The Crash of NAF 911 on September 26, 1992
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules is a versatile, high wing, turbo-prop military and civilian transport plane used by well over 60 countries. It was designed for tactical in-theater airlift and modifiable for various roles including Troop and equipment transport and Para drop, search and rescue, aero medical evacuation, command and control, electronic warfare, arctic ice re-supply, maritime patrol, aerial spray missions, aerial fuel tanker, fire-fighting, disaster relief, combat and weather reconnaissance, and aerial gunship, among others. It is capable of functioning in and out of dirt strips. Equipped with four engines and originally designed in 1951, the first production model was the C-130A. In 1954 the first prototype flight took place followed in 1955 by the first production flight.
Over the years many models have been produced including the C-130A, C-130B, C-130E, C-130H, C-130H2, C-130H3, C-130J, L-100, L-100-20, L-100-30, and C-130H-30. The C-130H, first delivered in 1964, was equipped with a number of improvements over previous models including updated T56-A-T5 turboprops, a sturdier outer wing, and revamped avionics. On side-facing seats, it can carry 92 combat troops or 64 fully equipped paratroopers and can haul 45,000 pounds of cargo. For casualty evacuations, it can airlift 74 litter patients with two medical attendants. Personnel, equipment and supplies can be delivered by conventional landing or by alternative methods of aerial delivery. The specified maximum gross weight in peacetime is 155,000 pounds, although up to 175,000 pounds is allowable in wartime. Normal landing weight is 130,000 pounds. The operating weight is reportedly 80,000 pounds. The C-130H-30 is the stretched version, 15 feet longer.
During the Lockheed scandal of the mid-1970s, millions of dollars in kickbacks and political contributions were made to politicians and military officials in many countries – including Nigeria - by Lockheed, the American aircraft manufacturer, in return for buying their planes. One of the more sensational cases involved Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, who had to resign when the scandal broke. The planes involved were both military and civilian. In Nigeria’s case, it was the C-130 Hercules, also known as “Charlie 130” or “Herc”. Six (6) C-130Hs were delivered between 1975 and 1976 (NAF 910, NAF 911, NAF 912, NAF 913, NAF 914 and NAF 915 ) followed just under ten years later by three C-130H-30s in 1985. These were NAF 916, NAF 917 and NAF 918.
Saturday, September 26, 1992
Much of the morning of Saturday, September 26, 1992, was dominated by activities related to environmental sanitation. Later that afternoon in Lagos, Nigeria, the annual Nigerian Army Squash tournament took place at the Ikeja Cantonment. As was to become the annual pattern, Major Ademolekun won the championship.
Practically all the significant military commanders in the Lagos area, including the Commander of the Lagos Garrison and the Air Force Base Commander were at the tournament. After it was completed, players, officials and guests retired to the Officer’s Mess for the award of prizes and merriment, oblivious that a national tragedy was unfolding a few miles away.
Shortly before 1730 hrs a Nigerian Air Force Military Transport Plane, a Lockheed C-130H-LM HERCULES (L-82), production number 4624, registration number NAF 911, piloted by Wing Commanders J.P. Alabesunu and A.S. Mamadi finally got the okay from the control tower to take off – en route to Kaduna and Jos in the northern part of the country. From the Kaduna airport its unique passengers planned to make their way by road back to the Command and Staff College in Jaji. Consisting predominantly of middle ranking officers drawn from the 19th, 20th, and 21st regular courses of the Nigerian Defence Academy, accompanied by a few from the 18th course along with some foreign students, they had been in Lagos on a Naval tour as part of the senior division course. The return trip had been postponed twice - once the day before, and the second time earlier that Saturday on account of word that the aircraft – piloted by Squadron Leader John Aparenkume - had some engine problems during return flights back from Kaduna, Port-Harcourt and Enugu on unrelated business. After a long wait at the airport, over 150 persons crammed into the plane when the final word came. Most had no seat belts and some items of luggage were not secured. All routine checks completed and formalities observed, the big turboprop plane thundered majestically down the runway and took off into the sunset to rendezvous with fate.
