By P. Matsiko wa Mucoori & Mubatsi Asinja Habati
Aircraft flying life had expired
UPDF told CAA to clear flight
On March 9 last year, an Ilyushin IL-76 Russian made aircraft, operated by the Johannesburg-based Aerolift Company Ltd, crashed in Lake Victoria killing 11 people on board. The Ministry of Transport appointed a commission of inquiry headed by Col. Chris Mudoola to investigate the cause of the crash. The commission has released its report. It does not point to a clear cause of the plane crash because of the lack of vital parts of the aircraft such as the flight recorders. However the report contains strong and disturbing leads as to why the aircraft came down. One of the intriguing findings is that the aircraft’s airworthiness was questionable. The plane’s flying life had expired by 11 years at the time of the crash, no overhaul had been done and the engines had gone long past their service time. The findings also reveal a lot about external interference in CAA’s work by security organs, which the commission termed as ‘external forces’ the competence of the crew and the use of foreign and unqualified mercenaries to operate flights in Uganda.
The ill-fated plane was chartered by an American company Dynacorp International to transport logistical supplies for the African Union Peacekeepers in Somalia.
The aircraft was manufactured in 1978 with a flying life of 20 years, which expired in 1998. This means by the time of the crash the aircraft’s flying life had expired 11 years ago. The IL-76 is a large-capacity turbo-fan-powered jet freighter designed to operate from short, unprepared airstrips. The prototype flew on 25 March 1971 and test flying continued until 1975 when the type was put into production.
Aerolift acquired the plane in 2006 and registered it in the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe. According to the commission, there were no documents to prove the aircraft had been overhauled to extend its flying life. Although Aerolift insists overhaul and season maintenance checks were done. Instead the aircraft had four engine replacements between 1999 and 2003 due to expiry of their flying life, according to the report.
‘Since the dates stated, there have been no records to indicate that the engines were overhauled. Also, no documents confirming scheduled maintenance were found,’ the report reads in part.
The same plane had returned to Entebbe airport in December 2008 when two of its engines lost power soon after takeoff on a flight to Isiro in the DR Congo. It remained grounded for 13 days. ‘The aircraft turn-back to the departure aerodrome Entebbe in December 2008 was caused by reduced fuel consumption and power of one of the engines,’ a representative of the Soviet Air Charter, which deals with air charter flights and cooperates with Aeroline, told the commission.
However this did not awaken the Ugandan authorities to have a maintenance check on the aircraft. Instead two new engines were flown in and fitted into the aircraft. It was again grounded in Johannesburg for 9 days about two months before the March 2009 crash. All these could have been good leads for the CAA to realise the aircraft was in a defective mechanical condition to fly. Capt. Francis Babu, a pilot by training, said ‘observing the airworthiness time of the plane is very important in aviation. If one does not comply, it amounts to a criminal offence.’
The report notes that CAA does not have the technical personnel to conduct oversight safety checks of aircrafts made in the former Soviet Union. The report also notes that the CAA succumbs to ‘external influence to allow’ such aircrafts into the country. But it does not specifically name the ‘external influence’.
How could Uganda’s CAA fail to verify the flight crew’s operational certificates and the aircraft’s airworthiness?
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesman Ignie Igunduura declined to comment.
‘We cannot make a comment on the report. As CAA, we are not aware that the report has been released because the minister has not officially communicated to us,’ Igunduura said.
A highly placed source in CAA told The Independent that some of the planes from the former Soviet Union don’t come with documents, which makes it hard for CAA to ascertain their airworthiness. He said others come with documents in Russian, which the CAA cannot interpret. Asked why CAA should not get an interpreter, Igunduura said: ‘We can’t employ a person just as an interpreter. It’s not economical.’
The CAA, however, does not have to employ a permanent interpreter. It can only hire a casual interpreter who is paid when work is available. It can also send the Russian documents to the country of origin and ask for a translated version in English or seek the assistance of the Russian Embassy in Kampala. For example the Mudoola commission sent a letter to the Soviet Air Charter to crosscheck the competence of the IL-76 crew and they received an English version. That’s how they established the navigator had a forged certificate and the co-pilot had no licence.
However a senior CAA source, who declined to be named, admitted to The Independent that they have no control over the former Soviet Union planes. The source said defective aircraft from former Soviet Union are brought in by companies owned by local business people with close links to State House.
The source said when they aircrafts are brought into the country, they are parked at the army’s Entebbe air base, which the CAA has no control over. The CAA cannot, therefore, go there for inspection to ascertain their airworthiness.
The source said that prior to the IL-76 crash, CAA had written to the UPDF informing them that CAA could not ascertain the airworthiness of such aircrafts and would not clear them to fly. But the army replied that they understood the problem and they would not blame CAA in case of any eventuality. He said the UPDF agreed to take responsibility in case of any eventuality.
