By Andrew Rosthorn
Flying in Africa is 12 times deadlier than flying in the rest of the world.
The doomed planes have ranged from the old Czech-built Let L-410 Turbolet workhorse that crashed at Bandundu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2010, killing 20 people after a smuggled crocodile broke loose in the cabin, to a new Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800 that crashed into a Cameroon mangrove swamp after a midnight takeoff in bad weather at Douala, killing all 114 passengers and crew in 2007.
The wreckage of the 737 lay undiscovered for two days, barely 5 kilometres from an international airport without any radar system and where no-one had noticed that the Kenya Airways pilots had fallen silent less than two minutes after their takeoff.
African air disasters have been caused by everything from bad weather and poverty to war and corruption.
As a consequence of dangerous politics and poor safety records at least 74 African airlines are now banned from flying into Europe. All the existing airline operators in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its neighbour, the Republic of the Congo, are EU-blacklisted.
The African Civil Aviation Authority, AFRO-CAA, has since 2007 been running a continental safety system, with help from the European Aviation Safety Agency and the US Federal Aviation Agency, to cut the terrible toll of accidents. The FAA offered free training for African air operations officers and accident investigators.
The Swiss director of operations at AFRO-CAA, Captain Harry Eggerschwiler, led a 2007 investigation into the Douala 737 crash to conclude that a bolt of lightning had struck the cockpit controls.
At the AFRO-CAA headquarters in Namibia Captain Eggerschwiler declared at the time: "Until now air safety was left to individual countries, but from now the African continent will speak with one voice.”
When a 19 years old Yemenia A310 Airbus, with 52,000 flying hours and a record of 17,000 landing and takeoff cycles had crashed off the Comoros islands in 2009, killing 153 people, with only one 14 year old girl survivor, Captain Eggerschwiler pointed out that well-maintained older planes have safety records as good as newer planes: "This was an older aircraft. But older aircraft can operate safely for decades if provided with proper maintenance."
Despite a perceived safety improvement from 9.94 accidents per million takeoffs in 2009 to 7.41 in 2010, there have already been two major air accidents in the Congo this year.
A Hewa Bora Airways 727 missed the runway in heavy rain at Kisangani on July 8, killing 74 of the 118 passengers and crew and on April 4, an Airzena Georgian Airways Canadair CRJ-100 missed the runway at Kinshasa, approaching on intruments in heavy rain, breaking up on the ground and catching fire. The flight had been chartered by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There was only one survivor from the four crew and 29 passengers. The 20 dead UN peacekeepers included Dr Boubacar Toure, the UN’s senior reproductive health advisor in the Congo, known affectionately throughout Africa as “Bouba”.
After the Kinshasa crash an airline loadmaster commented anonymously: “I really don't want to knock anyone or dare to venture an opinion on this one. In Africa, once you go north of South Africa (with the exception of Kenya) you leave behind the safety & security of first world ground operational standards. The ferocity and unpredictability of an African thunderstorm is legendary. They are extremely dangerous, especially in that area and at this time of year. All of us who fly in Africa treat these monsters with huge respect. I think we would do well not to speculate and wait for more concrete evidence. There are factors in African aviation that no EU or US pilot ever encounters in his or her entire flying career.”
AFRO-CAA employs around 125 staff members at its headquarters in Windhoek and the five regional offices in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa.
With the backing of the African Union, they are attempting to develop uniform technical standards for flight operations and aircraft maintenance, controlling the licensing of pilots and airworthiness certificates. Captain Eggerschwiler said. “When you go to international safety meetings you always hear ‘Africa, Africa.’ Well, we are now doing something about it.”
South Africa leads in the training air traffic controllers for the continent. Their national agency, Air Traffic and Navigation Services, unveiled a new three-dimensional air traffic control simulator at their training college in Kempton Park in October.
ATNS saw that new high-technology equipment for the cost-effective training of air traffic controllers was desperately needed after the breakdown in 2009 of their earlier 3-D simulator. The simulator proved to be irreparable and ATNS had to consider sending potential air traffic controllers abroad for training or start recruiting foreign-trained controllers.
The answer to the problem proved to be a partnership with Airways New Zealand. This state owned enterprise, controlling 30 million sq km of airspace from headquarters in Wellington, developed a new software and engineering specification that made it possible for ATNS to have the new 360° Total Control Simulator manufactured in South Africa.
