Headlines: 117 Killed in Nigerian Plane Crash Oct 22nd, 2005
Storyline: Oct 23rd, 2005
I was awoken at 7:00 on Sunday morning by the Nigerian Chairman of Pan African Airlines asking me to help look for his missing niece. I had no idea of what he was asking, but soon found out that a Bellview Airlines Boeing 737-200, ironically named “HOPE”, had gone missing after the pilot broadcast a distress call at 20:45 Saturday night. I got dressed and made my way down to the airport. By the time I got there President Obasanjo of Nigeria had already volunteered his two contract helicopters, a Pan African Airlines BH412 and an Aero Contractors AS365, to conduct a search and rescue.
The coordinated search effort ended up being run out of our airline’s office on behalf of the President of Nigeria through default. The presidential advisor in charge of the helicopters had no practical experience in running a search operation, but I certainly did. As there was no formal request or information from NEMA (National Emergency Management Agency) to organize a search I decided to do what was most practical based on what we knew and what we had.
Before we got started the Director General of the Nigerian Police Wing came to my office to also volunteer his two new B427 helicopters. I used the two Presidential helicopters and two Police Wing helicopters to map out a search pattern of the local area. With no direct guidance except a second hand account from NEMA that put the disappearance 20 miles out to sea, and basic information from the control tower that the aircraft had gone missing only after five minutes into the flight I figured we would need to search the entire area around the airport but not more than 20 minutes out.
I divided the search segments into four basic areas south, west, north and east of the airport. I sent the sea survival equipped AS365 out over the ocean and sent the other three to cover the remaining 3/4s of a the search area surrounding Lagos. I was not hopeful because without specific information from the tower as to where it had disappeared we really did not know where was the best specific location to start. Therefore, I instructed the pilots to look for smoke. After a crash there certainly would be a fire and we would see the smoke. On the other hand, I instructed the pilots searching the ocean side to look for debris although that would be tough with all the garbage floating in and around the Lagos Harbour and offshore area.
A short time later, about 10:00, we had another report from NEMA that they had received an ELT beacon signal from the village of Kishi 120 miles north of Lagos. They said the new satellite system had picked up a distress signal. Since the report from NEMA was considered reliable the presidential advisor wanted us to head north. From my experience I knew this was improbable, but it was also a good excuse to get the growing number of military and police “experts” who were starting to hamper my search out of harm’s way. I took a volunteer Dornier 228 fixed wing and filled it up with these “experts” and sent them to the reported crash site and kept the Presidential helicopters in the local area to continue our search near Lagos.
When I discussed the improbability of finding the aircraft so far north my dispatcher, who had been to a NEMA meeting just the week before, told me that no Nigerian airline was equipped with the new 406mhz beacons except for us. The idea of an ELT fix 120 miles north of where the aircraft supposedly disappeared was technically impossible.
The Police Wing Commander, also fooled by the false ELT alarm, decided to send one helicopter to fly north to search the reported area of Kishi and the other one stayed with my effort. Chevron volunteered to give us a fuel tanker if we needed to coordinate the search out of Ibadan to reach the northern location because none of our helicopters could make it to the northern site and back again without stopping in Ibadan for refueling, but of course I didn’t need it. I dropped the East and South search areas because I had finally gotten reliable information that the ATC had turned them right toward the West after takeoff and they would have to pass over the Lagos beacon to continue on to Abuja. That only left the West and North to search.
I was beginning to think that the pilot had lost his electrical systems from an errant lightning strike off the nearby thunderstorm the night before. Late Saturday night my wife and I had sat outside sipping red wine and admiring the enormity and power of a tropical thunderstorm lighting up the sky just west of the airport. I remember thinking “thank Christ I am not flying tonight.” An aircraft getting a direct lightning strike, however unlikely, was still possible. I surmised that with no functioning electrical systems he could have possibly wandered 120 miles north until he crashed.
