An American-based Nigerian aviation safety expert at the Kansas State University, Alaba Idowu, in this interview discusses the way forward for flight safety and sundry issues in the Nigerian aviation industry. Sunday Okobi brings the excerpts:
As a stakeholder in the industry and an expert in aviation safety, where do you see the sector in Nigeria?
First and foremost, I want to thank all aviation professionals in Nigeria, especially the leaders of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), and other agencies; they are working hard to improve aviation safety in Nigeria. A layman might not understand the efforts they put into what they do, but I do as an expert. Though some areas still need improvement, however, we need to appreciate their efforts. In the past few years, Nigeria has been able to maintain a good safety record. I pray God will continually help and give us faithful leaders who will not compromise safety. However, we need to adequately train many aviation safety personnel, especially those who work for charter airlines in Nigeria. The majority of them are not aviation experts.
The aviation industry has been worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic; can you suggest ways of helping many airline companies survive the time?
The impact of the pandemic is enormous on the aviation industry. However, airlines will recover from it over time. Let’s talk about the workforce. I don’t think furlough is the solution. Everyone knows this is a global crisis. If we have to furlough some workers and keep some, we are not fair. I think the airlines can keep their workers and reduce the working hours of the employees. The industry will still come to normal, and when that happens, they will invest so much money training newly hired employees. So the solution is not to sack workers, but to reduce working hours so that they can still keep all the employees.
What led to your recent accreditation as master flight instructor, and what does it mean for the development of the aviation industry in Nigeria.
The NAFI Master Flight Instructor Accreditation is earned by aviation educators based upon a system of advanced professional standards and peer review. The accreditation identifies and publicly recognises those flight teachers who demonstrate commitment to excellence, professional growth, and service to the aviation community. The NAFI Master Instructor accreditation is for two years and may be used to renew an FAA flight instructor certificate. Applicants must have been a CFI for two years and have given 1,000 hours of flight instruction. In addition, candidates must meet and document activity in four NAFI Master Instructor categories (Instructor, Educator, Service to the Aviation Community, and Professional Activity). Members of the National Association of Flight Instructors work as independent instructors at flight schools, universities, FBOs, corporate flight departments, and the military.
Since 1967, NAFI and its members, who teach in 30 countries, are dedicated to increasing and maintaining flight instruction professionalism. NAFI members influence active pilots daily: students working to become pilots, current pilots training to advance their skills with new ratings or certificates, and pilots who seek to improve their skills with recurrent training. NAFI also serves as an advocate with industry and government as a voice for flight instruction. NAFI helps shape the current and future direction of flight training. This accreditation means a lot to me. Like I said in one of my books, flight instructors are pacesetter of aviation safety. For the past three years, I’ve been researching into how human errors can be reduced in the aviation industry to improve safety. Seventy to 80 percent of aviation accidents occurred as a result of human errors.
Being a flight instructor, it is incumbent upon us to imbibe safety culture into future pilots as they get trained. This accreditation is an award of excellence that gives me a platform to reach out to the entire world and be a voice to promote aviation safety. One of the criteria for awarding this accreditation is service to the aviation community; in one of the books I wrote titled “Family Life and Aviation Safety,” I did an explorative study on the impact of pilots’ emotional stability on flying performance. The ongoing research and books will bring development into the aviation community at large and improve aviation safety.
It will also help me bring development into the aviation industry’s education sector in Nigeria. One of the programmes in the National Association of Flight Instructor (NAFI) is Pilot Development Programme. This program provides all certified flight instructors (CFIs) with invaluable education and tools to enhance their technical and teaching skills, including improving their ability to interact with their students to reach their goal to become pilots. It is a mentorship programme, and I am willing and trusting God to help me extend this programme to interested pilots and future pilots in Nigeria.
How long did it take to get the accreditation, and how were you able to attain this feat?
It has been a journey. I caught the vision of becoming a pilot in 2004 when my mother was bedridden. Being the last child, I had to abandon my education and stayed at home with her. When I was inspired to pursue a piloting career, I did not know how it would happen because my father was not financially capable, and my mother, who had been assisting financially, was confined to the bed. I trusted God and decided to walk with Him. After my mother’s demise, the Lord led me to aviation business school, where I studied Travel Agency Management/ Air Ticketing and Reservation. After working with a few travel agencies, the Lord impressed on me to take a bold step of faith and go for the flight programme. I was scared because of the financial implications. Amazingly, in 2010, I secured an admission, and I was granted a visa to study in the United States of America.
Flight training is such an expensive programme, so I did not find it easy at all. However, I fixed my eyes on God to help me. Due to financial struggle, I was advised to take some steps and get my papers so that I could work and get some money to make the journey and the training easier, but God did not allow me to take that step. Contrary to what people do, I would travel to Nigeria and work to make money and return to the United States to spend it on my studies; I spent five years over a programme that should not last more than two years.
