The air traffic controllers, whose critical duties determine the safe operation of aircraft from departure to its destination, say their criticism of the management of the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency is to ensure that it does not derail from its responsibilities. They also acknowledge the airspace is a lot safer than the past. Chinedu Eze writes
Air traffic controllers (ATCs) practically guide the aircraft in the airspace from departure to its arrival at its destination. The controller’s invaluable responsibility must be enhanced by essential and recommended equipment and facilities that will ensure the safe flight of an aircraft. The crucial role of the controllers makes them indispensable in air traffic management.
Over time, there have been conflicting stories about the safety of the airspace in terms of effective communication from ground to air and doubts over the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON), which provides surveillance in the airspace. Essentially doubts stem from reports that indicated shortcomings of this essential equipment.
On Duty Observation
So last week, THISDAY visited the TRACON facility at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja for on duty observation of the controllers as they managed flights. Few months ago, the same on duty observation was done at the Lagos airport.
THISDAY spoke with controllers, who gave graphic details of their operations, the progress made in effective management of the airspace, the shortcomings and the way forward. One of the shortcomings is the dearth of experienced controllers, which has made it urgent that NAMA must up the training of these essential workers and also recruit young graduates, who would take over from the retiring ones in the near future.
The Airspace Manager, Abuja Airport, Nnanna Ugbaga, told THISDAY that there was an effective communication from ground to air, which uses VHF radio communication and that is the communication between the controller and the pilot, noting that in Abuja, the controllers did not have problems with communication.
He noted that TRACON was supposed to come with inbuilt communication consul, but Thales S. A. of France, which provided the radar did not include that.
Ugbaga also said ground to ground communication, which is between stations and also essentially for coordination is done through HF (High Frequency), admitting that the Kano area experiences hiccups sometime.
“There is significant improvement in the CNS/ ATM (Communication, Navigation and Surveillance/ Air Traffic Management). Everything is working well here (in Abuja) but we have problem with Kano, which however finds a way to pass the message. If it is long range communication, you can use HF to talk to somebody, but you cannot use HF for aircraft. HF is ground to ground and it operates along the line of site but it can be disrupted by topography and in the night by waves. But our ground to air communication, which is communicating with pilot through VHF radio is very good,” Ugbaga said.
Senior NAMA official and an engineer, Muyiwa Adegorite, had earlier explained that complementing the TRACON project was the Total VHF Radio Coverage of Nigeria, which was at advanced stage of completion by the agency.
“The rapidly increasing volume of air traffic in the Nigerian airspace and requirements for safety led to the conception and award of this project. The Total VHF Radio Coverage will provide effective Air-Ground communication between the pilot and the Air traffic control centres. Also the Extended Range (ER) VHF Radio Communication (RCAG) will ride on the VSAT network to provide seamless services for operations in the Nigerian airspace,” Adegorite explained.
More Images, Less Talk
Ugbaga said the VSAT project was at an advanced stage. “They have mounted their equipment. We have effective controller—pilot communication but to minimise talks between the pilot and the controller, which is the modern trend in airspace management, pilots would now be using performance based communication whereby the pilot would depend on information from the satellite.”
This is enhanced by area navigation (RNAV), a method of instrument flight rules (IFR) in navigation that allows an aircraft to choose any course within a network of navigation beacons, rather than navigating directly to and from the beacon. This can conserve flight distance, reduce congestion and allow flights into airports without beacons.
Ugbaga said with the radar, surveillance has been taken care of as NAMA had advanced to performance-based navigation (PBN) which specifies that aircraft required navigation performance (RNP) and area navigation systems performance requirements be defined in terms of accuracy, integrity, availability, continuity and functionality required for the proposed operations in the context of a particular airspace.
But the old systems remain, including the instrument landing system (ILS), which houses visuals aids like the localiser glide slope (LGS), visual approach slope indicator (VASI) and precision approach position indicator (PAPI) that are electronically controlled by airfield lighting. They are still fully utilised because Ugbaga noted that not all aircraft that fly into Nigeria or operate in Nigeria are PBN-compliant.
“The new radar makes the job easier and it has been serving us effectively and whenever anything goes wrong our engineers put it right. We still maintain long separation among aircraft because of where we are coming from; otherwise we can reduce the separation with the radar, but in the past when we are using procedural we had to separate them (about 2000 feet; now the Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) is 1000 feet because of the radar.)
“The current management is doing well. In fact, we never had it so good. Things have changed and the job is a lot easier now. The controllers criticise management because we want it to sit up, but I don’t agree that anyone can say that the airspace is not safe because it has never been safer. With the new equipment and new systems in place we can only improve on what we have but it is a lot better than in the past. You cannot compare it and the present management is doing things well,” Ugbaga said.
Ugbaga emphasised that the Nigerian air traffic controllers should be the number one in Africa because of the training they received and the challenging work they do, which has sharpened their experience.
“The controllers were trained and they operated at the worst of time so there is no challenge they cannot overcome. They should be number one in Africa. They have all the ratings. A controller is trained to have private pilot licence (PPL), he is trained to the commercial pilot level in meteorology; the same with aeronautical information system. Controllers study flight plan, so they are trained in all the areas. They are also trained to do plotting to locate missing aircraft as well as being trained as professional fire fighters.”
He said however that the controllers needed recurrent training to be abreast of new developments in their area of specialisation.
“In ATC, you have to do aerodrome and approach control training, then approach radar or terminal radar, area airways procedural, area radar and all of them have their ratings. These are compulsory training and the management avails the controllers to have these trainings. Others outside these areas could be by the controller’s choice or the management deems it right to offer it. For example, one who is versed in computer and IT my chose a course that will help him develop in that area,” Ugbaga also said.
Communication in Abuja
A senior controller, Rotimi Ayeni, told THISDAY that as far as Abuja was concerned the VHF communication “is perfect”, noting that Kano being the flight information region of Nigeria and being the airport in charge of the Northern part of the country, needed radio with longer range.
But he said there was no basis for comparison between the old system and the current system.
“There is a marked improvement because the radar we have is doing well and it has the capability of doing more, which means that as of now, it is not being fully utilised. We are not even doing 10 per cent of its capacity and the radar can be upgraded at any time. The Abuja radar has been very effective,” Ayeni said.
Importance of TRACON
Adegorite recalled: “There is one FIR under Nigeria’s responsibility: the Kano FIR with Air Traffic Services provided by Lagos and Kano Area Control Centres (ACCs) and several other Approach Control Centres. The two recently decommissioned Terminal Approach Radar (TAR) Systems in Lagos and Abuja were the last of the seven radar systems installed in 1978 by the country. These radars definitely served the nation and were miraculously kept working till recently by the ingenuity and savvy of the local engineers. Over the years, there has been a paradigm shift in radar technology.
“Radar technology has moved from the conventional radar systems to the modern ICT-based technology as depicted by the TRACON project. In the past, the services from these old radar systems, especially Lagos, had become epileptic due to lack of spares.”
He said the Air Traffic Controllers, without the radar, had reverted to procedural control, which was not only mentally tasking but compromised safety.
“It is thus cheering that the successful completion of the radar systems in Lagos, Kano, Abuja, Port Harcourt and the five en-route stations under the TRACON project has a far-reaching effect on the safety of the Nigerian airspace.”