As it took off, problems immediately became apparent. According to a witness - a former Nigerian Airways engineer who may have overheard radio transmissions - one engine failed, prompting the pilot to turn around heading back to the airport. Conceivably, he would have had to attempt to trim the plane for a three engine lift while ascending, and feather the non-functioning engine. Then a second engine failed. With insufficient power and lift to negotiate a safe return to the airport, a decision was made to land the plane in the Ejigbo canal. The pilot reportedly tried to align the plane to the canal, and even deployed water landing gear. At that point the third engine failed. Suddenly and without warning, its nose dipped and it went down, nose first, into the swamp, the fuselage buried in the mud, with the right wing and tail broken up. The time was just after 1735 hrs.
There was no manifest, making estimates of precisely how many were onboard difficult. It was said that 168 students had been in Lagos. However, faced with delays or prompted by other instincts, a few had made alternative arrangements. Some reports claim there were 163 on board. Others have said there were actually 174 passengers on the ill fated flight, including some unidentified civilians, personnel of the Nigerian Air Force Military School, Jos and other military personnel who hitched a ride. However, what is certain is that there were no survivors. During recovery operations, the gruesome body count was even said to have included random body parts. The following individuals were later officially confirmed to have died in the crash:
LIST A: ARMY:-Lt
** Note:: 5 additional Ghanaians, 1 Tanzanian, 1 Zimbabwean, and 1 Ugandan military officers were involved.
THOSE WHO GOT AWAY
A number of officers escaped being killed on the airplane by sheer luck. Many are now holding prominent positions in the military – an indication of what might have been for those who died. Those few officers from NDA regular Course 22 who had originally been scheduled to take the 1992 Senior Staff College course were withdrawn from the list when they expressed preference to do the course with their own mates the next time around. Others, who were within the bracket of the 19th, 20th and 21st courses, were tied up with military postings that caused them to reschedule their CSC course. Among those who were on the course and actually visited Lagos for the Naval Tour, some decided to leave for Kaduna on Friday September 25 to attend to personal matters, while a few actually went to the airport, waited in vain for the flight and then either returned to their houses in Lagos or chose to take commercial flights.
CRASH AND LOSS STATISTICS
The crash of NAF 911 was among the world’s 50 worst air crashes (military and civilian) in international aviation history. Indeed, among turboprop air crashes in particular, NAF 911 was second to none and would hold that dubious distinction until August 1st, 1996 when an Africa Air Antonov 32B crashed at the Kinshasa-N'Dolo airport in Zaire, killing 237. In Nigerian history specifically, counting all military and civilian crashes, NAF 911 was third in fatality to the crashes on November 7th, 1991 of a chartered Douglas DC-8 C-GMXQ at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in which 261 pilgrims died and an earlier mishap on January 22nd, 1973 of a Boeing 707 Royal Jordanian Airlines at Kano – in which 202 pilgrims lost their lives. In other words, of the 50 worst air crashes in human history, three have involved planes connected to Nigeria.
Since 1943, Military Transport planes in general have had approximately 1,187 serious accidents. To be sure, C-130 aircraft in particular have crashed for all sorts of reasons, including sabotage. The most famous such crash was that of Pakistani Leader General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who along with the American Ambassador and other dignitaries died at about 4:30 pm local time on August 17th, 1988. His VIP C-130 crashed about 10 minutes after taking off from Bahawalpur – caused either by detonation of a low-explosive device and/or release of a toxic gas which incapacitated the crew. As of 1997, with almost 25 million C-130 flying hours world wide, there had been 284 aircraft lost to mishaps. Of these, 194 were major air mishaps, 14 ground mishaps, four other mishaps, and 72 lost in combat. Of the approximately 2,100 aircraft built in the preceding 44 years, approximately 1,800 were still in service.
In addition to the Nigerian crash, there were eight C-130 crashes in the world in 1992 specifically. Five US Air Force C-130s crashed in February (Evansville, Indiana), April (Blewett Falls Lake, North Carolina), August (Homestead AFB, Florida – two planes) and October (Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) while one US Naval C-130 went down in August at the Agana Naval Air Station in Guam. In July the Sudanese Air Force lost one at Juba.