About this time I was getting phone calls from my friend saying that the family had heard there were survivors found at the northern crash site and that some passengers were actually showing up in the hospitals. A B737 crashing in the dark of night with no electrical systems would not likely have survivors. So I discouraged any such hope by saying that it could not possibly be true. I was implored to send my helicopters north but I resisted. The Chairman and owner of Bellview Airlines came to my office to beg me to listen to reason (he was actually weeping) and send the helicopters north to help with the recovery of the aircraft that the news was now reporting as being found.
I kept saying that if the aircraft had indeed crashed nearby, like at the 5 minute mark after takeoff when he supposedly failed to make a requested altitude call, then we would be getting mobile (cell) phone calls from someone… anyone in the area. Someone in the crash area would call someone who would call someone until they could reach the police or the state governor. There is a saying in America that you could find anyone, including the President of the United States, with three phone calls. But, so far we had not had that call.
I managed to phone the ATC tower in Kaduna and the controller reported that the Dornier 228 pilot, with the Presidential advisor on board, radioed in that he was over the reported site and could not find any wreckage. I began to believe the aircraft was indeed nearby and not up north as NEMA kept insisting, but I was still waiting for a phone call. I was not sure from who, but I knew we would get one soon.
As Bellview did not have any search capacity themselves they had camped in our office. Just about then the Bellview Chairman received a phone call from the Governor of Ogun State saying that they had located the crash site nearby Ifo in the village of Lisa. I had a Citation Jet pilot figure out the coordinates of Lisa from a local map. We immediately radioed the coordinates to our B412 pilot, Johnnie Ogunjobi, who was searching nearby but the coordinates had been calculated incorrectly and he came back low on fuel with no success. From the map I knew the location of Lisa as being the crash site had made perfect sense. It was only 10 minutes out from the Lagos Airport and in the correct direction of a large jet taking off from Lagos and going to Abuja. After my dispatcher recalculated the coordinates correctly we passed them on to the ACN AS365 pilot, Yalex Ajibade, who had just refueled and he found the crash site within 20 minutes.
The Police Wing B427 pilot borrow fuel off of us as they did not have any of their own and headed to the crash site. Our B412 refueled and landed at the site long enough to drop the civil aviation and crash investigation personnel. Once the NEMA helicopters showed up on site from up north we pulled out our helicopters and although we were approached by many parties, including the American Embassy, to continue flying I discontinued our part of the operation. There was simply nothing more we could do. There were no survivors. The American Embassy reps were so insistent that I had to have my security lock them out of our gate. I told them to drive to the site.
What we found was an incredible smoking crater, 20 meters across and 10 meters deep, that was obviously created by an uncontrolled plunge from altitude. Ironically we found the crash exactly where we thought it should have been if the pilot had failed to make a critical altitude call about 5 minutes after take-off with a right turn out toward Abuja. If the tower had simply given us this crucial information to begin with we would have found the site very quickly that morning.
Despite the fact there were 117 persons on board there were no bodies. At least there were no complete bodies. The aircraft was totally destroyed and the bodies had disintegrated on impact. The other thing missing was personal effects. No purses or briefcases or wallets or suitcases. By the time the police and army made to into the site, the “area boys” (local criminals) had looted everything. The police commander, although not forgiving the transgressions of the looters, graciously blamed the acts on abject poverty. That is what we are reduced to in extreme poverty he said. When we have nothing we have nothing to lose.
I had the sad responsibility to call my Chairman and tell him that there was no possible way his niece would have survived such an impact. He took the news graciously but obviously with a heavy heart. He even asked me to find her body for washing but I also had to tell him there were no bodies to wash.
By 15:30 I was in the gym at the Sheraton Hotel doing my Sunday workout and CNN was still reporting the aircraft as missing and commenting on the conflicting reports of whether the crash site was in Kishi or Lisa. The good news for me was that I managed, as I have done several times before, to keep one step ahead of CNN with the facts.
The final report, although the cockpit voice recorder and black box were never recovered from the pieces of the wreckage, said that the pilots, despite being warned by ATC, flew directly into the same thunderstorm that my wife and I witness that night. Ironically we were passengers in that same aircraft “Hope” just a few days before. Bellview Airlines has now gone out of business for good.