Africa wins­but not in a good way

Just when things were on the up and up, the out­side reg­u­la­tory world fi­nally caught up with the Ugan­dan CAA

Pilot - - AFRICAN SKIES – FINALE - Words and pho­tos: Tim Cooper

My nine-year-old daugh­ter Mat­tie was in the back seat of the Land Cruiser with Alys, daugh­ter of my chums Kim and Annabel, all re­turn­ing from a sa­fari. They were a lit­tle way from Kam­pala and it was dark, but Kim spot­ted the wreck­age of a re­cent road ac­ci­dent. Annabel, a good Chris­tian lady, in­sisted they stop to pick up any sur­vivors. In Africa, this is a risky strat­egy. The usual ad­vice is to drive to the next po­lice post and re­port the ac­ci­dent. The sole ac­ci­dent vic­tim−a lit­tle the worse for wear, but oth­er­wise in good health−thanked my friends ef­fu­sively. The chil­dren made space, mov­ing into the boot of the 4x4, and on they drove to the next vil­lage where­upon our thank­ful vic­tim de­bussed, and with grate­ful vale­dic­tions went on his way.

Ar­riv­ing home a lit­tle later, the girls sorted through their be­long­ings in the boot, dis­cov­er­ing that where they had each started out with a pair of plim­solls, they now had only two shoes be­tween them−each a left foot. Our vic­tim, miles away, and prob­a­bly now tucked up in his hut for the night, would be puz­zled as to how he had ended up with two right plim­solls when he had so care­fully stolen and con­cealed the shoes from his bene­fac­tors. I imag­ine he fell asleep feel­ing dis­grun­tled and wronged.

This small vi­gnette en­cap­su­lates much of the African ex­pe­ri­ence. There is a phrase that is mut­tered across the con­ti­nent. It tum­bles from the lips of ev­ery adult in­hab­i­tant, black, brown or white, and it de­scribes per­fectly the per­va­sive sense of frus­tra­tion that comes from hav­ing so much po­ten­tial all around and yet con­stantly ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it fiz­zling out al­most ev­ery time it seems as though things are com­ing right. The phrase is ubiq­ui­tous and pithy; “Africa wins again”.

Africa wins again: three short words that carry the dis­ap­point­ment of a con­ti­nent− the ver­bal equiv­a­lent of a French­man’s shrug.

This fi­nal episode of ‘African Skies’ is a sorry tale of in­com­pe­tence, ar­ro­gance and plain ig­no­rance−and the prob­a­bly ter­mi­nal dis­rup­tion of Uganda’s avi­a­tion in­dus­try. Now, at a re­move of four years, I ask my­self whether there was any­thing that I or my fel­low

op­er­a­tors could have done to avert dis­as­ter. I think I can ac­cept that there was noth­ing that we could rea­son­ably have done dif­fer­ently. There be­ing no cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive out­come, this tale is a proper tragedy in the lit­er­ary sense.

To set the wider scene let me re­cap where we are in the story. By 2008 Uganda was free of its Idi Amin le­gacy. The coun­try was be­gin­ning to pros­per for the first time since in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1962, and GDP slightly out­stripped pop­u­la­tion growth (the lat­ter at an ex­tra­or­di­nary 3.3% in 2018, which is three times the world aver­age). Se­cu­rity was ex­cel­lent in the sense that one wasn’t stalked by the im­mi­nent prospect of vi­o­lent death, though life for the masses was still poor, nasty, brutish and short−aver­age male life ex­pectancy was 48. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) much in the way of in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity, but the agri­cul­tural sec­tor was at­tract­ing for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment, and the min­eral and oil and gas prospects were look­ing very promis­ing− es­pe­cially af­ter Africa’s big­gest in­land de­posit of oil was found within our borders.

Im­por­tantly, Uganda was a safe hub for busi­ness and aid op­er­a­tions among our less sta­ble neigh­bours−south Su­dan to the north, and to the west the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo. The road in­fra­struc­ture be­ing in­ad­e­quate or non-ex­is­tent there were mul­ti­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties and the avi­a­tion sec­tor looked to have a rosy fu­ture on the back of this en­cour­ag­ing sce­nario. So Madam and I started a small com­pany which rapidly be­came a slightly big­ger com­pany thanks to some ex­cel­lent ad­vice (and cash) from our in­vestors.

We had de­cided that we must be a prop­erly modern com­pany and cre­ated a mod­est hot­house en­vi­ron­ment to nur­ture na­tive pi­lots and, most im­por­tant of all, Ugan­dan women pi­lots. In­deed, Madam had been es­pe­cially proud when, four years af­ter start­ing the com­pany, she found her­self on the ros­ter to fly one of our op­er­a­tions in Ethiopia with an all woman crew, her co-jo be­ing a young Ugan­dan woman whom we’d em­ployed straight out of flight school−bet­ter still, the en­gi­neer pro­vid­ing back-up was a young Kenyan woman. I think it was Madam who said that it was no longer a cock­pit, but was now the box of­fice.