In Nigeria, excluding loss of helicopters, fighter jets and bombers, we have had about 76 serious civil and military air-crashes since the crash on April 10th, 1948 of an Air France Douglas DC-4 F-BBDC in Kano. (“Serious” means irretrievable loss of the aircraft hull). Of these, about 31 were fatal, killing well over 800 people. Military or Military use transport aircraft (and choppers) in particular have been lost in a variety of circumstances, not all accidental and we have lost two service chiefs – Lt. Cols. Joe Akahan and Shittu Alao – in circumstances which included an air mishap.
Civil War Era
A Biafran impounded Ghana airways Douglas DC-3 9G-GAD, converted to military use, was destroyed on the ground at Port-Harcourt airport during a federal air raid in August 1967. On October 7, 1967, a Biafran Air Force Fokker Friendship F-27/200 5N-AAV (which was actually a former Nigerian Airways plane hijacked in April from Benin-City) was shot down during a bombing raid. On November 6, 1967, a Douglas DC-3 5N-AAK was also destroyed on the ground by Federal L-29 Delphins. Later that month a DH-114 Heron VP-WAM belonging to Air Trans Africa was lost at Enugu. On 17 January 1968, a Nigerian Air Force Douglas DC-3 5N-AAL crashed. In that same month a Biafran Lockheed L-1049 5T-TAC was lost at Port Harcourt. On July 1st that year, a Lockheed L-1049 5T-TAG 4 belonging to North American Aircraft Trading, ostensibly on a relief and/gun running mission was destroyed at Uli Ihiala airstrip. On 28 September, 1968 a Pan African Airlines Douglas DC-4 N90427 crashed in Port Harcourt killing 57. Many other military transport planes accidentally crashed, were shot down or destroyed on the ground as the civil war progressed. They include a Douglas DC-7 5T-TAR owned by North American Aircraft Trading destroyed at Uli Airstrip on October 3rd, 1968; a Douglas DC-7 VR-BCY 4 also owned by North American Aircraft Trading, which was lost at Uli Airstrip in December 1968; and a Douglas DC-4 VP-YTY owned by Air Trans Africa. On May 7th, 1969, the International Red Cross lost a Douglas DC-6 HB-IBT at Uli airstrip. On May 24th, a DC-4 N9982H owned by Pan African Airlines was also lost in Port Harcourt ostensibly during a Biafran air raid. It was followed a week later on June 2nd, 1969, by the loss of a DC-6 at Uli owned by Flughjalp. Three days later a Swedish Red Cross DC-7 SE-ERP was brought down over Eket, followed in July by an Air Fret DC-4 F-OCNU and in early August by a Canairelief Lockheed L-1049 CF-NAJ at Uli. In November, Joint Church Aid lost a DC-6 LN-FOM at Uli, while Pan African Airlines lost a DC-4 N480G at Port Harcourt. Another military transport crash that occurred in that month was a Biafran government Lockheed L- 749A Constellation 5N-85H which was flying munitions from Portugal to Sao Tome. It crashed into the Oukaimeden mountain in Morocco after 3 engines failed. The wreckage was found in July 1970. The last military transport lost during the war was a Canairelief Air Lockheed L-1049 CF-NAK on December 17th, 1969 at Uli. The war ended in January 1970.
For the next nine years no NAF Transport plane crashed or was shot down. But this record was rudely interrupted when on the 26th of May 1980, NAF 904, a military Fokker F-27 en route on a defence diplomatic mission to Sao Tome and Principe, crashed in bad weather off Forcados. The Pilot-in-Command was Squadron Leader Asemota Ogboih. There were no survivors. Among the prominent people killed was Brigadier Umaru Mohammed – a one time Governor of Sokoto.
On the 23rd of April 1995, the Air Force lost another Fokker F-27, NAF 908 from Lagos. In January 18, 1996, a Hawker Siddeley HS-748 belonging to the Air Force Presidential Fleet crashed on approach to Kano killing 14 people including the first son of the Head of State. A year later on the 12th of September 1997, a Dornier Do-228, NAF 034 crashed into a Tree on take-off at Nguru.
