Statistically, traveling by air is often cited as the safest way to travel.
While taking to the skies has some inherent risk, advances in technology, coupled with stringent maintenance requirements and rigorous training procedures for aircrew, have contributed to a safe aerial environment in most parts of the world.
Imagine for a minute an air domain that lacks basic infrastructure and technology such as radar or air traffic control.
What if there was no formal maintenance program for the aircraft? What if communication between pilots and ground personnel was sporadic or non-existent? Now, what if air traffic in this environment was growing by 11 percent per year?
These are just a few of the air domain challenges faced by many of the 54 nations that make up Africa.
Since it stood up as the air component for U.S. Africa Command Oct. 1, members of U.S. Air Forces Africa have been building a program aimed at bolstering air safety and security on the continent.
Lt. Col. David MacKenzie, deputy director of the plans directorate, traveled to Nigeria Jan. 11 to 21 to work with Nigerian and U.S. aviation experts on charting the future of Nigeria’s air domain program and to give a presentation on the U.S. search and rescue program and its capabilities.
“This was really a comprehensive and synchronized effort … to enhance partner capacity in building Nigeria’s air domain,” Colonel MacKenzie said.
At the invitation of the Nigerian chief of air staff, members from the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs division, aerospace engineers from Warner-Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and accompanied by Colonel MacKenzie, met with principal members of Nigeria’s military, including the chief of the Nigerian Air Force and the Nigerian minister of defense.
During the first portion of his 10-day visit, Colonel MacKenzie brought his expertise as a C-130 pilot and instructor to an assessment of the Nigerian Air Force C-130 fleet and its logistics program. With only one of its eight C-130 aircraft currently airworthy, the team evaluated the others for possible reconstitution, placing heavy emphasis on the maintenance required to keep them safely in the air.
“It’s not just about fixing the aircraft,” Colonel MacKenzie said. “There is a big sustainment piece in the supply, logistics and training areas as well. Spare parts should be available, and a supply system for technical orders and back shop equipment, plus training for your maintenance, communications and supply people, is required.”
Ultimately, the goal of rebuilding the C-130 fleet is to facilitate Nigeria’s commitment to contribute more support to peacekeeping operations on the continent through airlift of indigenous or neighboring troops and equipment.
On the ground, Nigeria is building a force of seven peacekeeping battalions to support African Union and United Nations peacekeeping operations in Liberia, Sudan and Somalia. “Right now, they have very limited ways to get people to the fight or sustain them when they are there,” Colonel MacKenzie said.
His findings during this assessment will help shape future Theater Security Cooperation plans with Nigeria as the issues mentioned above are addressed through military-to-military capacity building events lead by the California National Guard in the State Partnership Program, joint exercises, conferences and senior leader engagements.
While the Nigerian Air Force is focused on refurbishing its C-130 fleet, its civil aviation leaders are taking a hard look at equally important search and rescue procedures.
More than 25 members from various civil aviation sectors, including the head of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Administration, the director general and the search and rescue director of the National Emergency Management Agency, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration of Nigeria, along with local fire and air traffic control representatives, attended Colonel MacKenzie’s presentation Jan. 20 in Abuja, the country’s capital.
As he had hoped, the presentation turned into a dialogue with those in attendance focusing on making air travel within Nigeria safer.
“Search and rescue really takes a coordinated approach,” Colonel MacKenzie said. “They discussed the need to exercise their programs…through tabletop and field exercises…so they’ll be better prepared when something happens. That’s not the time you want to be testing your communications and procedures.”
Colonel MacKenzie used the recent U.S. Airways accident in the Hudson River as an example of well-practiced rescue procedures.
“We talked about the quick response of the rescue folks on the ground as part of that success story,” Colonel MacKenzie said. “Those who had boats in the water – park service, ferry operators, New York City Police – wasted no time in getting to the wreckage to render aid to the survivors. That was critical in minimizing injuries and saving lives.”
Although the Nigerian air domain has “significant gaps” in its safety and security procedures, Colonel MacKenzie was quick to compliment officials on their Bird and Safety Hazards program, describing the country’s main port city, Lagos, as a “sprawling city with lots of birds” that pose hazards to aircraft.
The Air Domain Safety and Security program is a three-tiered program designed to capitalize on “natural air linkages” where U.S. Air Force programs and capabilities can contribute to increasing capacity within the military and civil aviation programs on the continent.
Speaking at the African Aviation Leadership Conference in August an official with the Federal Aviation Administration noted that in the 10-year period between 1994 and 2004, African nations accounted for only 4.5 percent of the world’s total air traffic but owned a startling 25 percent of aviation accidents.
“We hope the Nigerians establish a safe and efficient air domain model in Nigeria and hope it takes root and spreads,” Colonel MacKenzie said. “It will, if the leaders there have the political will to share and teach others in the region.”