Pilots flying a Boeing 747 operated by Max Air from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 7, 2019 experienced difficulties while attempting to land at the Minna International Airport, Niger State. The aircraft had 560 passengers, and 19 crew on board.
Daily Sun leant that the pilots on approach to the airport ran into bad weather which impaired visibility, but that trouble however started when the demand for air traffic controllers to deploy Instrument Landing System (ILS) to guide the safe landing of the aircraft didn’t workout. It was dusk and raining at the time the aircraft was approaching Minna, and relying on visual aids to land the aircraft in such conditions is often considered a huge risk by pilots.
According to Max Air Director of Flight Operations, Captain Ibrahim Dilli, the call for ILS became necessary given that at the time of arrival of the aircraft at the Minna airport, the pilots ran into “heavy torrential rain with unstable winds.”
Dilli said the Instrument Landing System deployed for use at the airport was, however, epileptic with unreliable signals, a development that forced the two pilots to resort to “using their wealth of experience and knowledge of the terrain and environment to a safe landing on the runway.”
Although, no life was lost in the incident, one of the aircraft engines slightly brushed the runway due to the complex maneuvers deployed by the pilots to land amid rains and the associated impaired visibility.
A statement by the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) said aircraft had “screeped the number one engine and brushed the runway surface”.
Without pre-empting the outcome of the AIB’s investigation, the Max Air experience at the Minna airport raises serious questions on the poor state of facilities at Nigerian airports, and the safety of the country’s airspace.
Some industry stakeholders fear that the relevant regulatory agencies, the NCAA and Nigerian Airspace Mangement Agency (NAMA) compromised safety standards and are complicit in the Minna airport incident.
For instance, aviation analyst and member of the Aviation Round Table (ART) , Capt. John Ojikutu, queried the decision to allow NAHCON and Max Air the use of the Minna airport for international night operations that required the use of ILS.
Said Ojikutu: “At what time was Minna airport cleared for international flights to receive aircraft like Boing 747?
Every one wakes up and wants an international airport; yesterday it was Enugu where an airport constructed with a runway designed for only Boeing 737 was made to carry Ethiopian airline wide-bodied aircraft. Minna, has suddenly became an international airports and we are having crashes but nobody including the responsible aviation authority is blinking eyes to find out where things are going wrong.”
There is no point doubting the assertion by many that a major accident had been averted at the Minna airport; but the luck or grace lied more on the experiences of the pilots to manourve the giant bird out of danger to safety. Because, when under pressure, pilots often take decisions in seconds, the possibility of an accident is one that no one can rule out in the aviation industry.
Another analyst, Amos Akpan, commenting on the nigerianflightdeck online platform on the B747 incident in Minna Airport had this to say:”
They usually say an accident is never a planned occurrence; but when you fail to take precaution, when you get away with intentional wrong procedure, when you ignored that signal, you have planned for an accident.”
What experts are saying in essence is that, there is everything wrong in okaying the Minna airport for use by a Boeing 747 aircraft given its status and facilities. It is the same airport that was denied usage as an alternate airport for international flights in 2018 when the Abuja airport was shut down for the maintenance of its runway. It was the Kaduna Airport instead that was considered more suitable for use by Ethiopian airline.
It is however important to know what ILS is and what it does, in order to appreciate the critical role it plays in airsafety and the potential risk of its failure when needed.
Why use ILS
An Instrument Landing System (ILS) is a technology designed to allow an aircraft to be centred on the approach path to an airport runway and to land safely.
It is assisted by radio signals delivered by a localiser and a glide slope, and its usage allows pilots to be guided to land without any visual reference.
Pilots call for ILS from air traffic controllers when encountering fog, rain, reduced visibility, or if flying into an airport after sunset.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) demands that for pilots to fly guided by ILS they must go for special training leading to the award of ILS certification. Most pilots are, however, licenced to fly visually.
It is essential that any failure of the ILS to provide safe guidance be detected immediately by the pilot. To achieve this, monitors continually assess the vital characteristics of the transmissions. If any significant deviation beyond strict limits is detected, either the ILS is automatically switched off or the navigation and identification components are removed from the carrier.
In fact, it is because of the need to rely on ILS that to
wards the end of a journey, the captain would ask cabin crew to demand that passengers shut down any electronic device that they carry on board, including iPods, CD players, phones and so on, especially if there is very low visibility, and he is starting an instrument landing approach.
The pilot wants to be sure that the readings he’s getting on the localizer and glideslope are accurate, since he can’t actually see the runway to verify the final approach path visually.
In recent years, the technology has advanced to an extent that in airports categorised as ‘Category-3’ aircraft can fly at zero visibility guided.
Nigeria’s international airports carry the Cat-1 certification and the majority of the local airports allow only visual flights due to the lack of requisite ILS facilities.
So when the Max Air B747 pilot complained of epileptic ILS on approach to the Minna airport runway, many stakeholders had cause to fear.
But the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA)has however debunked Max Air
pilots explanation insisting that the ILS at Minna was functional as it had just been serviced.