RESCUE AND RECOVERY FOR NAF 911
No organized rescue effort was arranged within a time frame that would have meant anything to the victims of the crash. However, it is clear that the control tower knew something had gone wrong and notified the Airport Commandant. Contradictory reports describe either a small Air Force fixed wing aircraft or Bristow helicopter being dispatched to the canal area to pin down the location of the aircraft. One account says the location could not be confirmed while another says it was confirmed. A small group of civilians and Air Force personnel apparently made their way several hours later to a point close to the scene but had to abandon their efforts because “it was too dark” and “the swamp was too deep”. It would be better they thought, to try again in the morning! Meanwhile, officers in key command positions wined and dined at the Officers Mess at Ikeja Cantonment commemorating the end of the Squash Tournament. It would be several hours before they knew something was amiss.
At about 8 pm, Lt. Colonel Kayode Are, one of the Directing Staff at the Command and Staff College in Jaji, placed a long distance call to his course mate in Lagos, Lt. Colonel Owoye Azazi, CO of the Intelligence Group at the Lagos Garrison to get information about the crash. Azazi had not heard anything. He then contacted some colleagues to find out if there was truth to rumors that a plane had gone down. None of these officers knew what was going on. Azazi, therefore, placed a call to Captain Al Mustapha, Chief Security Officer to Lt. General Sani Abacha, who was at that time Chief of Defence Staff. It was Mustapha that confirmed that a plane carrying students from the CSC at Jaji had indeed crashed “somewhere behind Festac”. However, no orders were forthcoming from Abacha on whether or how to respond and it was not even clear whether the C-in-C, General I Babangida was aware or if aware, had ordered anything done to respond.
Back in 1992 when I first investigated this story through some Air Force contacts, I was informed that Azazi initially assumed a “massive rescue operation” must be going on although it is not clear who he might have thought would be carrying it out. So he got dressed anyway and drove to the area around the Festac Village to see for himself. By now it was around 11 pm and pitch dark. There was no sign of activity. When he returned home, at about midnight, his Garrison Commander, Major Gen. Adisa had called, having just heard of it himself. Thus, he returned the call. Adisa ordered that they both take off the next morning by 5.30 am – 12 hours after the crash - to resume the search. It was around midnight that the first stirrings of a coordinated mid-level tri-service response were noticeable.
Therefore, early on Sunday morning, General Adisa, Commodore Akhigbe, Lt. Col Azazi and Captain Deinde Joseph set off for the Air Force base. There they were told that the plane crashed a few minutes after take off. They were also briefed that a fixed wing aircraft had taken off shortly before dark on reconnaissance, but could barely locate the site of the crash.
The group left the Air Force Base at Ikeja and headed first for Festac Village, but eventually found their way to the section of the Ejigbo canal closer to the Cantonment. As previously noted, some local inhabitants and air force personnel had already crossed the canal through the swamp to the crash site much earlier. The environment was difficult and investigators had to wade in it with muddy water up to their navels. From the appearance of things it seemed evident that the only hope for survival would have required immediate response. Unless rescue got there within the first hour with appropriate equipment, it didn’t seem likely that anyone had a chance. With the plane overloaded and only few using seat belts, most were crushed against one other, luggage and all sorts of metal objects. Some likely died from crush injuries, some certainly drowned, and others certainly suffocated, trapped inside the depressurized, airless Hull. There were reports of scribbled notes by some of the survivors, indicating that they survived the initial impact. As the day progressed, some area boys arrived and tried to ransack and steal items from the dead. They were driven off.
On Sunday, the first day of recovery, access into body of the aircraft was very difficult. There were initial suggestions to use a chain saw but this was deferred out of fear of fire outbreak because of the proximity to aviation fuel. Gaining access was, therefore, fairly slow and crude, inch by inch. The first corpse out was of a civilian, whose body was herniating almost outside the main frame of the aircraft. For many more hours a lot of effort was made before recovery workers got into the mass of bodies, most of which were pushed towards the front of the aircraft deep inside water. That day only 27 bodies were recovered. They were pulled out, loaded into canoes two at a time, brought to the edge of the swamp, carried to the canal edge, ferried across in boats again and then carried to the vehicle park before being taken to the mortuary.
