The Sosoliso air crash of December 10, 2005 would have been averted if the Minister of Aviation had allowed the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to shut down the Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA) for its non-compliance with air safety.
Engr. Fidelis Onyeyiri, the Director-General of NCAA at the time of the accident, alleged that some people in government specifically called him not to make any public comment on the cause of the accident and rather rewarded him with another appointment to the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) as a Nigerian representative.
He revealed this when he spoke at a one-day breakfast meeting organised by the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI) on Thursday in Lagos.
Speaking on the theme of the meeting, ‘Advantages of Implementing AIB Recommendations’, Onyeyiri alleged that as the Director-General of NCAA, he had at several times attempted to shut down the Port Harcourt Airport, but a directive from a minister in the sector stopped him from carrying out the action.
Onyeyiri did not, however, mention the name of the minister, but as the Director-General of NCAA, Onyeyiri served under two Ministers of Aviation – Mal. Isah Yuguda and late Prof. Babalola Borisade.
According to him, the Port Harcourt Airport did not have a good fire tender, which could put off fire quickly in case of an emergency.
He stressed that the only fire tender at the airport then could only travel at 15km per hour, which he said was not in compliance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) safety recommendations.
He said on one occasion, the particular minister told him that shutting down the airport would bring a disgrace to his administration.
Recall that a Sosoliso Airlines aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 with 110 people on board from Abuja on December 10, 2005 crash landed and burst into flames, resulting in the death of 108 out of 110 souls onboard.
Reports said the accident occurred due to pilot’s error caused by wind shear as at the time the aircraft was about to land.
The passengers in the aircraft were burnt to ashes as the fire fighters of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) could not put out the raging inferno.
One of the safety recommendations published by the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) had said that the passengers were burnt alive because the fire truck of FAAN at the airport could not put out the fire.
Before the crash, there was a Bellview Airlines crash at Lisa, Ogun State, on October 22, 2005 without survivors.
Onyeyiri was later removed as Director-General of NCAA on national television by former President Olusegun Obasanjo after the Sosoliso crash.
But despite his removal, the Federal Government also gave him higher responsibility by sending him to AFCAC as the representative of Nigeria for 10 years.
Onyeyiri said: “Since we are telling each other the home truth here, I think it is time for me to open up on some things.
“As a Director-General of NCAA, I had attempted to shut down the Port Harcourt International Airport because it didn’t have adequate fire tenders. The airport had only one serviceable fire tender, which could only go 15km per hour, which is too slow for aviation.
“A minister in the sector told me then that if I closed it down, it would be a disgrace to him. So, it was allowed to remain.
“You all remember that it was at the same airport that we had Sosoliso Airlines crash and we know how all the passengers died.
“The government called me and said I should not talk to the media or make any public statement on the accident. They promised to give me another job.
“Later, the government sent me to AFCAC, an arm of the African Union (AU) as a Nigerian representative. I was there for 10 years. All this, no one will tell you, but that is what is happening in our industry.”
The flight 1145 of Sosoliso Airlines was said to have missed approach due to pilot error aggravated by wind shear.
It was the second air disaster to occur in Nigeria in less than three months, after Bellview Airlines Flight 210 which crashed on October 22, 2005 for reasons unknown, killing all 117 people on board.
The AIB, in its investigation of the crash, attributed the probable cause to the crew’s decision to continue the approach beyond the Decision Altitude (DA) without having the runway in sight. The bureau also listed the adverse weather condition as a contributing factor.