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‘Why investigating plane crash is tough, emotional job’


Taiwo Ajayi

Taiwo Ajayi is one of the few top women in the local aviation industry, and the first female accident investigator at the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) Nigeria. She spoke with WOLE OYEBADE on the making a safety officer and assesses the male-dominated industry.

Aviation is multifaceted in nature. What prompted your choice of accident investigation?
When I was growing up, the frequent plane crashes that used to occur made me curious. I wanted to know why they happened and I longed for the opportunity to know what cause planes to crash. I eventually found work in aviation after school, and when the opportunity presented itself to train as an investigator, I took it.

When you get in here, you need to get trained to know the job. I was scheduled for air traffic control training, which I did and I got interested in it because I observed that when some of our senior colleagues write reports, there would be aspects where they need to be at the scene in order to evaluate the situation. The knowledge of air traffic control is something that is invaluable because it gives the safety investigator an edge. It was after I got a job here that I knew that aviation is a highly regulated industry. It’s a lot of hard work and perseverance.

What was the training like?
For the air traffic control, it was very rigorous because you will have to do a lot of practice and reading because lives are involved. An air traffic controller can handle up to 1000 passengers at a go. You are controlling airplanes with each carrying about 250 passengers, which a doctor can’t handle on a normal day. If there is a breakdown in separation, that would cause a huge problem. That is why we undergo a series of rigorous training where even your emotions have to be kept in check because sometimes, some of my colleagues get overwhelmed during the stimulator training and just start crying when they are told that they have caused the crash of 200 passengers. But you have to be mentally strong and focused.

After going through that training, you have to learn how to fly a plane which is also rigorous, because if you have phobia for flying, then you would have serious problems. It is after that, you will be sent to a facility for on the job training to put what you have learnt into practice.

What advantage did your training as an air traffic controller give you as a safety investigator?
When I got in here (AIB), we didn’t have someone who was a full-fledged air traffic controller that could guide us with the reports. But being an air traffic controller and a safety investigator, whenever the air traffic controller is talking with the pilot, you will be able to know if what the pilot said was a source of concern because it might be a leading trail to what really happened. You will also be able to tell if the air traffic controller gave the right direction to the pilot. There are so many things that are intertwined and help with the job.

How do you feel knowing that you are one of the few women working in a male dominated industry?
It’s a privilege to work in this situation because it gives you a high sense of responsibility, and you don’t take things for granted. You try to follow the information that you are given and have a cordial relationship with people around you, which makes the work go on well.

Did you study any aviation-related course in the university?
I studied Biochemistry at the University of Lagos, and I did my National Youth Service in Jos, Plateau State.

What is your experience like at the AIB, its capacity, safety handling, and other difficult situations?
Right now, we have 34 safety investigators on ground, and we have some people on standby, who have been recruited because there is always a succession plan in management. We believe that once everybody is well-trained for the job, we would be able to handle any situation, not like before when we had less manpower. AIB is playing a massive role in West Africa, as we have made our services available to countries outside Nigeria.

Have you been a part of any investigation, and how challenging was it as no two accidents are the same?
I have participated in a couple of accidents and incidents. When I got in, we had senior colleagues who wanted us to get used to the job. I remember that there was an accident in Lagos, and I was drafted to the site and it was a horrible scene. I couldn’t get over it for a week because it was total destruction. We did a lot of work during the investigation of that accident. We took pictures, collected lots of evidence and after that, I did other investigations with my colleagues, and we drafted our reports from there. Sometimes, you go for investigation and you copy the evidence and at the end of the day, they get overwritten. Such an experience can be very frustrating. It means you have to go to other units to know what went wrong.

When you say that reports are overwritten, what do you mean?
When you overwrite a report, it means that the event was overwritten by something. You may have a piece of evidence but then you discover that the pilot had an issue before landing, maybe they were supposed to switch on or switch off something in the cockpit and they didn’t do it. That may make us lose what we are looking for because we won’t be able to get that information, and we won’t know what transpired.

It’s like when you are driving your car and you stop, you may have to switch off your air conditioner or radio before switching off the engine. In aviation, there are procedures for everything and those procedures must be meticulously followed. There is a procedure for landing, there is a procedure for shutting down the aircraft, and every other process must be done properly.

If they are overwritten, how do you now get accurate information for your investigation?
It is not only from the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) or Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) that we get our evidence; there are other places where you get information. You get information from the air traffic controllers, from the aircraft log book, and we also ask the crew questions. In our team, we have very experienced people, who know what the procedures are, and know when these guidelines have been a diversion from the rules.

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