By Utibe Ukim
November 7, 1996 was to be a busy evening in Abuja for me where I had a scheduled interview and a photo session with the chef at the Nicon Noga Hilton, now Transcorp Hilton for the December edition of the ADC Airlines inflight magazine, The Plume, which I edited.
Nothing gave me any inkling that the events to unfold that evening would drastically alter everything for thousands of families in four continents and trigger the end of a lofty dream called ADC Airlines.
Arriving the Murtala Muhammed Domestic Airport at 4.30 p.m, I felt I was unusually early for my 5.00 p.m. flight so I headed straight to the crew room and met with a few of the flight executives who were to operate the evening schedules.
I shuttled between the Crew Room and Operation Office and must have been so engrossed in my interactions to not immediately notice the inbound aircraft operating Flight ADK 086 from Port Harcourt to Lagos was not yet on ground at 5.00pm.
It was quite unusual but no one seemed alarmed until the late Godwin Aleoghene, an operations manager, bursted into the office minutes later, grabbed the radio and relayed to the Chief Pilot, Captain Fola Akinkuoto, that Air Traffic Control has just informed that the aircraft has gone off the radar on its descent into Lagos.
Panic! I could sense the distress in his voice. His hair stood. Captain Fola’s voice on the other end was shaking. He had reeled out a few instructions. The entire ADC network had been alerted. As Aleoghene dashed off the Operations Room, I followed and we headed straight to the control tower.
A flurry of activities followed. Reconstructing the last minutes of the aircraft wasn’t coming off easily. Only an idea of where it disappeared. The coordinates pointed to the Lagos lagoon around Ejirin. Search and Rescue were immediately contacted. And within minutes, attention had shifted to the Ejirin swamp.
I made the decision to return to the office at Opebi Road. As spokesman for the airline, I knew managing the flow of information from that moment was going to be critical. We had a full flight, 144 passengers and crew. Every sitting space on that Boeing 727 had been taken.
Many were hopeful that the aircraft with its crew and passengers would be found with no casualty. As a journalist who had covered aviation for many years, I knew the chance of finding the aircraft and survivors was very slim. History gave us no hope. I knew I had to prepare for the longest night of my career. Saying the right things at the right time, contacting families of those on board before the passenger manifest is released and a whole lot of requirements that communication had to address.
Months before, I had prepared a crisis management procedure. Goaded by two friends and professional colleagues, Emeka Opara and Chido Nwakanma, I had a draft crisis management procedure. I had treated it like the briefing passengers on the emergency exit rows receive; knowledge I may never put to the test. But here I was, just months after, having to use it.
Words spread so fast that the aircraft was missing. By 6.00 p.m, a large crowd of family members, friends and busybodies had gathered at our Opebi office. Our first statement announcing the aircraft was missing was ready by 6.30. It took nearly 30 minutes for it to be vetted and approved for release. While my assistant headed to the NTA studio in Victoria Island so the release could make the 9.00 p.m. Network News, I faced Concord, The Guardian, Punch and Champion. NTA asked that we pay before the release could be carried. It was only after the story had gone International that they rescinded and took it as the last item before signing off.
Flight 086 represented the best of ADC Airlines and the people it served. Captain Dafe Sama was in control. He was an experienced pilot and training instructor on Boeing 727. You needed his signature to be licensed to fly that aircraft in Nigeria. His co-Pilot, First Officer Babajide Afonja, a young, intelligent and very friendly officer was a few hours away from becoming a captain. I said goodnight to him at the office two nights before. And then, there was Lawrence Usen, a former Nigerian Air Force pilot on his final conversion flight. The flight engineer was Dapo Folorunsho.
Tongue-talking, spirit filled Ifeoma Ironkwe, whom I always loved to describe as a straight line in whom there was no corner, was the lead crew. She played by the rule, cut no corners and was also in charge of the airline’s inflight catering supplies. She was scheduled to travel to The Netherlands the day before to discuss with inflight suppliers. But the embassy denied her a visa on very flimsy ground. There was Helen Adekolu who was called in to do the flight because the crew member originally scheduled arrived five minutes late and had to be stepped down. Ekaete Etudor and Udeme Attai, graduates of the University of Uyo were also on board. And there was Imaobong Udoeyop.
She left for the flight from my office after reviewing the final version of her writeup for the The Plume. She titled it Keep the Dream Alive. Was that her final advice to her colleagues and employer?
Among the passengers were Nigerian heavyweights like renowned political scientist, Professor Claude Ake; Mr. F. I Ajumogobia, former principal of Kings College Lagos; Mike Okafor, lawyer and businessman and five foreign nationals including an America and the son of a French general.
Most were frequent flyers of the airline and personally known to us. ADC operated 10 scheduled flights daily between Port Harcourt and Lagos and had bonded so well with the city. ADC was the people’s airline of choice and it was not surprising it was a collection of the cream of the city.
There have been different versions of what happened to Flight 086. It was not bombed. It was not shot down. It did my drop from the sky due to maintenance issues. Forget the version that said it was distressed and unable to land. Nothing like that! It was purely an air traffic control error because two aircraft were directed on a collision path.