When there is a military related mission especially out of the country, the source said, the government charters these planes. The CAA only sees them coming for clearance. The source said when the CAA refuses to clear the flights, the local aircraft operators tell top officials from the army or Ministry of Defence who call the CAA to clear the flights. The CAA succumbs. The source said this is the same scenario that happened in the IL-76 crash.
These aircrafts are preferred by the army because they are cheaper than the normal commercial aircraft because they don’t charge like others do. They also don’t spend a lot on aircraft maintenance. But also these planes have become a lucrative business for senior security officials who get ‘a commission’ after the charter deals.
The source said the Ilyushin are part of the various types of aircraft that were stolen from the former Soviet Union after the breakup. Even their countries of manufacture no longer have control over them. They are used especially in Africa in lawless countries or countries where aviation rules are not strictly adhered to. Their airworthiness cannot be ascertained because they are not subjected to technical inspection.
This is the reason these aircrafts are not insured because the insurance company would require them to meet international standards. Indeed the IL-76 had not been insured.
Because of the interference of the ‘external forces’, the Civil Aviation Authority has largely been powerless to ban those operators whose planes have not invested in the maintenance/prolongation programme that is offered by Ilyushin – The prolongation program costs around $3.5 million per aircraft and involves downtime of at least 6 months.
At the time of the crash even the airport radar was not operational. In the run up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala in 2007, the government spent Shs.712 million on radar equipment which only worked for 4 months after installation. According to the Auditor General’s (AG) report of June 2008, the government paid Shs.512 to a South African company, NetSys International, to repair and upgrade the weather and aviation radar. ”¦ at the time of writing this report, the radar was reported to have developed some technical problems, was not functioning and required repair,’ noted the AG’s report.
Experts in the aviation industry say that having radar at an airport is very important as it guarantees more air safety. Once the pilot gives the codes of the aircraft, the radar is able to locate its distance, height from the ground and speed. Here, the person controlling the radar can ably determine the speed interval at which planes can land. There is transmission of codes and messages so that there is knowledge of where the plane is coming from or going. The radar increases the aviation safety as well as the management of the speed at which aircraft reach the busy airport, what is otherwise known as Air Traffic Control. Air traffic control (ATC) is a service provided by ground-based controllers who direct aircraft on the ground and in the air. The primary purpose of ATC systems worldwide is to separate aircraft to prevent collisions, to organise and expedite the flow of traffic, and to provide information and other support for pilots when able. In some countries, ATC may also play a security or defence role, or be run entirely by the military. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) though, strongly recommends the separation of Civil and Military Radar
In addition to its primary function, the ATC can provide additional services such as providing information to pilots, weather and navigation information and NOTAMs (Notices To Air Men). In the case of the IL-76, it was not fitted with the collision avoidance systems and this was made worse by a non-functional radar at the airport
However a senior source at CAA downplayed the importance of the radar. He admitted that it’s importance for enhancement of air safety but that its absence does not pose a big danger. He said Entebbe airport space is very small and aircrafts can safely fly in and out without a radar.
Indeed in the case of the IL-76, a Notice to All Airmen (NOATAM) had been issued to all air crew flying into Entebbe notifying them about the status of the radar.
The CAA source said this is the practice when an airport radar is not operational but it does not disrupt the normal air traffic.
This view is corroborated by Capt. Babu. He says presence of a functioning radar means the cost of the airport insurance reduces as it is highly deemed safe and thus allows more air traffic at shorter intervals. However, he said pilots are trained even to fly on airports without radar implying that an airport without a radar can still operate, although with some safety issues.
Radars are used by the army especially air force to detect and track planes that violates or enters the country’s air space. This helps in detecting enemy attack through air. This means that without a functioning radar, a country is highly vulnerable to enemy attack.
Indeed the radar’s breakdown made the work of the Mudoola commission difficult as they could not obtain certain useful information about the cause of the plane crash.
One of the witnesses who were fishing on the lake at the time of the crash told the committee that the plane looked strange. ‘One of the fishermen said it was unusual that the aircraft did not have front lights, but only red indicators,’ the report quoted the witness. The witnesses also told the commission that he had noticed fire coming from the left side of the plane before the crash. This account tells the extent of the aircraft’s mechanical condition at takeoff.
‘The loss of engine power was possible based on witness accounts, a recent even in which a loss of power occurred and the fact that the engines had exceeded their service life,’ the report says.
The report also says the sirens at the Entebbe Marine South/North marines were not working at station and at the time of the crash. Even when they responded they had no capacity to fight fire on water. Indeed the first CAA rescuers at the crash scene had hand fire extinguishers which could not put out the smouldering fire. ‘There was a fire, about 10×15 metres, burning on the water. Because of the size of the fire, it was decided that the fire be allowed to self-extinguish, which it did about an hour later,’ reads the report. ‘Some of the personnel stated that their training did not consist of fire-fighting on water. The marines did not have equipment to fight fire on water surfaces. ‘
However, a source inside CAA admitted they have no capacity to fight fire on water. The source said said they usually wait for the fire to self-extinguish, then they go for rescue operations.