The horrendous experience of that first day provoked some feverish contacts in the Army hierarchy. On Monday, the Head of the Lagos Garrison Intelligence group reportedly spoke with the US Defence Attaché about the possibility of sending Chinook Helicopters to help. However, the rather curious response of the Nigerian Army High Command – as communicated by the Military Assistant to Lt. General Salihu Ibrahim, then Chief of Army Staff, was that for reasons of national pride a request for foreign help was not appropriate. In fact the Army HQ had to be talked out of immediately assembling another course for the Staff College. The details of how “national pride” became a reason to delay recovery of our fallen heroes at that stage are best explained by those involved – and those they were reporting to at higher levels i.e. Generals Abacha and Babangida.
Abacha is now dead and cannot defend himself but his relationship with Babangida when Abacha was the CDS was, to say the least, complex. There are accounts that money for defence needs was never guaranteed to arrive at operational levels when released by government through normal channels. I even read a newspaper story that Babangida at one point actually passed money directly to agitated unit commanders and peace-keeping troops instead of passing it through the Ministry of Defence. According to this report, the common joke amongst lower level officers back then, when talking about defence appropriations, was "Sani ya chi”. If true, then it might explain why a US government grant for the refurbishment of C-130s released in early 1992 may not have made it to the aircraft. All of this, in any case, was occurring in the setting of the deliberate deconstruction of the Air Force following the alleged involvement of some Air Force officers in the so-called Vatsa conspiracy of 1985.
Let’s go back to our story. A retired Air Force officer told this writer a few years ago that Brigadier General Akilu was also contacted about the need for foreign military heavy lift Chinook Helicopters. I have not spoken to Akilu to confirm, but this source says he graciously gave the go ahead for the Recovery Team to contact the CIA Station Chief as a backchannel. Along with General Adisa and Col. Azazi, the group allegedly took a ride in the CIA man’s boat from Victoria Island to Ejigbo. Further contacts obviously took place at a higher level but nothing eventually came of this initiative.
In one of his columns, a respected journalist, Remi Oyeyemi wrote that: “it is on record that less than an hour of the crash, the British government offered to rescue the victims and the offer was turned down by IBB. It is also on record that the U.S. government informed the IBB administration that they had a ship on the high seas very close to Nigeria that could be on the scene within few hours of the crash to help in the rescue effort. It was turned down by IBB.” [ http://nigeriaworld.com/columnist/oyeyemi/070802.html ]
I have no independent verification at this time that this specific communication occurred; neither do I have any that it did not. The truth will certainly come out when British and American diplomatic archives of that era are eventually declassified and/or when General Babangida publishes his memoirs. What seems clear from publicly available information though is that at the time such contacts were being made the issue was not rescue (i.e. saving lives that are in imminent danger of being lost). It was recovery (i.e. retrieving corpses and damaged equipment) – although the countries involved in these alleged conversations with the government certainly had the capacity for emergency night-time rescue of at least a few of the victims at the back of the plane if invited early enough. It is also evident that for misguided reasons the Army High Command was not eager for foreign military assistance. In fact it comes across like the story of the disabled man whose child fell into an old well inside his compound but was too proud to ask his neighbor for a long stick that might save the child, so he pretended all was well; but then turned around later to invite his neighbours for the funeral. The truth is that if national pride was really an issue, we would have been building our own planes, maintaining them regularly, following technical guidelines in using them, and we would certainly have had the capability to respond quicker and more effectively to such a disaster. In battlefield conditions it would have required a theater nuclear weapon to kill that many Majors and Lt. Cols. in one go.
In addition to superstitious fear of the dark, and absence of night-time riverain operational training and equipment, the other factor was that in the security environment of 1992, Commanders were very unwilling to give orders to move soldiers for any but the most routine reasons, for fear of being accused of planning a coup. Why else – aside from a Squash championship, the absence of an early warning system and pre-designated first responder - would a military plane crash into a known canal within a few miles of Ikeja Cantonment, Ojo Cantonment, the Naval Barracks at Ojo and Apapa and the Ikeja Air Force Base and yet be marooned for so long? One is at a loss for words.