We were, how­ever, small fry com­pared to our fel­low 2008 start-up, the Aga Khan-owned Air Uganda which had routes run­ning in and out of En­tebbe to our neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. By 2014, Air Uganda, op­er­at­ing a small fleet of CRJ 200s, at­tained the high­est safety stan­dard in the air­line in­dus­try, the IATA Op­er­a­tional Safety Au­dit (IOSA) Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion−the bench­mark for global safety man­age­ment in air­lines. Al­though mod­est by world stan­dards, Air Uganda rep­re­sented an US$80 mil­lion plus out­lay which, by stan­dards of in­vest­ment in our small East African na­tion, was a large chunk of cash as well as a real vote of con­fi­dence in the coun­try.

Our small, but very busy gravel airstrip at Ka­j­jansi, lo­cated halfway be­tween the cap­i­tal, Kam­pala, and the coun­try’s main in­ter­na­tional air­port at En­tebbbe, 30km dis­tant, was also achiev­ing high stan­dards. Mis­sion Avi­a­tion Fel­low­ship− the own­ers of the strip and the lessors of our ter­mi­nal build­ing and main­te­nance hangar−had peer­less stan­dards, as they do world­wide. Our neigh­bour­ing com­pany and ri­val, Kam­pala Ae­ro­club had, like our­selves, sub­mit­ted to and re­ceived OGP (Oil and Gas Pro­duc­ers as­so­ci­a­tion) ap­provals. This was no mean feat as the bar for Op­er­a­tions and Health and Safety are set very high in­deed. Th­ese ap­provals en­tail sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments, and so we too

had made an ex­pen­sive vote of con­fi­dence in the coun­try.

We in­vested in a large main­te­nance hangar, we built a fuel stor­age fa­cil­ity, and we went through our older air­craft with an ex­pen­sive up­grade pro­gramme. It all seemed very worth­while−the po­ten­tial for us to do well seemed real enough. Po­ten­tial−that word again.

Our re­la­tions with the Govern­ment were very good. I had worked for the Pres­i­dent as an ad­vi­sor, and we would of­ten have se­nior fig­ures visit our ter­mi­nal build­ing, some­times just for a cold beer and chat. Oc­ca­sion­ally I would moan about the CAA and, al­though re­cep­tive to my com­plaints about the hos­til­ity that em­anated from our over­sight body, lit­tle could be done since the prob­lems I de­scribed pretty much ap­plied to the en­tire civil ser­vice−the CAA be­ing gen­er­ally con­sid­ered as a branch of the Govern­ment. In ret­ro­spect, I should have made more of an ef­fort to ex­plain that the CAA was not re­spon­si­ble to Govern­ment, but was, ul­ti­mately, ac­count­able to ICAO, since ICAO holds enor­mous pow­ers and can, when cir­cum­stances dic­tate, wield th­ese pow­ers mer­ci­lessly.

I am not sure that I would have been be­lieved. Uganda’s colo­nial past still ran­kled with the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who had swept them­selves to power in the mid-eight­ies−and whom I had cheered on−and who had been in govern­ment since then. The no­tion that Uganda, a sov­er­eign coun­try, could be bul­lied or di­rected by an ex­ter­nal power, al­beit a United Na­tions body to which they had signed up by treaty, was al­most in­con­ceiv­able.

We op­er­a­tors, es­pe­cially those of us who re­fused to buy our way clear of reg­u­la­tion, felt a grow­ing hos­til­ity from the CAA. An op­er­a­tions in­spec­tor, be­ing shown a Se­abee we were re­fur­bish­ing

for po­ten­tial op­er­a­tions as a mede­vac ma­chine for use on the Nile, told us that an air­craft could not go on the wa­ter. “It’s a sea­plane,” I ex­plained, stand­ing near the air­craft, “Look, the un­der­car­riage re­tracts and the hull is shaped like a boat. It’s de­signed to work in wa­ter. It floats and flies. It’s cov­ered by the reg­u­la­tions.” The in­spec­tor re­garded me for mo­ment, “Tsch! Tsch! An aero­plane can­not go on the wa­ter.” I was go­ing to ar­gue but re­mem­bered that Han­nah had re­cently been recorded by our ri­val com­pany so­lic­it­ing a bribe to carry out a check ride, and that when re­ported to her se­niors no ac­tion was taken−she claimed she was ask­ing for dan­ger money since fly­ing in a sin­gleengine air­craft was per­ilous. We re­alised she was right, de­spite be­ing fac­tu­ally wrong, and the CAA was not go­ing to al­low our Se­abee to fly. So that was $50,000 down the drain as we aban­doned the project. An­noy­ingly, this was a per­sonal in­vest­ment by Madam and me.

