The thought of flying fills some people with trepidation, whereas it thrills others. Aircraft crashes grip the human attention much more than any other form of disaster. However, aircraft crashes are not as common as one may think; they are just more widely reported.
Aviation is broadly divided into two classifications: Commercial and general aviation. Commercial aviation encompasses scheduled flights by airlines and general aviation (including aerial work) groups all the rest. Commercial air travel is the safest means of transportation. It beats all other modes of transport in safety, irrespective of the indicator used. General aviation is marginally less safe, but still much safer than other modes of transportation. Commercial aviation aircraft in Nairobi typically use Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) whereas Wilson is the premier airport for general aviation.
When reports of a “missing” aircraft that was initially scheduled to land at Wilson first filtered through, all prayed for a safe outcome for the crew and passengers. Many, however, braced themselves for the worst. No one realistically expects a plane in a one-hour flight to be still aloft after the passage of several hours.
SHORT HAUL ROUTES
The Cessna Caravan 208 involved in the Aberdares crash is a well-known regional aircraft for short haul routes. It is manufactured by US-based Cessna Aviation Company, a branch of Textron Aviation, that also manufactures the popular Beechcraft and Hawker aircraft.
It is particularly popular in developing countries. One of its strong points is that it doesn’t use the expensive aviation gasoline “avgas” used by many light aircraft. This is because its engine is a “turbo-prop” and not “piston” propelled. It is versatile and easy to operate. It uses a single engine, which makes it much more user friendly, both in operation and maintenance; twin-engine aircraft are substantially more complex to operate.
The model is relatively new, having been first certified in 1984. It typically sits nine to 14 passengers depending on configuration. More than 2,000 Cessna Caravans have been built, of which about 230 have been involved in hull loss accidents (accidents in which the aircraft is destroyed) with about 450 fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network database.
This is a rather high number for a modern aircraft. The aircraft initially had problems with icing and was considered to be accident-prone.
Aircraft accidents are thoroughly investigated. International civil aviation is governed by the Chicago Convention that established the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO.
Annex 13 of the Chicago Convention is concerned with the investigation of aircraft accidents. Aircraft incidents and accidents are investigated with one objective: To find out the cause and thereby prevent future occurrences of similar situations. It expressly states that investigations should not be carried out for purposes of apportioning of blame or liability.
This spirit is captured in the Civil Aviation Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigations Regulations under Kenya’s Civil Aviation Act. Accidents involving aircraft of maximum take-off weight above 2,250 kg are reported to ICAO. This explains the reason that we seem to hear about aircraft accidents almost daily, despite the statistical fact that air travel is safe.
The Aberdares crash was the first accident this year on Kenyan soil with fatalities. The November 20, 1974 crash of Lufthansa Flight 540 in Embakasi remains the deadliest air disaster on Kenyan soil, with 59 fatalities. Other air incidents/accidents this year are: an F-5 air force jet on February 8 in Laikipia/Isiolo, a Cessna 172 trainer aircraft on February 15 at Wilson Airport, an accident in Nyeri on February 28 involving a Cessna 172, and a Grob military trainer on March 28 in Taita-Taveta.
Initial indications are that weather played a role in the Aberdares crash. This will, however, become clear after investigations. Accidents usually occur as a result of more than one cause, and aircraft routinely fly in treacherous weather.
Human error is likely to be cited as a contributory factor, either on the side of the flight crew, air traffic control or maintenance.
Aircraft design defects are not likely to play a role in this particular crash. Human error is widely recognised as the major cause of aircraft accidents; Boeing puts pilot error at 80 per cent as the main cause of commercial aircraft accidents, with 20 per cent due to weather-related flying conditions and faulty equipment.
So what happens next? The Aircraft Accident Investigation Department (AAID) of the ministry of Transport will carry out an investigation. The AAID will identify the causes and any contributory factors to the accident. Causes of aircraft accidents are supposed to be made available to the industry to assist in maintenance of safe operations. A key fact of accident investigations is the “closing of the loop” so as to make use of accident reports in enhancing safe operations.
Private firms, such as SGS, also investigate aircraft accidents. The AAID has come a long way, and it is now possible to obtain some of the accident reports on their website. They are mandated to disseminate information for use by the aviation industry.
The regulator, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), will also be involved in the investigations. Information about the accident and investigations will be shared with the state of design and manufacture of the aircraft. Any state that lost citizens in the crash may express an interest to participate in the investigations.
Lessons of how this accident is investigated should be taken well beyond the aviation industry. We can draw parallels in other transportation modes; road transportation immediately comes to mind.
AVIATION SAFETY NETWORK
Anyone willing to learn will draw lessons that are applicable for the management of road safety in Kenya. Road crashes continue to kill and maim thousands of people. Statistics from Aviation Safety Network show that the cumulative fatalities from aviation on Kenyan soil in the period between 1926 and 2018 is 275. Even if unreported accidents are added to this, the figure does not reach 500. This figure compares to the monthly statistic for road fatalities in Kenya.
The first lesson is that accidents should be investigated. Information obtained from the accident should be used to improve road safety for other road users. Information should be shared in a format that is accessible to all interested users; information is power. Policy should be informed by data. NTSA has improved transparency in reporting, and safety statistics are now available in their website. The loop should now be closed to ensure the implementation of any lessons.
Another lesson for road management is that tangible measures should be taken to prevent future occurrence of similar accidents.
The aviation industry works overtime to remove unprofessional operators and quacks. This is seen in the way KCAA closely monitors the industry. This approach can also be applied to road safety. The level of professionalism should be enhanced, and unethical operators removed from the roads.
A cursory look at accident statistics indicates that state aircraft (police and military aircraft) are over-represented and seem to be particularly accident-prone. Already two KAF aircraft have had accidents this year, mercifully with no deaths.
Whatever the outcome of the Aberdares crash probe should be used to make Kenya’s skies safer.
The writer heads the department of Flying Studies in the School of Aerospace Sciences of Moi University. Views expressed in this article are his own.