Precision Air crash: Key persons in the investigation

TCAA director general Hamza Johari

Dar es Salaam. With investigators already on the ground trying to establish the cause of last Sunday’s Precision Air crash, at least four people should have crucial information with regard to what transpired before and after the flight departed.

Experts say the four are key in detailing the release process of the flight before it left Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam and upon reaching Bukoba Airport in stormy weather.

The ATR 42-500 twin turboprop airliner carrying 39 passengers (38 adults and an infant) and four crew members crashed in Lake Victoria in Bukoba at 8.53am. Nineteen people died in the crash, while 24 survived.

The four people who are expected to shed light on the ill-fated flight are the airplane dispatcher for Precision Air (PW), the ground engineer, the person in charge of the operations control unit, and the flight operations director.

Aviation experts who spoke to The Citizen said yesterday that, in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao), the pilot must be informed about the weather before flying, while flying, and at the destination point.

The airplane dispatcher could be held accountable should it be established that he cleared the flight despite bad weather.

“In short, you cannot investigate the accident in Bukoba without understanding what transpired in Dar es Salaam. There is a broken chain of command somewhere,” said the Tanzania Pilots Association (Tapa) secretary, Captain Khalil Iqbal.

The Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA) issues a flight dispatch folder to the airplane dispatcher, detailing all weather-related aspects, including rain, clouds, and lightning. The pilot is also involved in the process.

Investigators will also seek to get some details from the operations control unit, which is supposed to be in constant radio communication with the pilot during the flight.

The investigators will seek to find out whether the person manning the operations unit actually talked to the pilot or not.

“The flight operations officer is the one who signs that a flight can leave the airport and is therefore another key person in the investigations,” said Captain Iqbal.

“The pilot of the crashed plane was yet another key person who would have revealed details of his communication with the operations control unit. Unfortunately, he is among those who lost their lives in the accident,” said Captain Iqbal, noting, however, that such communication details should be found in the black box.

Poor working environment

A pilot who requested not to be named said the accident should be a wake-up call for the government to start listening to pilots’ concerns regarding their working environment.

“Some of us have gone through trying times in the past. When you complain that you cannot fly an aircraft for a genuine reason, someone will tell you that you must do your job anyway because passengers are already at the airport,” he said, insisting that whenever their concerns go to relevant authorities, nobody listens and pilots risk being reported to their employers.

Poor emergency services

Under Icao’s requirements, airports located close to the sea or lakes must have several emergency services to help in case of accidents.

One of the requirements is that such airports must have an emergency operations centre, a mobile command post, and a communication centre.

This means that such centres are supposed to be found at Mwanza, Bukoba, Mafia and Zanzibar airports, among other facilities.

“Landing is the pilot’s decision”

The Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA) confirmed yesterday that in order to ensure the safety of the country’s air travel, communications between pilots and control towers take place, although the decision to land the plane remains in the hands of the pilot.

Captain Noel Komba, the TCAA’s Chief Flight Operations Inspector, was responding after this reporter wanted to know whether communication between the deceased pilot and control tower took place before the crash.

Captain Komba explained that Bukoba Airport is operated under Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC),” which refer to meteorological conditions expressed in terms of visibility, distance from clouds, and ceiling equal to or better than the specified minima.

“This is a kind of aviation flight category in which visual flight rules are permitted. It is a condition whereby pilots are required to have sufficient visibility to fly the aircraft by maintaining visual separation from terrain,” he said.

Adding: “In this regard, VMC means that before the pilot decides to land, he/she will inform the control tower and then be cleared to land. However, pilots are the last persons to decide whether to land or disregard the granted permission.

“Essentially, there are various mechanisms that ensure the safe operation of an aircraft. These include radars and control towers. They coordinate the movements of an aircraft,” Captain Komba said.

The said mechanisms help keep planes at a safe distance from each other, direct them during takeoff and landing from airports, direct them around bad weather, and ensure that traffic flows smoothly with minimal delays.

Earlier, TCAA director general Hamza Johari said: “Technically speaking, the authority plays a critical role in ensuring an appropriate air transport system in the country, we provide various air services, including surveillance and flight navigation.

“With such services, Tanzania’s performance is 69 percent, which is above the global average of 60 percent.” “So, Bukoba airport is safe, and as we are talking, an Air Tanzania flight is on its way to Bukoba, whereas Precision’s next flight is fully booked,” he observed.

“Although Bukoba Airport was constructed in 1940, its specifications are recognized internationally as the runway is 1.5 kilometres long, 30 metres wide, and can accommodate aircraft weighing up to 29 tonnes.”

“The aircraft in question weighed only 18.5 tonnes, and needed 1.165 kilometres of runway to take off and 964 metres to land. Captain Buruhani Bubaga had 23,515 flight hours, and First Officer Peter Odhiambo had 2,109 hours.”

Mr Johari did not want to go into details when narrating, saying that the initial findings had established that the plane encountered bad weather and thus found itself in the lake, and that investigators are still working on the matter to establish the actual cause.