October 24, 2005
The BellView Boeing 737-2L9/Adv aircraft that crashed on October 22, 2005 at Lisa, Ifo Local Government in Ogun State, shortly after take-off in bad night-time weather, has previously been operated by Maersk Air, Midway Airlines, Dragonair, PEMCO, Aero Costa Rica, Halisa Air and Frontier Airlines. While being operated by these airlines, since 1981, no occurrences were formally noted in the Aviation Safety Network safety database.
The accident, which claimed 117 lives, was Nigeria's third worst civil air disaster. It is the 97th such aircraft type in the world to be lost to a major aviation incident.
Although there is much to discuss regarding the delay in finding and correctly identifying the crash site - either for rescue or recovery - my focus today is on what might have caused the crash. The age-old and recurrent question of "Search & Rescue" will be addressed at a later date.
So far there is as yet no indication - at least in public - that it was an act of sabotage.
Early speculations - according to Press reports, citing unnamed experts - are that the plane was struck by lightning, primarily because of the scale of total communication breakdown and the weather circumstances. Possibly. The subject is somewhat controversial, but lightning is a potential risk, particularly if current regulations in Nigeria do not require aircraft to have built-in lightning protection. This will need to be clarified.
The phenomenon of positive lightning (as opposed to negative lightning, which is far more common but much less dangerous) has only recently begun to gain respect among aircraft designers. In positive lightning (approximately 5% of strikes), a cumulative positive charge is transferred from cloud-to-ground by a positively-charged stepped leader, resulting in a more-powerful strike than would occur with negative lightning in which a cumulative negative charge is transferred. Although there are regulations requiring built-in lightning protection for aircraft frames and electronic systems, the overwhelming majority of aircraft are not designed to handle "positive lightning."
If Bellview Flight 210 is eventually determined to have been struck by lightning (negative or positive) at or about 8:38 - 8:48 pm Nigerian time, it would acquire the dubious distinction of having the highest death toll in human history from a lightning strike. That distinction is currently held by Pam Am Flight 214 of December 8, 1963 which was struck at 8:58 pm EST , killing 81 people.
Since June 3rd, 1951, a number of civil and military air crashes have been ascribed at least in part to lightning with aircraft loss thought to be due to a variety of mechanisms, including loss of rudder control, structural failure (including wing separation) from onboard lightning-induced fuel explosion, atmospheric effects on ADF indicators, Pilot incapacitation (temporary blindness), and/or total electrical system failure. The final report is not yet in, but the recent Air France crash at Toronto's Pearson International Airport is also thought by some to have been at least partly due to lightning.
PRIOR INCIDENTS WITH 5N-BFN
That said, and without prejudice to the course of a formal investigation, hopefully assisted by recovery of the Black Box, which may unearth other factors, it is pertinent to note that although alleged to have been serviceable, since its operational acquisition by BellView Airlines, (under registration number 5N-BFN) the ill-fated plane has had a few mishaps this year:
On February 21 this year, the aircraft, which was supposed to transport a CAF delegation from Port Harcourt back to Lagos after a soccer match at Aba between Enyimba and Hearts of Oak, experienced failure of its automatic systems shortly after landing, causing its engines to shut down. After restarting plane manually, the engines shut down again. Eventually another aircraft had to be sent to PH to ferry the delegates back to Lagos.
a. http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/SportsArchive/artikel.php?ID=75980 (Soccer News of Wednesday, 23 February 2005 - Hayatou in flight scare)
On March 27 this year, an engine fire on takeoff caused grass to catch fire at Kano airport, causing the transformers and electrical cables serving runway 24 to burn up. Fortunately the aircraft returned to the airport safely with its passengers and crew. According to the FAAN:
"On Sunday, March 27, 2005, Bellview Airlines B737 aircraft with registration number 5N BFN departed the Aminu Kano International Airport at about 11h46. Upon take-off, an emergency was declared due to fire on one of the engines, barely three minutes after take-off. The flight was aborted and the aircraft landed at about 12h05. At about 11h52, there was a bush-fire outbreak at the end of runway 24. This was suspected to have resulted from a ball of fire that fell on the dry grass from the departing aircraft. The fire damaged a number of transformers and burnt some length of cables resulting in closure of runway 24."
May the souls of those who died rest in peace. May God grant their families and friends the fortitude to bear the loss. May God grant the country the wisdom to learn from the mishap.