Competence of the crew
The crew comprising two Russians and two Ukrainians had less or no sleep at all the day preceding the flight. They reported to bed at 3am and by 4am they were heading to Entebbe Airport to fly to Mogadishu. This suggests they had little sleep time and were suffering from fatigue, which could have caused the crew to doze off, leading to loss of control of the aircraft. But other witnesses who were with the crew in the last hours to the flight said they had been drinking alcohol. This suggests a combination of drunkenness and fatigue. This is not surprising considering the record of Russian pilots and their excessive alcohol drinking problem. In November 2008, two very senior Russian Pilots were arrested at Manchester Airport in the UK after they were found smelling alcohol. When tested, they had more than the acceptable alcohol levels. They were due to fly an aircraft from Manchester to Moscow. In February 2009, passengers who accused the Russian captain of an Aeroflot flight of being drunk were told by the airline that intoxication was ‘˜no big deal’. ‘It’s not such a big deal if the pilot is drunk,’ one representative said, according to the English-language Moscow Times, which had a reporter on board. ‘Really, all he has to do is press a button and the plane flies itself. The worst that could happen is he’ll trip over something in the cockpit.’ Part of the problem may be the important cultural role vodka and alcohol play in Russian society. ‘Moderate’ drinking is considered healthy by many Russians. Which begs the question, should the CAA in Uganda pay closer attention to Russian pilots as was the case in Manchester and if by admission of their own national carrier, ‘drinking is ‘no big deal’?
However, the investigations reveal a more serious breach of air safety standards. For example, the IL-76 flight navigator Eugeny Korolev had a forged first class navigation licence. This means he was not competent to fly the ill-fated plane. The commission discovered that the licence he was using had been issued by the Ukrainian aviation authority to another person. ‘Navigator Licence First Class No. 000316 which you have in possession was issued on 08 October 1996 in another navigator name. Please, pay attention to the fact that the photo of Korol is stuck over the stamp. Therefore that certificate in the name of Korol should be considered illegal,’ reads a letter the accredited Russian representative Yuri Grigoriev wrote to Mudoola’s commission.
Co-pilot Vovchenko Alexander had served in the Russian Air Force from 1988 until 1999 when he retired. In April 2008 he joined Vertikal-T airline as a co-pilot. Checks confirmed he was fit to work as pilot until May 2009. However, in October 2008 he asked for leave and the Vertikal-T airline management accepted but they were unaware of his employment in Africa by the time of the Entebbe crash. This suggests Vovchenko was working as a mercenary pilot. Even his competence to fly the IL-76 was questionable because of lack of practice and requisite flying since retirement from the Russian air force in 1999. This finding is corroborated by the Russian representative Grigoriev.
‘It should be noted that Vovchenko did not fly IL-76 for about nine years. You can require information about his rating to fly IL-76 from Aerolift airline …. Most probably Vovchenko’s authorisation to fly in IL-76 after a big break in flights involved serious violations,’ Grigoriev wrote to the commission.
Even the captain Victor Kovalev’s competence was questionable. He served in the Russian air force between 1998 and 2001 and retired. By 2009 when he was in Uganda, it was not known whether he was fit to fly. A letter from the Russia representative says: ‘I have failed to get information from CAA RF about Kovalev’s airline pilot licence. May be Kovalev did not have airline pilot licence.’
‘Apart from the flight engineer, the investigation did not determine that the crew was properly trained, experienced, proficient, and certified in accordance with applicable company and regulatory requirements,’ Mudoola’s commission states in its report.
The Mudoola Commission findings may come as news to many but not exactly surprising to a citizenry who have come to almost accept the word ‘corruption’ as an integral part of the execution of duty in public office. It hopefully will give the CAA a tool to check the legality of the operators that apply to operate flights especially those fifth freedom operations (‘Fifth-freedom’ operations in aviation lingo are defined as the ability of an airline to carry traffic between two foreign cities on a flight that also goes to or comes from its home country). Hopefully this will also mean that the Aid agencies and the large logistics companies will start using legitimate operators rather than using the cheapest option and feeding the cowboys that bring the industry into such disrepute. It would be nice if a respectable government official was to pick-up on this story line and ask Dyncorp some awkward questions why they persist in using this type of operator. Hopefully the CAA will be brave enough to look at banning those operators that cannot show that they have put money into the maintenance/prolongation programme that is offered by aircraft manufacturers – Respectable carriers put their aircraft through such programmes. Operators that comply with programmess cannot compete with the cowboys on charter rates, but at least they can sleep knowing their aircraft are maintained to the required standard and that their crews are not pressured to do anything unlawful. People’s lives are worth more than a few extra dollars profit on a risky charter.