Inquiry launched into grounded surveillance aircraft
The Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS) has allegedly failed to explain why it grounded three Dornier 228 turbo-prop surveillance aircraft, which could have been deployed effectively to provide aerial surveillance services to the army's counter-terrorism war against the Islamist Boko Haram militant group in the north-east. Oscar Nkala reports.
According to a report submitted recently to the Nigerian House of Representatives, the three Dornier 228 turbo-prop surveillance aircraft were acquired from India in 2005 at a cost of $10 million each.
The report said the government had opened investigations into the removal of most of the surveillance equipment from the aircraft, including one that passed a C-check for mission fitness as recently as June 2013.
The three aircraft include a Dornier -228, which bears registration number 5N-AUZ. It was fully configured for surveillance patrols with equipment including an on-board stabilised long-range observation system (SLOS) and a stabilised thermal imaging system (STIS), as well as specialised aerial cameras.
The grounded and largely cannibalised fleet also includes a Dornier 228 surveillance aircraft, registration number 5N-AUW, which passed a C-check and mandatory flight fitness tests in June 2013.
The final Dornier, with registration No 5N-AUY, had been reportedly abandoned at an airport in Abuja with most of its aerial surveillance equipment removed.
According to the report, the aircraft could have been effectively used to combat terrorism, as well as spotting oil thieves, tracking human traffickers along the land and maritime borders, protecting against oil infrastructure vandalism and banditry on the rivers and off the coast of Nigeria.
Commenting on the House of Representatives report, Nigerian security expert, Uche Ndaguba, who is CEO of the Iron Fist Security Consortium, said the country had lost the best surveillance aircraft when it needed them most:
“What baffles us as security consultants is that too much money was spent on the training and re-training the flight crews in some of the best institutions in the world. Immediately after procurement, the aircraft were successfully used in a relatively peaceful time, only to be abandoned at a time when their uses are needed most, like the war we have now,” Ndaguba said.
He added the pilots and crews, who were abandoned by the NIS with the aircraft, have been grounded for more than 10 years. They were owed salaries and allowance dating back many years and they are the only crews trained and mandated to conduct national aerial security surveillance operations.
“If you go to NIS, you will see that the pilots, controllers, avionics systems engineers, surveillance system operators and all kinds of specially skilled aircraft technicians looking dejected. It is not the business of the air force to carry out surveillance of our borders. They (the air force) lack the training, the equipment and the ground logistics base to carry out national airspace surveillance duties effectively.”
Air force steps up ‘localisation’
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has stepped up the localisation of aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) works with the setting up of the first in-country periodic depot maintenance (PDM) centre for some of its helicopters in Abuja.
NAF chief of the logistics command, Air-Vice Marshall Sani Ahmed, said the PDM would save money by external contracting of aircraft maintenance projects, while reducing by nearly half the cost of servicing a single aircraft.
By servicing all its helicopters locally, instead of flying them abroad or bringing expatriates to fix them locally, the NAF was also creating employment and enhancing local aircraft MRO capacity, he added.
All faulty NAF helicopters will be serviced by the strictly indigenous Aeronautical Engineering and Technical Services Limited (AETSL) unit of the NAF Holdings Company (NAFHC).
In August, the NAF announced that its research and development wing had started local production of a universal hydraulic diaphragm that can be used in the braking systems of two types of helicopters in its inventory. NAF Air Marshall, Sadique Abubakar, said the localisation programme had helped the force tackle some of the problems associated with spare parts acquisition and aircraft maintenance.
The programme, which is operated in conjunction with 16 universities engaged in the field of aeronautic research and development, has also led to successful local production of aircraft battery electrolyte systems and a helicopter computer modelling programme to aid further research. Abubakar said more than 45 officers have been sent abroad for training on aircraft systems research and development.
“Research and development is important. We have been able to address a number of aircraft maintenance issues,” he added.
“In the past, we used to order the hydraulic diaphragms used in the braking systems of two helicopter models we operate. Sometimes, it would take up to six months before delivery. The two types of helicopter gunships used different types of hydraulic diaphragms and getting spares for each type was a big problem.
“That problem has been resolved. We now produce hydraulic diaphragms locally and ours are even better than the import equivalent because they can be used inter-changeably on both types of helicopter gunships. It’s a slightly better product but produced at more reasonable costs when compared to the single-model, import versions.”
Further, he said Nigeria had also started local production of electrolytes for the US-made Lockheed X-7 ram-jet engine aircraft at a facility located at the NAF Tactical Air Command Base in Benue State.
The facility has also resolved several other issues that previously threatened to ground its entire fleet of night attack helicopters:
“In 2012, we had problems with six of our night attack helicopters,” said Abubakar.
“Their computer systems have multi-function displays to show all aircraft parameters including height, speed, temperature and oil pressure. That display system is also configured with the camera system. However, there was a conflict between the two systems, which would manifest after certain number of flying hours and lead to blind flights.
“We called the manufacturers to fix it and they gave us a bill of naira 158 million ($500,000) per helicopter, so we decided to handle it. A local team has resolved that conflict by separating the two systems and creating additional monitors for all the aircraft at a cost of about N5 million ($31,800). They also provided an alternative recorder system, which was not there. Those helicopters have been flying since then.”
The localisation drive has also led to the successful weaponisation of three US-made Alpha jets, which had no weapons because they had been stripped for conversion to perform the single role of trainer aircraft.
Although western by design, Abubakar said two of the three jets recently ordered from the US have been successfully fitted with Russian-made rocket pods among their principal armaments.