Even now, Nigeria is not better prepared for such problems anyway. After the Ikeja Cantonment Disaster in January 2002, we invited British and American ordnance experts to help in dealing with unstable munitions. At least we did not invoke imaginary national pride this time. But for how long are we going to be unable to deal with such issues ourselves? Was Hendrik Verwoerd right when, in an address to the South African Senate in 1954, he said: "When I have control over Native education I will reform it so that the Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them ... People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu mathematics when he cannot use it in practice?"
Back to 1992; hamstrung on one hand by lack of any sort of tactical or strategic indigenous military capacity for serious rescue and recovery in a marine environment, and on the other by the bizarre unwillingness of the High Command to get foreign military assistance, Azazi, Adisa and others on the ground decided on their own initiative to approach a locally based foreign company called Westminster Dredging. One of their senior expatriate staff inspected the accident scene and suggested the idea of felling trees and placing ramps to form a walkway in the swamp from the other bank to the crash site. The ramp was used for the first few days before nets were eventually hooked under helicopters to ferry the last group of bodies across. By the time the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer were recovered from the cockpit, deep inside the swamp, it was clear that all corpses had been moved out.
Meanwhile, the government eventually contracted a German company, Julius Berger for help. But by the time the company got to the crash site, all the bodies were already recovered through the assistance of Westminster Dredging. What was left was the recovery of the parts of the ill-fated plane – conceivably beyond the technical capacity of the Army’s Engineering Corps. Further verification of corpses was made before they were then transferred from the morgues in Lagos to Abuja.
It was not until Tuesday September 29, 1992, four days after the crash, that His Excellency the President, Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida visited the scene of the disaster, inspecting it from the safety and remoteness of a helicopter circling above.
Victims of the crash were interred at a mass burial with “full military honors”, in Abuja on October 5, 1992. At the funeral, General Babangida described the air crash as "a calamity, shocking in its impact and devastating in its finality……Our nation had reposed great hope in them as future leaders of the armed forces……" Meanwhile the first lady, Maryam Babangida, wearing an immaculate white outfit, walked around, solemnly expressing condolences to grieving widows, all in dark outfits.
When NAF 911 crashed, an investigating panel was reportedly set up under Rear-Admiral Elegbede. To this day, ten years later, its report has never been formally released to the public. In contrast, on November 25, 1996, the US Air Force publicly released the accident investigation report of the fatal crash on August 17, 1996 of a C-130 Hercules near Jackson Hole Airport, Wyoming. The C-130 was based at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, and had been on a presidential support mission. The crash was caused by crew error – because they allegedly failed to monitor the aircraft's position and flight path relative to the high terrain surrounding the Airport. At that time, while expressing condolence to the families and friends of those who died, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman said, "We are committed to finding the root causes of all accidents and ensuring that our training, maintenance and flying procedures work together to prevent mishaps…" Similarly, the US Air Force released information on the cause of the crash of an HC-130P, call sign King 56, assigned to the 939th Rescue Wing, Portland, Oregon. It went down off the coast of California on Nov. 22, 1996. The plane’s engines stopped as a result of fuel starvation caused by improper fuel management by the crew.
Nevertheless, impressive as the openness of the USAF was, there were informed skeptics. In 1997, the Boston Globe conducted a six month long investigation into US military accidents and found that there had been more than 29,000 accidental deaths of military personnel since 1979, well in excess of the 558 deaths from combat. In fact, between 1991 and 1996, 198 major Air Force crashes occurred, averaging about one every 11 days. Regarding the C-130 in particular, between 1955 and 1997 the US Air Force experienced 142 Class A mishaps (meaning the aircraft was destroyed or damaged beyond $1 million or economical repair, or where permanent disabling injury or loss of life occurred). There were 613 fatalities and 83 aircraft lost during about 14,400,000 flying hours. 45 aircraft were destroyed in combat. Nevertheless, the C-130 is regarded as one of the safest planes in the USAF inventory – because the cumulative class A mishap rate (defined as class A mishaps per 100,000 flying hours) is 0.99 – is comparable with those of the C-5 Galaxy (0.91) and the USAF as a whole (1.37).
