As Commissioner/CEO of the Nigeria’s Accident and Investigation Bureau (AIB), Mr. Akin Olateru is saddled with the responsibility of mobilising and coordinating the investigation of air crashes and serious incidences involving aircraft within Nigeria. His appointment in January 2017 to the job was applauded by industry experts who described it as putting a round peg in a round hole.
A member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, United Kingdom, Olateru attended City University, London, where he studied Air Transport Management and Aircraft Maintenance Engineering. He thereafter spent over 27 years working to maintain safe flight operations in several European and African airlines and airport establishments.
In this interview, Olateru spoke on how on assumption of duty he met over 27 pending accident investigation cases, some lasting for a decade or more. Olateru decried the long period it took to carry out accident investigation in Nigeria. He said such a trend was inimical to the safety of the industry given the need to quickly identify the causes of accidents and issue timely safety recommendations to forestall similar future occurrences.
He also spoke on the massive investments made at AIB to get the requisite infrastructure that has assisted in the release of 10 accident investigation cases under his watch, including the Dana Air crash of 2012.
The AIB, Olateru says, currently has the best accident investigation capabilities in Africa such that it is even investigating air accidents across various African countries.
Why investigate accident?
Accident investigation is a critical component of the safety processes put in place in the aviation industry. In fact, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which is the global regulator for the aviation industry, describes accident investigation as “a process conducted for the purpose of accident prevention, which includes the gathering and analysis of information, the drawing of conclusions, including the determination of causes and, when appropriate, the making of safety recommendations. But for accident investigation to be relevant and effective, it must be thorough, impartial and timely. Timeliness is of essence.
At the end of every investigation, the agency responsible for the investigation (like AIB), while stating the cause of the accident, is also obliged to come out with recommendations to forestall future occurrences of similar accidents or serious incidences. This is what we call safety recommendations. The safety recommendations are as critical as the investigation itself as they are the lever used to effect safety changes and improvements in the aviation industry.
There is no institution that is perfect anywhere in the world. As long as you have human beings working, controlling, manipulating and handling machines, systems and processes, there are bound to be errors. We need to understand and appreciate this fact. What we try to do in AIB is to mitigate it. That is why we don’t set out to carry out accident investigations to punish anyone. No, our aim is to make safety recommendations that can mitigate such occurrences in the future. You cannot say that you can completely eliminate hazards 100 per cent; it is not possible. But you can reduce the effect of that hazard; you cannot eliminate errors 100 per cent in a system run by human beings. So you take steps to enhance safety in any workplace. It is for these reasons that in the aviation industry the investigation of an accident or a serious incident involving an aircraft is taken seriously.
When I came in, we met 27 accidents and serious incidents whose investigations needed to be conducted and safety recommendations issued to relevant agencies or organisations and, of course, the public. We have released 10 already, meaning we have 17 left. As I speak today, we have six safety recommendations to be released anytime soon. If we release these six that I just promised, then we are going to have 11 left. But we have three accidents that recently occurred under my watch involving Dana Air and Delta Air, which we are still investigating, which I have not added to the 27 that I inherited. Some of the investigations I met on ground lasted for several years. In fact, we are still investigating accidents that occurred as far back as 2008, which, to me, is totally unacceptable. But we will do all we can to conclude those investigations and push the results out so that the errors that led to these accidents can be corrected.
Under my watch as AIB CEO, no accident investigation will take longer than one year. Gone are the days when accident investigations will last for several years. We have the facilities.
At present, we are doing investigations outside Nigeria. The investigations we carried out in Sao Tome and Principe, which involved a Ukrainian operator was conducted under a record time of three months and the report turned in. And what has really helped us to push out these reports since I assumed duty is the level of investments that has been made in the Nigerian AIB. Our laboratory is the best you can ever think of in Africa. So we don’t need to send anything to America or Europe for analysis as we can do it in Nigeria. And that shortens the investigation period. And we also have the best human capital you can think of.
There are four things that are very essential in the management of any public or private establishment or organisation and you might take something from this. The first thing is that you need the best human capital; next is the infrastructure, then the equipment, and lastly, the systems, processes and procedures. The last of them tie the other three together and allows the establishment or organisation to work effectively.
As a manager, if you score less than 7 over 10 in any of these four items, you will run into failure. If you have the best equipment and infrastructure but your human capital is poor, of course, you will fail. And you can have the best human capital and infrastructure, but if you don’t have an efficient system, processes and procedures, no SOP (standard operating procedure) management to guide anybody and people are working independently, then I tell you that you still don’t have a company. And, of course, you are bound to fail.
So what we have done at the Nigerian AIB since I came in January 2017 as the CEO, is to take these four items together and ensure that we have the best in all the four.
Part of the results of our efforts since I came on board is that we have improved significantly on our infrastructure. On the equipment side, we made investments in our laboratory, which is the major equipment we require to function as an accident investigator. Without the laboratory, we cannot do accident analysis. Now, we have upgraded the laboratory with the most sophisticated technology in contemporary time. And that has made the laboratory the best in Africa and the number five in the world. I can tell you that there are very few countries in the world that can match the level of sophistication of equipment or tools that we have in our laboratory right now. In fact, with what we have, we are re-creating flights through animations. We can reconstruct a flight or an aircraft that was involved in an accident effectively in our laboratory. If I take you to the lab you will be amazed at how we can set up the aircraft that was involved in an accident and you can see it and hear the conversation between the pilots. That is the technology we used to investigate the recent Gulf Stream aircraft (owned by Nest Oil) incident that occurred in Abuja. You could see when the pilot landed and how the aircraft moved from right to left. And it is the same technology we deployed in investigating the Dana Air case in Port Harcourt.
In human capital, we have invested heavily in training. I don’t think any 90 days pass without someone in AIB going for training. We send people to the United States of America to work in their laboratory. We send people to Singapore to work with the best investigators they have to do the download and analysis with them. Sometimes, though, we are restricted in funds and what we have done is that rather than send people to be trained offshore, we bring the schools to Nigeria to train our people.
We have the laboratory already on ground; we only need the experts, the teachers to train our staff. We have been investing heavily on training and the reason is because we have to deal with airworthiness of aircraft, we deal with analysing human errors, we handle flight operations issues, air traffic controllers’ issues, among many other things. So, how do you deal with these types of issues to prevent future accidents? That is the reason we have to train and retrain our staff.
Impacts of recommendations
The purpose of any accident investigation, which is to improve aviation safety, cannot be achieved if the safety recommendations are not found to be effective by the stakeholders. This is so because the recommendations guide the regulators, operators, the aviation ministry and other stakeholders in the industry. It is noteworthy that AIB’s accident investigation and safety recommendations have recorded positive impacts in the national and global aviation arena.
For instance, our investigations into the Bristow Helicopter crash, which occurred in Lagos on August 12, 2015 led to the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Sikorsky, the aircraft manufacturer, taking global safety actions to prevent similar accidents in their operations.
Diamond Aircraft manufacturer also took safety action following our investigations into the serious incident involving Diamond DA 42 with registration number 5N-BKS, which occurred in Benin, Edo State, in July 2012.
AIB, during investigations, identifies a lot of hazards that sometimes may not be related to the particular occurrence under investigation but work with the operators to resolve them.
Controversial Delta Air Lines accident
There is what is called country of occurrence and Nigeria is a country of occurrence of that incident. Yes, Delta Air Lines is a US carrier, US operator, US registered aircraft, but there are certain state protocols, which have to be respected that give right of investigation to the country of occurrence except the country of occurrence decides to cede that investigation to country of operator or any other country.