training into the use of this simulator because you can simulate cabin fire, cabin smoke, lavatory smoke and the likes with this equipment. So, it is very ideal for us to have it here in Zaria.
There was an advert in the media recently where NCAT said it wants to commence Post Graduate Diploma (PGD) programme in aviation in Lagos, please, can you throw more lights on this?
NCAT is not going to have a campus in Lagos. If you remember, this administration suspended all works for campuses outside Zaria for the college; rather, we are concentrating on developing NCAT first before moving anywhere. We have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a sister organisation in Lagos that has training schools. We hope to use their training facilities and send the instructors to Lagos to conduct this.
As part of our efforts to expand our client base and increase our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), we have two teams, which are called Reach Teams to interact with the airlines and other industry players on their training needs. A lot of them showed interests in the courses that we are running here, but the major constraint is that they don’t want to leave Lagos. For these courses that we will be running outside Lagos, we intend to be running them on a regular basis. That way, we also have some aircraft engineers who have indicated interest in running some of these Higher National Diploma (HND) programmes that we have been accredited to do.
They have indicated interest in pursuing those programmes. So, you will be seeing some of these programmes being run out of Lagos in the near future.
Can you give us the number of engineers and pilots that turn out annually from this institution?
Pilots and engineers are the trainings that take a longer time. On the average, it takes about two years to train a pilot and engineer. So, it is not on annual basis that we graduate these types of trainees. By ICAO standards, there is a limit to the number of students we can have in a class, but for management and other courses, we are allowed to have huge number of students in a class. For a typical pilot class, we limit the number to 20 in a class. Same thing applies to engineers. Sometimes, in a year, we have three engineering courses staggered, starting at different period, but they can’t be more than 20 in a class.
This problem of ageing workforce in aviation industry, ICAO recognizes this and that is why it has come up with a new set of aviation professionals called ENDGAP programme and NCAT has signed up to this, we have been attending all the ENDGAP summits since they started.
At the local level, we have a team that is responsible for this. The team goes out and reaches out to secondary school students with the aim of catching them young. As ICAO and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said, there is going to be severe shortage of pilots in coming years based on the aircraft orders and the ageing workforce. So, there is a need for us to start early and that is why we are starting it at the secondary school level. We have teams that go out for career talks in secondary school and later this year, we intend to have an open day, which will be dedicated to secondary school students and they will be opened to a lot of opportunities in the sector.
Why is it difficult for Nigeria to do type-rating training for pilots before they are absorbed into the system and how is the industry resolving the unemployment of pilots?
The issue of unemployment of pilots is not common to Nigeria. As you know, NCAT is a council member of Association of African Approved Training Organisation (AAATO). We hold two council meetings a year and at every meeting, we discuss this pilot unemployment. Some countries have different requirements for pilots. A lot of these countries, you need to have certain requirements of experience as a pilot before you can fly in the airline industry. For instance, in the United States, you have to have a minimum of 1,500 hours as a pilot before you can fly and join the likes of United and American Airlines and others.
So, when pilots come out of school, they join commuter airlines, or go into general aviation. Some stay to work in the flying school as instructors and build their experience to get the required hours before they are qualified to get the required hours to work in the airline industry. Same thing applies to South Africa. You need to have that flying hours.
Fortunately for us in Nigeria, we don’t have that requirement and the airlines on their own may have certain requirements based on their own procedure manuals where they may have the need for a certain experience for their brands of aircraft for insurance purposes before they can employ their pilots. From time, the practice has always been that they when they finish from school, they will be qualified to fly the type of aircraft that we are flying here. So, when they go to look for work, as long as it is the same aircraft brand they get, they won’t need additional training, but if it is another brand of aircraft, they have to go for type-training.
So, it is not possible for you to have simulators to provide training for all types of aircraft. Simulators are very expensive and you need to operate them for almost 24 hours for you to recover your investment. So, if you have somebody who has 10 aircraft of a type, he doesn’t make any sense for you to install a simulator for training. There is no way you can recover your investments. That is why operators go for training providers all over the world. That is the most cost effective way of doing it.
On the use of expatriate pilots, the government has said it several times that as long as a qualified Nigerian is here on ground, it would not approve a foreigner to do the job in Nigeria. For instance, if an airline introduces new equipment, there may not be local pilots to operate that equipment and as a stop gap, you have to bring in qualified people anywhere you can get them to come and start utilizing the aircraft.
For instance, Air Peace bought a number of Embraer 45 and before then, few Embraer 45 were flying in Nigeria, which means that very few Nigerians had that type-rating. A number of that aircraft were parked because we had no pilots. So, the airline had to bring a number of foreigners from abroad to fly the planes till such a time their own people they are training are qualified to take over. It is a common practice in the industry.
What is the management doing on the new condition of service for workers?
This issue is very important to me because it is only when people are happy that you can get the best out of them. When you have issues, it also bothers on safety. So, it is very important. As you may be aware, the issue of new condition of service for aviation workers has been with the salaries and wages commission. Before then, on our own, internally, we have introduced some changes like the severance benefits for our staff, which was non-existence in the past, we have sent a request for review of the allowances for the staff, we have introduced a lot of training for the staff. We ensured that all the people that required to go for these trainings attend them as at when due.
In addition, we arrange for other trainings we feel that will be beneficial to everybody. For instance, in late 2018, we sent a number of our staff to Public Service Institute Nigeria (PSIN) and we intend to make that a continuous training for the staff.
What are the sustainability plans the school has for the RTCE?
ICAO that gives you the RTCE status has a lot of expectations from you. There are a lot of things you have to do to retain the status and if you don’t do that, they will yank it off from you. One of such is that you have to develop ICAO Training Package (ITP); you have to be able to train people from outside the country since it is for region. You are not a local organization, but now a regional organization.
During the certification process, you are required to develop a certain number of other training packages. The minimum requirement to qualify as an RTCE is three, it used to be one and we were the first to go to three when it was changed from one to three. At the time that NCAT became an RTCE, we have developed six standard training packages and we hope to develop additional three packages before the end of this year.
Right now, we are about one of the institutions with the highest number of packages developed, which is what has been acknowledged by ICAO in their reports to the President of the Council. There are lots of things that we are doing and we are up to the task of sustaining this RTCE status.