One was fitted with superior technology that allowed it to pick the error and initiate collision avoidance action. The other was not and was completely unaware of the danger it was in. The accident report by the Accident Investigation Bureau, AIB, says the primary cause of the accident was “the untidy traffic separation by the radar controller which resulted from the vectoring of ADK086 towards the track of the opposite traffic TIX 185.”
Let me break it down a bit: The evening of November 7, 1996 was quite busy at the airport for air traffic control. ATC was grossly undermanned. Flight 086 was en route to Lagos airport at about 24,000 ft while another 727 operated by Triax was on its way to Enugu from Lagos. ATC had released Triax earlier than usual and cleared Flight 086 to descend, giving conflicting instructions that brought Flight 086 unto the path of Triax flight. ADC aircraft was fitted with the Traffic Collision and Avoidance System, TCAS, which alerted the crew to the danger and from the cockpit voice recorder, you would hear the initial calmness as they reported to ATC, “we have the traffic in sight and are turning left to avoid it.”
Only that Triax also turned in that direction prompting another TCAS advisory. It is believed the maneuver by the crew was quite sharp and sudden, prompting the aircraft to roll over. The pilots lost control and the aircraft came down 12,000 feet in 16 seconds, disintegrating on impact at the lagoon around 5.05 p.m.
12,000 feet is about 3.7 km. That is the distance the aircraft travelled in 12 seconds. Listening to the cockpit voice recording during the investigations always sent chills down my spin. The transition from Captain Sama’s chit chat with Ifeoma; “she wants to give us juice but she won’t give no juice” to the sharp, shrill cry moments later, the faint sound from impact on the water and the eerie quite that followed were heart-wrenching.
I visited the crash site many times. The biggest chunk of the aircraft discovered was a mangled engine, compressed to the size of three bags of cement stacked together. Divers combed the swamp for weeks and found nothing but tiny pieces of what was.
The entire body parts – human remains – recovered could not fill two caskets. They were too fragmented to be identified.
I remember the Saturday morning the remains were to be buried at the Memorial Cenotaph ADC built in their honour at Itoikin on the Epe-Ikorodu Road. As representative of the airline, it was my duty to confirm that what was to be buried were the body parts recovered. It was a tough job as I stood there looking into all the little plastic bags that carried the remains of once very vibrant, lively people. One error had crashed the dreams of 144 persons in a manner one could never imagine. I cried all the way back home.
In the first year following the crash, I had interacted with up to 50 percent of the victims’ families. I traveled the country personally conveying the condolences of the airline to them. Sometimes, I was well received. But there were times their grief was expressed in threats, shouts and not-to-pleasant actions. A father walked me out of his house. Another replayed her daughter’s life with her pictures, books and notes. Many shared the painful stories of how their lives took a turn for the worst following the death of their loved ones.
At the home of a woman who had lost her only son in the crash, I was advised not to meet with her as she had become inconsolable. She took joy in writing letters to her son everyday. At the first memorial service in 1997, she brought some of those letters and threw them into the waters. I hope it brought her some healing.
ADC Airlines was as much a victim as the crew and passengers. Shortly after the incident, the federal Government is an unprecedented move grounded the airline for comprehensive checks on all its aircraft. Nothing wrong was found. The airline was concluding plans to acquire five more aircraft. That was aborted.
The Federal Government set up a crisis Centre and mandated ADC not to say anything without clearance. It was a sign that there was something they want not said. When I spoke with reporters at the offices of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, the Airport Police Commissioner immediately seized my on-duty card that granted me access to restricted areas of the airport.
A federal agency was responsible for the crash. And there was a huge attempt to cover up. Right after the crash, the details of the Air Traffic Controller on duty was deleted so no one would know who was in control. I am aware those years later, the government quietly owned up. Compensating the airline has often been muted but not done.
ADC Airlines was light years ahead. It’s founders set out to build a world-class airline that will be the pride of Nigeria. It set high standards of excellence to guide its operations. It mandated all its aircraft to be fitted with TCAS 10 years before it became mandatory in Nigeria. It invested heavily in superior customer service and pioneered various packages to the love of customer. In October 1996, ADC accounted for 52 percent of total domestic traffic in Nigeria. In other words, one in every two air traveler chose ADC Airlines.
ADC operated five return flights daily between Lagos and Abuja and Lagos and Port Harcourt. The flights competed against earth other and not necessarily against other airlines. A passenger who missed the 7.00 a.m. flight to Abuja would chose to go with the 9.00 a.m. flight rather than fly another airline. So you can understand why every seat on flight 086 was taken. Excellence was on display.
It is a testimony to the quality of the ADC people that it has gone on the produce two Managing Directors of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, a managing director of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA and National Airspace Authority.
Ejirin holds sad memories for me. I return there today, 25 years after the crash to join former colleagues, friends and family in a memorial service for the departed passengers and crew of Flight ADK 086.
I hope today’s event will bring closure to those who are yet to move on from the unfortunate incident. That’s my prayer.