Why Nigeria Plane Lost Power Before Crash Still Mystery

Nigeria’s chief aviation regulator, recommended for suspension after the nation’s deadliest accident in almost 40 years, defended his record as several safety advocates said he may become a scapegoat.

“Would you please wait for the accident investigation to complete, to have seen the black boxes, before we start judging?” Harold Demuren, director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, asked in a phone interview yesterday.

Demuren appealed for patience during the investigation into the Dana Airlines Ltd. crash on June 3. All 153 people on board and an unknown number on the ground were killed when the Boeing Co. MD-83 jetliner crashed and burst into flames in a Lagos suburb while approaching the airport on a domestic flight.

Nigeria’s aviation industry had one of the world’s worst safety records in 2006, a year after Demuren took his job. Four years later, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration gave Africa’s largest oil producer a Category 1 rating, which allowed its domestic carriers to fly to the U.S.

“We have become one of the safest places in Africa,” Demuren said, speaking from Nigeria.

Nigeria’s Senate voted June 5 to recommend that Demuren be suspended. The minister of aviation, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah, will convene a panel June 11 to review the nation’s aviation oversight system, according to an e-mailed press release.

Chaotic System

Demuren has come under criticism for an aviation system that he said can be chaotic at times, with flights postponed and carriers not always adhering to schedules. Part of the reason for delays, he said, was that his authority has imposed stricter safety standards that prohibit departures in bad weather.

The Flight Safety Foundation, a U.S. non-profit advocacy group, issued a statement this week calling on Nigeria’s leaders to “not compound this tragedy” by targeting Demuren.

“You can’t let a leader go down in Africa if you want to make any change,” Bill Voss, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based foundation, said in an interview June 6.

Tony Tyler, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association, a Geneva-based trade group, also backed Demuren.

“Safety is a constant challenge everywhere in the world,” Tyler said in a statement. “In Nigeria, as elsewhere, this important work must continue without political interference.”

Safety Improvements

In 2005 and 2006, airlines in Nigeria had three fatal crashes and three others serious enough to destroy the aircraft, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork, a Netherlands-based website that tracks aviation safety statistics. Those accidents killed a total of 322.

From that stretch until the Dana Air crash, there was one accident that claimed three lives, according to the group’s data.

A plane operated by a Nigerian cargo airline, Allied Air, skidded off a runway in Accra-Kotoka Airport in Ghana on June 2, striking a van on an adjacent road, according to the safety network’s website. The collision killed 12 people in the van.

The Dana flight crew’s final radio broadcasts included “Mayday. Losing two engines” and “Throttle not responding. Not responding,” Demuren said in the interview, emphasizing he was speaking from memory.

The pilot didn’t mention hitting birds, which has caused simultaneous loss of power in two engines in other incidents, or any other reason for the failures, he said.

The crash-proof recorders on the jetliner, known as black boxes, have been found and will be flown to the U.S. for analysis by the Washington-based National Transportation Safety Board, which is assisting in the investigation, Demuren said.

Fueling, Maintenance

The jet took on what Demuren characterized as a routine fuel load before departing Abuja, the capital. The crew added 12,125 pounds (5,500 kilos) of jet fuel before the fatal flight, he said.

Other aircraft had refueled in Abuja without reports of engine failure, which suggests the fuel wasn’t contaminated, he said.

Nigeria imposes maintenance requirements similar to those in the U.S. and Europe. Dana had performed maintenance in a facility in Istanbul, he said.

Investigators combing the charred wreckage, which was partially lodged in an apartment building, have found all major pieces of the plane, he said. It remained pointed toward the airport when it struck the ground a few miles short of the runway, he said.

Engine Failures

Accident investigators can tell from the pattern of damage in engines whether they were under power when they struck the ground. No determination has been made on the Dana engines, Demuren said.

Today’s jet engines are so reliable that it’s very unlikely two would fail at once, John Cox, a former airline pilot who is a consultant at Washington-based Safety Operating Systems, said in an interview.

Pilots have inadvertently closed fuel switches or shut engines down, mechanics have botched repairs on multiple engines, and engines have quit during extreme maneuvers, according to files at the U.S. NTSB and the AviationSafetyNetwork.

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