However, investigative journalists, concerned that the USAF investigates itself after accidents (although Aviation Industry and NTSB officials are present), observed that:
1. "The Air Force has a fundamental conflict of interest in its investigation procedures";
2. "Safety-related criticism of command decisions is dismissed";
3. "Commanding officers sometimes direct investigators away from areas that could reflect poorly on their leadership";
4. "Accidents are sometimes misclassified to improve safety statistics";
5. "Critics believe the flaws in the system used to investigate air crashes are a principal reason why the military accident rate remains five times higher than that for commercial flights."
The newspaper recommended that the US Congress conduct a comprehensive review of safety in the US military. A similar inquiry by the democratically elected National Assembly into safety issues in the military may be needed in Nigeria. Although the NAF 911 investigation was led by a Naval Officer in 1992, it never saw the light of day and there was no opportunity for public input. Even during the Oputa panel hearings when widows of the C-130 victims petitioned for their unpaid benefits and requested for the report, a hasty rapprochement was reached with the Ministry of Defence to pay them, but no word was said on the release of the report. More recently, the investigative report into the Ikeja Cantonment Munitions Disaster of January 2002, which the President promised to release, has not been publicly released.
WHAT CAUSED THE CRASH OF NAF 911?
As noted above, no official report has ever been released to the public in Nigeria even though all concerned are aware of the importance of such reports in preventing future incidents and allowing grieving families and friends come to terms with their loss. No one resigned or was fired from their jobs as a result either. Obviously, going by the technical specifications of the manufacturer, the plane was grossly overloaded with individuals although one does not have access to information about the true take off weight.
However, in searching various international aviation disaster databases, I came across an entry which categorically states that NAF 911 crashed as a result of FUEL CONTAMINATION. In proceeding to discuss the issue, it should be noted that the Nigerian government has never explained why (in its view) the plane crashed ten years ago, leaving room for all sorts of speculation. One is left with nothing to evaluate except information which is available to the rest of the world but not inside Nigeria to Nigerians about a Nigerian mishap.
When I came across the NAF 911 entry at www.planecrashinfo.com/1992/1992-42.htm , I contacted Mr. Richard Kebabjian, an international aviation archivist about the case of the Nigerian C-130. He sent me this email:
“The four-engine turboprop transport crashed in a swamp, killing all 152 persons aboard. Except for four civilians, the victims were military personnel, mostly Nigerian, including three Air Force crewmen, but also from Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Uganda. The accident occurred about three minutes after the aircraft had taken off from Murtala Muhammed Airport, serving the capital city, on an internal flight to Kaduna. Two of its power plants had malfunctioned initially, followed by a third, possibly as the pilot-in-command was attempting to ditch the C-130 in a canal, with the resulting crash occurring around dusk and in clear weather conditions. Fuel contamination was mentioned as the cause of the multiple engine failure.”
Fuel contamination is a known problem in aviation. Indeed, in 2000 there was a major scandal in Australia when 5000 piston engine planes were grounded as a result of contaminated fuel sold by Mobil AVGAS outlets in the south-eastern part of the country. The simplest aircraft required three days to decontaminate their fuel tanks and pipes.
Fuel contamination is also a recorded cause of air crashes and near misses. Examples included a number of crashes of small Cessna 172-D aircraft in the US. In one case water and even mice were found inside the carburetor air box, venturi area and throttle valve. In another case, water was found in the carburetor float bowl.
The C-130H has four main fuel tanks and two auxiliary tanks located in the wings – all interconnected by pipes or "manifolds". Two external tanks are installed on pylons under the wings. The fuel tanks are vented. As the tanks empty during flight, fuel is displaced by air. For example, fuel in the fuselage tanks is displaced by cabin air. Fuel management is under the control of the flight engineer who has access to an overhead fuel control panel located on the flight deck. By manipulating the switches he can control how fuel is used during flight, manage refueling and even decide to dump fuel if necessary. If a given engine is fed by its corresponding fuel tank, the aircraft is in “tank-to-engine" configuration which is normally used for take-off and landing. If the cross feed valves are opened and fuel is sucked from the external, fuselage, auxiliary, or other main fuel tanks, it is described as cross feed operation - usually used during cruise flight.
Originally, JP-4 fuel was standard for the C-130 series but more recently, in the USAF, it has been changed to the less volatile JP-8 fuel.
