How Blunders and Neglect Stoked an African Air Tragedy

Daniel Michaels, Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2007

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A day after her 13th birthday, Owanari died in a plane that smashed into the ground at the airport here, the capital of Nigeria’s rich oil industry. The runway lights were off, in part because the airport hadn’t bought a generator.

The plane, crash investigators said, should never have tried to land. A storm was lashing the area. But the pilots didn’t know that, because the airport didn’t have its own weather warning system.

It also had only one firetruck. Owanari and many other victims appeared to have survived the impact but died later when engulfed in flames. Owanari’s father says he found her with her fists clenched in front of her, as if she’d been beating on a window pane.

She was one of 60 children returning from boarding school who died in the Dec. 10, 2005, crash of Nigeria’s Sosoliso Airlines Flight 1145. They and 48 others who perished were like many victims of African plane crashes: casualties of widespread neglect that makes this continent’s skies the most dangerous in the world. Africa accounts for less than 5% of global airline traffic. It accounts for roughly 25% of crashes.

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The government took some steps to improve air safety after the 2005 crashes. It barred planes older than 30 years. Concerned that many airlines couldn’t afford training and maintenance, it raised their minimum capital, a move that forced more than 20 carriers to close. Nigeria also made its Civil Aviation Authority independent of elected officials, seeking to end years of meddling by politicians with financial stakes in dodgy carriers.

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Landing in high winds and rain is hard enough, but the pilots were hindered by yet another failing. Administrators of the airport had ordered the runway illuminated only at night unless a pilot specifically requested lights. The Sosoliso crew didn’t, so, despite the storm, the runway lights remained off.

At this point, the pilots might have considered waiting to land until the weather cleared, investigators say. Instead, still unaware of how bad the weather was near the ground, they proceeded as planned. “Since the crew was not expecting danger, there was no way they could have been prepared,” Angus Ozoka, chief investigator on the case, said in an interview.

The pilots descended below the so-called decision height of 220 feet, beneath which aborting a landing is far riskier. Approaching the runway, the plane was buffeted by the wind. The last thing Kechi Okwuchi, who was one of the two survivors, remembers is agitated passengers gasping as the plane sped toward the ground.

Seconds from landing, the pilots tried to abort and climb again. It was too late. The tail section bounced off a grass strip 230 feet left of the runway.

When the plane came down after the bounce, it might have skidded to a jarring stop. But another blunder interfered, this one involving the airport’s design. A rainwater drainage ditch and culvert ran close to the runway. As the plane hit the ground a second time, one of its two engines caught in the depression and was sheared off, according to the crash report. Now the jetliner began to disintegrate, chunks cartwheeling half a mile down the airfield.

Many passengers were still alive at this point, according to eyewitness and investigators’ reports. Many might have survived, investigators say, had the airport been prepared for a crash. Instead, it had no ambulances. Its one firetruck soon ran out of foam and water. As workers tried to rescue passengers, flames engulfed the plane.

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Word spread that survivors had been taken to an emergency medical center. Andy Ilabor, a physician whose three children were all aboard the flight, rushed to the center. He says he found only a dilapidated bungalow where two badly burned victims lay unattended on the dirty floor with intravenous drips in their arms. Nearby, a janitor was raising dust with a broom.

The next day, Dr. Ilabor and his wife went to the morgue. Dozens of bodies lay piled outside in the steamy air, wet from an early rain, he says.

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The crash killed 108 people in all. Since the crash, parents of the children of Sosoliso Flight 1145 have been fighting to improve Nigeria’s air safety. They sued the government and the airline, and have refused settlements, seeing the still-delayed trial as a way to publicize the need for change.

For a year, on the 10th of each month, they placed newspaper ads reminding Nigerians of their “fallen angels.” An ad last October headlined “Who’s Next?” ran 15 days before the crash that killed 96 more people.

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Ms. Okwuchi, the only student who survived, is undergoing burn treatments in Texas. She is attending a hospital school and thinking about applying for college in the U.S. “My life is almost back to normal,” she says.

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