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Aviation stakeholders urge military to rejig strategy as bandits shoot down attack jet in Zamfara

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Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Lucky Irabor (right); Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Oladayo Amao (third left) and surviving pilot of the crashed NAF Alpha Jet, Flight-Lt. Abayomi Dairo (second left) during the visit of the Chief of Defence Staff to Kaduna…yesterday.

• Pilot survives, evades bandits’ hideout under cover of darkness, says military
• Time for military intelligence to reassess enemy power, says Ojikutu

Intense fire from bandits caused a Nigerian attack jet to crash in Zamfara State on Sunday, but the pilot survived by ejecting from the aircraft, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) said yesterday, a dramatic volte-face from Sunday’s position of outright denial of a fighter jet crash.

A military spokesman had told The Guardian that there was no air crash in Kaduna. “No aircraft left Yola for Kaduna. I am making contacts and awaiting information from other locations,” he had said to debunk the news of the crash on Sunday.

Zamfara and neighbouring Kaduna State are among the states mostly affected by a surge in criminalities, including mass abductions of schoolchildren, armed robberies, usually carried out by large gangs of outlaws, famously known as bandits.

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The latest incident makes it four air crashes involving Nigerian military planes in the last seven months.

Prior to last NAF203 plane crash that killed the Chief of Army Staff and 10 others, a similar Beechcraft King350 airplane (NAF201) had crashed in February killing all eight officers onboard. The Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) has pledged to release preliminary findings in the next couple of days.

In April, a Nigerian Airforce fighter jet was declared missing and suspected to have crashed. While Boko Haram claimed to have shot it down, the military spoke in denial.

After initial denial, Air Force spokesman, Edward Gabkwet, yesterday, said the crash occurred as the Alpha jet, a light attack aircraft, was returning to base from a mission on the Zamfara-Kaduna border.

The jet “came under intense enemy fire around 12:45p.m. while returning from a successful air interdiction mission between the boundaries of Zamfara and Kaduna State, which led to its crash,” Gabkwet said in a statement, “luckily, the gallant pilot of the aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo successfully ejected, evaded several bandit hideouts and eventually made his way to an army unit under cover of darkness.

“Using his survival instincts, the pilot was able to evade them and sought refuge in nearby settlements awaiting sunset. Using the cover of darkness and his phone set for navigation, Flight Lieutenant Dairo was able to elude several bandits’ strongholds and maneuvered his way to a Nigerian Army Unit, where he was finally rescued.

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“It is instructive to note that upon receipt of the news of the crash, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Oladayo Amao, had directed that all efforts must be emplaced to rescue the pilot. Accordingly, NAF Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and helicopter gunships provided close air support to NAF Special Forces and Nigerian Army troops who were able to locate the crash site and the pilot’s parachute, while also combing nearby locations for any sign of the pilot.

“It is gladdening to note that while in hiding, Flight Lieutenant Dairo confirmed that the presence of NAF aircraft within the vicinity of the crash site helped in scaring the bandits who were after him, thus enabling him to find refuge and escape to a safe location.”

The government has lately increasingly turned to the air force to counter banditry, with the air force in the past two weeks conducting flights daily and nightly over Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina states to “neutralise” hundreds of bandits.

DEADLY plane crashes in military operations had raised concerns over safety of the airspace in general. Aviation stakeholders noted that though the development was a blight on the nation’s safety record in global aviation, the sequence of occurrences raises a ‘red flag’ to warrant new precautionary measures to avert more disasters, especially during the rainy season.

Experts specifically called for independent investigation of all recent crashes in military operations, public disclosure of findings and recommendations, a Marshall Plan of action and proper funding for military operations as critical arms of security and the economy.

Worried by the spate of combat plane crashes in recent times, the aviation stakeholders further urged the military hierarchy to rejig strategy. Aviation security consultant and former commandant of the Lagos Airport, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said the survivor was lucky to be alive, given that such operations are delicate by design.

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Ojikutu said since the incident has become recurrent, it was high time the military intelligence body properly reexamined the strength of the insurgent prior to deploying combatants.

He said: “This aircraft was on a conflict (war) mission into an enemy occupied area. It was a fifty-fifty chance of survival or return. Thank God he survived the attack. What it means to me is that the intelligence needs to know more about the capability of the enemy before any further preemptive attacks. Again thank God for his safe return from the lions’ jaws,” Ojikutu said.

Air Vice Marshal, Adebiyi Okanlawon (rtd), said that the incidents followed a trend that should worry both the regulators and handlers of aviation generally. While the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) regulates civil aviation, the military is self-regulated by its own Standard Operating Procedures.

Okanlawon, however, said: “I think we should conduct appropriate investigations into all these and make some of them (findings) public to rest the minds of Nigerians and show that they are not due to carelessness. We need to get back to basics. We should begin to do thorough assessments of both military and civil aviation to end this bad trend. This is a national issue that goes beyond the military.”

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