Unseen Hands Behind Nigeria’s Seamless Airspace

Muhammadu Buhari

Noel Igweh

As President Muhammadu Buhari begins his second term, he has been looking back at the last four years. Predictably, he has been speaking about his first term in lavishly generous terms. To be sure, Buhari has not dwelled on specifics. But one sector he should rightly take full credits for would be air transport. For context, his man at Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika has just revealed that no fewer than 134 projects have been executed in the last four years. They have mostly checked out. In fact, there has been a last-minute frenzy of project unveilings in Kano and Katsina. Tremendous.

One area that may not feature loudly in the rounds of plaudits is the nation’s airspace. Not because things are not happening. Far from it! There have been great developments. Put it down to the very nature of the airspace itself. You don’t get to see the Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) or hear what they are telling your captain. Nor is it necessary for you to see the batteries of landing equipment on the airfields. But without them, your captain can simply not take off, fly and land that high-tech, multimillion dollar aircraft safely. Or seamlessly.

If you are a passenger, a stakeholder or a service user, and you have been savouring such seamless services, you have the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to thank. Led by Captain Fola Akinkuotu, NAMA is the dependable but often unseen hands behind Nigeria’s functional airspace system.

Two years on the saddle, Captain Akinkuotu has worked smartly to provide and upgrade critical facilities as well as the manpower that have enabled NAMA to provide efficient air navigational services.

Globally, airspace architecture stands on the tripod of communications, navigation and surveillance. To reinforce communication in a consistent way, Captain Akinkuotu in 2018 swiftly deployed four stand-alone Jotron High-power long range VHF radios at Lagos East and Lagos West as well as Kano East and Kano West Area Control Centres (ACCs). Specifically, it tackled Remote Control Air to Ground (RCAG) communication challenges in the upper airspace by providing reliable backup in the event of loss of VHF radio communication on the main system.

Communication remains a critical component. To this end, the Agency replaced all the Very High Frequency (VHF) radios at the existing eight remote sites in Lagos, Kano, Wukari, Sokoto, Ilorin, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Maiduguri and also added six new sites in Jos, Kaduna, Yola, Enugu, Benin and Calabar, making a total of 14 VHF sites spread across the nation. These VHF remote sites are operated in a network with signal pattern that covers the entire Nigerian airspace. NAMA has also taken delivery of the VHF radio equipment under the “Extended Range VHF Coverage” project, and installation is underway.

The nation’s primary radar system is powered by the TRACON (Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria), a technology manufactured and supplied by Thales of France. Because it gives ATCs a birds-eye view of the airspace, it is important for the equipment to function optimally round the clock. But that wasn’t always the case prior to Captain Akinkuotu’s arrival at NAMA. Outstanding payments and spare parts issues were a sore point. Working quietly behind the scene, Captain Akinkuotu was able to bring the situation under control before it snowballed into a crisis.

It was therefore a matter of huge relief to stakeholders and the travel public when the NAMA Boss declared: “It is extremely important to reassure the nation, the travel public, our service users and the international community that TRACON is in top shape as I speak; it is safe in the medium and long terms. There is absolutely no threat from components failure. I have made this point before that our engineers are some of the best in the world. They are working closely with our partners to provide the best possible air navigational services to our users.”

But leading an Air Navigational Service Provider (ANSP) goes beyond providing equipment and the technical personnel to man them. It also involves standing ready to respond at short notice and with utmost efficiency to a major Government decision. Such was the milieu Captain Akinkuotu found himself in 2017, when Sirika took the decision to close down the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja to repair its obsolete runaway, and divert flights to Kaduna Airport. For Captain Akinkuotu, who had just assumed duties at NAMA, it was a baptism of fire of sorts.

There were commitments and deadlines, and there was no going back. It was a particularly challenging moment for the sector. Kaduna Airport had no ILS and other critical landing aids. NAMA engineers were able to install a brand new ILS and other support structures at the Airport. They also powered and calibrated all the navigational equipment. “All these, we had to do within that stipulated time,” Captain Akinkuotu recalled. Undeniably, this helped to cement the industry’s respect for him.

NAMA’s technical workforce is its most important assets. But its administrative staff are no less important; have never been. To man the equipment and keep the systems running smoothly, they must be trained and retrained in keeping with global best practice. But before Captain Akinkuotu arrived, most of the staff were behind in their training schedules. They were languishing. While it might be unduly alarming to say that this state of affairs was a red flag to air safety, the gaps in training were setting the Agency up for just that.
So, it seems Captain Akinkuotu arrived in the nick of time. Since then, he has made human capital development his top priority. Not on paper but in practice. He has halted the drift. Technical and administrative staff now travel out on courses on schedule. Training programmes at home are also running smoothly.

The benefits are palpable. Flagging skills and knowledge in the Agency have now been bolstered. This has led to improved performance and rising productivity. The Management has planned it in such a way that every deserving staff stands a good chance of benefiting.
Even more critically, some of the training programmes are mandatory and in keeping with global standards and recommended practices. It means Captain Akinkuotu does not have the luxury of keeping course requests ‘in view’. And besides, NAMA staff, like their counterparts elsewhere, rather love the juicy extras that come with such programmes. Who wouldn’t?

Not surprisingly, the Managing Director is now the toast of the staff, and the notoriously pushy unions seem to be at peace with Management. For once. Many did not believe the current human capital development status of the Agency was achievable.
But make no mistake, it has come at a considerable cost to the Agency. This is already testing Captain Akinkuotu’s managerial instincts. Having poured tremendous resources into training, he must ensure that other areas are not starved of much-needed funds. But so far, so good. Save for a few contractors grumbling about delay in payments, NAMA seems to be holding on alright.

The congenial industrial atmosphere has not come by chance. It is principally because Captain Akinkuotu knows exactly what he is doing. On his watch, the Agency is in perhaps in the safest possible pair of hands. As one of the most respected aviation professionals in Nigeria, he has been there; he has done that. The NAMA Boss belongs to an exclusive club of aviation professionals, who are both engineers and pilots. He began as engineer, worked in the Presidential Fleet and became a flight engineer. But that wasn’t enough: he wanted to fly high enough to have a conversation with the Heavens; so he became a pilot. And then a captain. He served as director of flight operations for many airlines and even helped set up others.

Captain Akinkuotu exited the cockpit for the last time in 2013 but not before famously flying Pope John Paul II during his visit to Nigeria in 1998. Flying the Holy Father remains the emotional highlight of his illustrious career. He then had a stint as the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the industry’s apex regulatory body, in 2013.
Without doubt, Captain Akinkuotu’s pedigree, background and wealth of experience may have helped to keep NAMA on a steady course. But he has another set of assets that is seldom discussed: His perceptive mind and uncompromising quest for perfection. One recent event illustrates this.

Addressing a gathering of pilots and air traffic controllers in Lagos in April, Captain Akinkuotu was challenged on the state of radio communications in the airspace. He said there were some improvements but that he was not impressed. “For me, good is not good enough,” he said, “why not the best?”

It was a statement of passion and unyielding commitment. It spoke to the quality of leadership at the nation’s ANSP. For stakeholders, it revealed a professional that would go to the end of the world to find solutions to problems confronting the airspace. They saw a man who would not compromise on standards.

Such a mind would be invaluable in the years ahead if NAMA is to become one of the best ANSPs in the world.