When my friends were finishing their programmes, I was practically making no progress. I also lost my father during this time, and things became difficult, but God never left me. I held on to God to help me and see me through. To the glory of God, I finally became a commercial pilot five years after I started the programme. After receiving my commercial pilot license, I traveled back to Nigeria to raise money for the “flight instructor rating.” I returned to the United States for the instructor rating. Miraculously, the Lord supplied all my needs, and I finished all the flight instructor ratings in about one year and decided to get a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
While working as a flight instructor to build flight hours, I developed an exceptional interest in the flight training environment to help future pilots; due to God’s favor, my chief flight instructor recommended me to become a Check Airman, which immensely helped towards receiving this accreditation. During the degree programme, I also developed an interest in research, and I began to do research on how to improve aviation safety. This led to writing research papers and books to enlighten aviators. The research, aviation-related articles, service to the aviation community, personal and professional development, and instructor activities were the project in which God used to help me receive this accreditation and attain this height.
As the second Nigerian to receive such honour in the US, what does the future hold for you and the industry?
I strongly believe the future is bright by the grace of God. With this accreditation, I see God helping me to become a fully established aviation consultant focusing on aviation safety and aviation business management.
One of the things I’m working on right now is to involve aviation enthusiasts in the ongoing research like they do in other advanced nations. We can do what other nations are doing; we can have aviation labs in Nigeria and begin to solve problems confronting the aviation industry worldwide. The future of the industry lies in our hands. I thank God for our leaders; we can pick things up where they stopped, and we will see that beyond the sky is the limit.
How do you intend to bring your experience and expertise to help in developing the aviation industry?
Like I said that I’m working towards involving aviation professionals in Nigeria in the ongoing research to bring development into the aviation sector. In addition to the ongoing research, one other area I am trusting God to help is the area of job creation. I have done my homework, and I discovered that if Nigeria government allows us to use the gifts the Lord has given us and the knowledge we acquired, nothing less than 40,000 jobs will be created in the aviation industry.
There are untapped resources in Nigeria. Nigeria is blessed with human resources, but we are not making good use of these resources. I feel sad every day seeing Nigerians complain about a lack of job opportunities, and we have what it takes to create opportunities for the masses. We need to think out of the box. God has blessed us, but blessings might be far from us if we don’t take rightful steps. I am willing to become a blessing that will transform the aviation industry and provide job opportunities to the masses if the government can allow us to use our God-given talents and experience.
Many airlines have been dormant since the emergence of the pandemic, what’s their (aircraft) safety state in the sky as they commence gradual operations?
The aviation industry is well-regulated. For the fact that most aircraft were parked during the pandemic does not mean they portend dangers when restrictions are totally lifted. None of those aircraft will return to service if they are not airworthy.
Part 121:367 talks about maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations programs for the airlines.
The regulation says: Each certificate holder shall have an inspection program and a program covering other maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations that ensures that: Maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations performed by it, or by other persons, are performed in accordance with the certificate holder’s manual; competent personnel and adequate facilities and equipment are provided for the proper performance of maintenance, preventive maintenance and alterations; and each aircraft released to service is airworthy and has been properly maintained for operation under this part.
Nigeria has limited safety personnel in the aviation sector, what’s your take on that?
Yes, that’s true, but it does not mean the little ones we have are not doing their jobs. I really want us to understand that we cannot compare Nigeria to countries like United States, Australia and other developed countries. We do not have any university offering aviation programmes in Nigeria, so it makes it harder to have more than enough aviation safety personnel in Nigeria. In the United States, we have many universities offering degrees programmes in aviation. When a student attends any of these colleges or universities, he will take about four to five safety classes and have the option of specialising in aviation safety.
So this makes it easier for such countries to have more than enough safety personnel. I was fortunate to talk to one of my friends who worked for a charter airline in Nigeria, and I asked him, ‘who is your safety manager/director and what is the person’s qualification?’ He told me the person studied agronomy in one of the Nigerian universities and was sent for a safety certification programme. Apparently, this person does not know anything about the aircraft system, performance, and other aviation-related subjects. So, that is the challenge we face in Nigeria. Until we have good aviation educational programmes, it will be difficult to have enough aviation safety personnel.
What other areas would you suggest for improvement in the industry?
It is the management aspect of the industry. If the aviation industry is well managed, many Nigerians will be gainfully employed. We need to look into that. We have what it takes to create jobs for Nigerians and generate income for the government, but we need to think outside the box. We need to look beyond the money we make from crude oil and focus on other industries like aviation.
For you, what’s the way forward?
To be candid, the first thing we need to work on is training. Without adequate training, our growth will be limited. The aviation industry has a great prospect in Nigeria, but we need qualified candidates to explore it fully. If the government decides to focus on the aviation industry, we will mismanage the available resources without qualified personnel. There are many benefits to having standard educational structures in the aviation industry. Without qualified personnel in the industry, ten persons will be doing the work meant for just one person, which will negatively affect the organization’s sustainability. This is what we see in Nigeria; we have heard of many aviation organisations who could not last because 40 to 60 per cent of the workforce are not fit for the position they occupied.