Mark Griffin, the Airways New Zealand research and product development manager said, “Total Control not only gives a full 360° uninterrupted view of the airfield, it also allows users simultaneous use of parallel and cross-runway, and includes both tower and radar simulation, as well as military and civilian ops. Total Control is the culmination of years of research, development and innovation and will deliver ‘real world’ training to ATCs in South Africa, and to many other parts of the continent in future.”
When the South African transport minister Dr Sibusiso Ndebele opened the Total Control simulator, ATNS CEO Patrick Dlamini stated that controllers with no actual operational experience can now be certified during their training. “We are able to recreate any airport terrain in the world and simulate virtually any flight conditions or operational difficulties to prepare our candidates for the real thing. This paves the way for South Africa to become a centre of air traffic controller training excellence in Africa.”
ATNS has acquired software licences that will allow the agency to install aerodrome simulators at other locations in Southern Africa. Dr Ndebele revealed a skills transfer programme to allow three ATNS staff members to undergo training in New Zealand.
Thabani Mthiyane, ATNS engineering executive said the simulator project has already cost 15 million Rand [1,945,532 US Dollars] and involves a heavy future maintenance budget but that the project fitted within the government’s “year of job creation and service delivery in the transport sector” when Africa’s air transport industry was contributeing over 12.3 billion US dollars to Africa’s gross domestic product.
Günther Matschnigg, senior vice president for safety operations and infrastructure at the International Air Transport Association and a former head of maintenance at Austrian Airlines has called for higher standards of training in maintenance. “The poor safety record results from a combination of factors. It is about the safety culture, a lack of resources, the need for skilled personnel, poor infrastructure, and inadequate safety oversight.
“Some carriers do have modern aircraft and there are experienced pilots, But this is not the whole story. To buy a good aircraft you just need a friendly bank manager. To run a safe, reliable operation is something else again and requires all of the factors mentioned above to be beyond reproach.”
In 2009, IATA launched and funded IPSOA, their 3.7 million US dollar Implementation Programme for Safe Operations in Africa, which has provided flight data analysis for the IATA member airlines in Africa and delivers the data-driven safety management system required for International Civil Aviation Organization compliance. All IATA’s African members had FDA programmes in place by August 2010 and a recent review showed an almost 40% reduction in “flight safety events” like unstable approaches where an aircraft is fiying too high or too fast. The FDA programme reveals precise details of any one of a hundred different flight safety events.
Reviews of IPSOA and FDA performance revealed that the airports with the least number of unstable approaches are those operating Continuous Descent Approaches or other precision techniques recommended in IATA campaigns.
Despite increasing African air traffic, the continent is running short of pilots and aircraft engineers. Many trained pilots have left Africa to work for higher pay and to command bigger and newer aircraft based in the Gulf States.
But Günther Matschnigg said recently that this recruitment problem might be solved by increased safety in the African skies, “The region would then be seen for its many advantages, not just its faults.
“Africa is a fascinating part of the world and aviation is crucial to its development. Presented in the right way it could attract the best people in the industry.”
Giovanni Bisignani, the Director General of IATA said, “Despite high user charges, in many parts of Africa infrastructure is poorly funded and not up to international standards. Lack of transparency is a critical issue that is costing lives. IATA supports the creation of special infrastructure fund mechanisms to ensure that the money that airlines pay in charges stays in the industry.
Airlines are competing in a global market that has a shortage of licensed personnel. To meet projected demand in 2026, we must train 19,000 pilots a year. With capacity of 16,000, the shortfall by 2026 would be 54,000 pilots. We must broaden the pool of qualified candidates without compromising on safety.”
Susan Kurland, the American Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs in the Department of Transportation assured African airline chiefs in August that the USA will increase technical and financial help to make Africa safer for fliers.
Closing a 3-day Aviation and Allied Journal conference in Dar es Salaam she said, “The U.S. has made air transport cardinal point of our growth. President Obama has made it clear that Africa is a priority. Improved air transport will facilitate speedy integration, bring great opportunity to the people of Africa and we should continue the unwavering support effort on safety.”
She said the USA is also increasing surveillance over the continent, assisting financially in aviation safety and donating equipment to African nations to counter terrorism threats to air transport.
Kurland noted that safe skies are needed for increased trade and investment and long-term economic development for Africa.
She urged Africa to implement the open-market Yamoussoukro Decision, taken by African transport ministers in 2005, when they resolved that solidarity and co-operation would be the cornerstones of all transport development in the African Union.
The conference in Tanzania also celebrated the 2010 achievement of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Organization, NCAA, awarded the United States Federal Aviation Administration Category One certification after impressive developments in safety, security and economic regulation.