Based on my review of official reports into C-130 mishaps and potential mishaps in other parts of the world, I found that the two main reasons why fuel may not get to the engines are:
1. Insufficient fuel getting to the engine burner cans. This can be caused by a fuel leak, accidental fuel dumping, and fuel system or engine component failure. Another self evident reason is if a tank is emptied when other tank boost pumps are off or if the flight engineer fails to switch to a fueled tank. If the fuel manifolds are not primed, existing air in the manifolds can be directed to the engines causing an engine flameout.
2. Fuel Contamination – This can obviously obstruct fuel flow to the engine combustion chambers and reduce the power output of the engine. Contaminated fuel could have been introduced at the last refueling in Lagos, or fuel became contaminated due to debris inside the Tanks from poor maintenance, internal deterioration, fire suppression foam, or even water from condensation or rain entering through the filler caps. Such contamination can clog filters and their bypass valves, causing engine flameout.
Can non-deliberate fuel contamination be prevented?
Yes. It is recommended by experts that regular sampling be performed on the fuel inside the fuel tanks by using a hollow pogo stick with a collector jar at the end which allows visual inspection to identify water and other impurities. Such habits should ordinarily be among routine technical order trouble-shooting procedures which ought to result in required follow-through maintenance. If they are not, then Technical Orders should be amended to require regular fuselage tank sumping. For an import dependent country like Nigeria, authorities ought to regularly update the Technical Orders originally supplied when the plane was acquired back in 1976 because such orders are reviewed each time there is a C-130 plane crash in the USA – and there have been many.
What about deliberate fuel contamination?
There are no publicly available materials on this possibility – which would be criminal anyway. There is also no information whatsoever that such a possibility was considered in Nigeria although press reports and even soldiers at the time did carry such unproven rumors about sabotage – necessitating a denial and word of caution by the Commandant of the Command and Staff College at that time – Lt. Gen. Joshua N. Dogonyaro. One is, therefore, not in a position to comment further. But if this is what transpired, such characters should ordinarily be apprehended, tried under due process and executed if found guilty of mass murder.
Many factors contribute to safety, including reliable components and systems, good continuing training, and the institution of a formal safety program. Such a program – as has been instituted in the USAF - can be built around a System Safety Group comprising of all C-130 users, focusing on accident prevention. Parallel to this, a Material Safety Task Group should track the status of all NAF C-130 accident investigation recommendations and make sure appropriate resources are secured to maintain corrective actions. This sounds boring but it can save lives and resources.
In 2001, it was publicly announced that one of the sister C-130s of the one that crashed, NAF 912, underwent periodic depot maintenance (PDM) performed within Nigeria by a local company by the name of Aircraft, Avionics, Parts and Support (AAP & S). One hopes that this epoch making announcement will signal the advent of a genuine maintenance culture within the country.
CONCLUSION: SEARCH, RESCUE and RECOVERY
It is about time that Nigeria gets its act together. Those in positions of authority should know that they will not be there for ever. Whatever infrastructure you set up for the country is what one day may save your life when you leave office. As a young Youth Corper at the Brigade of Guards back in 1982/83, 20 years ago, I was involved in organizing a major coordinated Air, Land and Sea Rescue and Casualty Evacuation military exercise in the Lagos area which involved the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police, Red Cross as well as the National Orthopedic Hospital at Igbobi. Reports were submitted to the Army Headquarters. We even organized a seminar in Battle field medicine, tactical and strategic aero medical evacuation using detailed reports of the British experience in the Falklands. And yet, some of the young officers who helped me put it together died right there in the Lagos area in the crash of NAF 911 and were left in the swamp for at least 16 hours before recovery efforts – enabled by foreign companies - began. Why? In Nigeria there is no concern for the sanctity of human life and no follow-through to good ideas. There seems to be a kind of dysfunctional mental constipation about applying ourselves - except when it concerns expropriating money from public coffers.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) says a contingency plan for disaster management now exists – elements of which they claim were activated when the EAS aircraft crashed in Kano recently. One can only hope that such papers and plans will actually be read and that appropriate mechanisms for its implementation – at all levels - will be put in place, tested regularly through exercises, and adequately funded by the National Assembly. Let it be that NAF 911 did not go down on September 26, 1992 in vain.
May their souls rest in peace.