Nigeria’s deadliest airline crash in almost 40 years casts a shadow over an industry that gained a U.S. safety rating upgrade two years ago, as investigators focus on possible engine failure as the cause of the accident.
The Dana Airlines Ltd. crash on June 3 was the worst since 1973 in the West African nation and the first fatal one in Nigeria in more than four years, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s database. Since an ADC Airlines plane went down in October 2006, killing 97 people, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gave Nigeria a Category 1 rating in August 2010, allowing domestic carriers to fly to the U.S.
“The government has been working hard to improve aviation security, but it has faced an uphill battle and flaws persist,” Roddy Barclay, a London-based analyst at Control Risks, said in an e-mail. “Following a lull in major aviation disasters in Nigeria, the incident will provide a setback for the authorities, prompting a review of existing regulations and enforcement.”
The crash is a blow to President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, which is battling a violent campaign by the Boko Haram Islamist group, an electricity gap that is hindering industrial growth and corruption in the oil industry that is costing the nation billions of dollars in revenue annually.
“This incident is a major setback for the country,” Jonathan said at the crash site yesterday. “We will make sure this doesn’t repeat itself.”
Nigeria suspended Dana Airlines’ operating license “indefinitely” for “safety and precautionary reasons,” Joel Obi, an Aviation Ministry spokesman, said today by phone from Abuja, the capital. Tony Usidamen, a spokesman for Lagos-based Dana Group, didn’t answer two calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.
Dana Airlines has been operating since November 2008 in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. The carrier ran 27 flights a day, according to a company press statement in December.
Rescue workers have removed at least 140 bodies from the crash site, said Yushau Shuaib, spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency. Search and rescue operations resumed after they were suspended earlier due to heavy rains, he said by phone.
Nigeria’s Accident Investigation Bureau recovered the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, known as the black box, of the Boeing Co. (BA:US) MD-83 aircraft yesterday, said Tunji Oketunbi, spokesman for the agency. The devices will be sent to the U.S. or U.K. for analysis, he said.
The flight from Abuja was carrying 146 passengers and seven crew members when it crashed into the Agege suburb as it was approaching Murtala Muhammed Airport. At least 10 people on the ground were killed, Hakeem Bello, a spokesman for Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola, said in an e-mailed statement. The pilot was a U.S. citizen and the co-pilot was an Indian, the airline said.
The pilot told the Lagos airport control tower that the aircraft was having engine trouble, Harold Demuren, director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, said in a phone interview yesterday.
“I saw it hit the mango tree with its wing and after that it came lower towards the buildings,” said Olatunji Akinfenwa, a retired teacher. “The pilot tried hard to avoid the buildings, but the plane couldn’t rise; it was as if something was pulling it down.”
The crash was the worst civilian air disaster in Africa’s top oil producer since Jan. 22, 1973, when a plane carrying 176 passengers and crew went down in the northern city of Kano, killing all on board. It was the fourth accident in the country in 10 years that claimed the lives of more than 100 people. A military transport plane crashed in September 1992 shortly after takeoff from Lagos, killing 163 soldiers and crew aboard.
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators are helping the Civil Aviation Authority to probe the cause of the crash, Dana said in a statement on its website.
A team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrived in Lagos to help with the investigatation, state-owned Radio Nigeria reported, without saying where it got the information.
“No aircraft would go if not in perfect condition,” Dana’s director of flight operations, Captain Oscar Wilson, told reporters yesterday. “We don’t take risks with people’s lives. Accidents can happen at anytime.”
Nigeria’s aviation industry, which had one of the world’s worst safety records before 2006, worked to improve it after the ADC Airlines crash, Harro Ranter, president of the Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety Network, said in a telephone interview from Roosendaal, Netherlands.
The plane that crashed June 3 was forced to carry out an emergency landing in Lagos on April 20, 2010, after it hit a bird on takeoff, according to the Aviation Safety Network database. It also experienced emergencies, including electrical smoke in the cabin, in 2002 and 2006.
The aircraft, built in 1990, was delivered to Dana in February 2009, according to the Aviation Safety Network database. It was previously operated by Alaska Airlines.
The pilot had a record of 18,500 flight hours and 7,100 hours on MD-83 aircraft, Dana said in a statement late yesterday. The plane’s last 400-hourly check took place on May 30, it said.
“With proper maintenance, a plane of that vintage could fly quite well and quite safely,” Todd Curtis, founder of Airsafe.com and former airline safety analyst with Boeing, said by phone from Boston. “Age is not a factor, so long as maintenance is maintained.”
It’s possible that some type of human failure combined with a mechanical problem could have led to the crash, said John Cox, a safety consultant at Washington, D.C.-based Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot.
Pilots have inadvertently drained fuel from planes or accidentally shut down working engines while dealing with an emergency, he said in an interview.
A failure of a planes’ engines has been a rare cause of accidents, according to Boeing’s statistical analysis of crash causes from 2001-2010. Out of 5,005 fatalities in airline disasters during that period, only two were attributed to engine failures, according to the Boeing report. Another 23 deaths were caused by the related issue of a fuel failure.
“Jet engines are relatively reliable pieces of hardware if you maintain them properly,” Bill Waldock, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said in a phone interview. “They are not very tolerant of improper maintenance.”
Africa had the highest airline accident rate in the world in 2010, accounting for 17 percent of cases, even though it has the world’s lowest traffic rate, with only 3 percent of the population traveling by plane, according to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.
In Nigeria, 12.5 million passengers flew on domestic and international carriers in 2009, the latest figures available, according to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria.
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