Air Forces Africa Works to Boost Nigerian Air Safety
By Air Force Maj. Paula Kurtz
Special to American Forces Press Service
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany, Feb. 13, 2009 While taking to the skies has some inherent risk, advances in technology, stringent maintenance requirements and rigorous training procedures for aircrews have contributed to a safe aerial environment in most parts of the world.
But some parts of the world lack basic infrastructure and technology such as radar or air traffic control. Formal maintenance programs for aircraft do not exist, and communication between pilots and ground personnel is sporadic or nonexistent.
These are just a few of the air domain challenges faced by many of the 54 nations that make up the African continent. Since it stood up as the air component for U.S. Africa Command on Oct. 1, members of U.S. Air Forces Africa have been building a program aimed at bolstering air safety and security on the continent.
Air Force Lt. Col. David MacKenzie, deputy director of the plans directorate, traveled to Nigeria in January 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," MacKenzie said.
During the first portion of his visit, MacKenzie brought his expertise as a C-130 pilot and instructor to an assessment of the Nigerian air force’s C-130 fleet and its logistics program. With only one of Nigeria’s eight C-130s 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," 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, officials said. 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," MacKenzie said.
His findings during this assessment will help to shape future theater security cooperation plans with Nigeria as issues are addressed through military-to-military capacity-building events led 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.
"Search and rescue really takes a coordinated approach," MacKenzie said Jan. 20 in Abuja, the country’s capital. "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."
MacKenzie used the recent U.S. Airways emergency landing in New York’s 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," 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."
Though acknowledging the Nigerian air domain has "significant gaps" in its safety and security procedures, 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.
A three-tiered air domain safety and security program is 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, a Federal Aviation Administration official 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 had 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," MacKenzie said. "It will if the leaders there have the political will to share and teach others in the region."
(Air Force Maj. Paula Kurtz serves with the 17th Air Force public affairs office.)