Our po­ten­tial-filled, hope­ful story came to an abrupt and un­ex­pected end when CAA in­spec­tors boarded an Air Uganda flight just be­fore de­par­ture and told the cap­tain he was not to take off. The air­line had had its Air Op­er­a­tor Cer­tifi­cate sus­pended with­out no­tice. For a week or so there was much mud-sling­ing: the CAA claimed that Air Uganda was un­safe and Air Uganda claimed that the CAA was in­com­pe­tent. The truth slowly emerged.

Our CAA, hav­ing al­ready post­poned an ICAO au­dit−it­self a fol­low-up of a pre­vi­ous damn­ing au­dit−was un­able to dodge the bul­let and had just been au­dited by ICAO. ICAO’S pre­lim­i­nary find­ings were alarm­ing. It’s all on the web if you are re­ally in­ter­ested. The im­por­tant bit for us op­er­a­tors was that ICAO had de­ter­mined that there were prob­a­bly ‘sig­nif­i­cant safety con­cerns’; the most dev­as­tat­ing for us was that our CAA was in­com­pe­tent to have over­sight of its own Air Op­er­a­tors. So, no mat­ter how good we thought we were−or in­deed how good the OGP, the UN, or IATA thought we were−in the eyes of ICAO our CAA was un­able to over­see our AOC cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and op­er­a­tions, and this be­ing the case op­er­a­tions into for­eign coun­tries−icao’s purview−were to be stopped at once be­cause of the dan­ger we posed.

Our CAA at first sim­ply chose the big­gest three Ugan­dan op­er­a­tors and sus­pended their li­cences with­out any due process. Un­happy and wary we con­tin­ued to op­er­ate for a fort­night or so un­til the ham­mer dropped with a mighty thud: a mes­sen­ger ar­rived, breath­less, with a new Air Op­er­a­tor Cer­tifi­cate. This doc­u­ment, we were told, re­placed the one with which we had just

We con­tin­ued to op­er­ate for a fort­night un­til the ham­mer dropped

re­cently been is­sued (with no ad­verse find­ings dur­ing the CAA’S an­nual in­spec­tion). The new Air Op­er­a­tor Cer­tifi­cate was a fac­sim­ile of the re­cent one−with the ex­cep­tion that we were no longer al­lowed to op­er­ate in­ter­na­tion­ally. The same hap­pened to all the other Ugan­dan op­er­a­tors. We were all in­vited to have our­selves re­cer­ti­fied, but no time-frame was given. “Africa wins again,” I hear you cry.

Our busi­ness was now un­ten­able. My first ac­tion was to dis­qual­ify our­selves from a large Euro­pean Union con­tract we thought was in the bag−blow­ing a $600,000 hole in our bud­get. Within days all the in­ter­na­tional fly­ing that had been done by Ugan­dan AOCS was scooped up by our Kenyan ri­vals.

Well, not quite all the in­ter­na­tional work was lost. We dis­cov­ered that one lo­cal­ly­owned com­pany con­tin­ued to op­er­ate into des­ti­na­tions in DRC and South Su­dan. Hav­ing

The CAA man­aged to main­tain its in­no­cence for months

thought lat­er­ally, they sim­ply moved th­ese flights from the in­ter­na­tional flight board to the

do­mes­tic flight board. The CAA was, of course, fully aware of th­ese il­le­gal op­er­a­tions, ac­cept­ing filed flight plans on a daily ba­sis.

The CAA man­aged to main­tain its in­no­cence for months and it was only when the re­sults of the ICAO au­dit leaked out (Uganda’s CAA had ticked the pri­vacy box) that MPS started ask­ing ques­tions. I no­tice that the same old faces are still run­ning the show at the CAA to­day, with the ex­cep­tion of the MD who was even­tu­ally fired. His crime? No, not in­com­pe­tent lead­er­ship, but be­cause the Pres­i­dent had dis­cov­ered dirty lava­to­ries at En­tebbe air­port. Oh yes; Africa wins again.

Madam and I de­cided that we re­ally had had enough when our Chair­man first sup­ported a le­gal chal­lenge and law­suit for dam­ages against the CAA and then changed his mind, no doubt weigh­ing his other busi­ness in­ter­ests. The Chair­man bought out his fel­low share­hold­ers and is still, I un­der­stand, four years later think­ing of re­new­ing the AOC.

We re­turned to spend our time be­tween Ire­land and Eng­land. Madam went back to school to con­vert from FAA to EASA and is now an Ir­ish pi­lot. We live near Good­wood where we keep our Zlin 326. Madam does a bit of in­struc­tion and flies PC-12S to keep her hand in. We have made some great friends at Good­wood and we have some lovely neigh­bours too. It turns out that a cer­tain Bob Grim­stead lives nearby and, like the Cat In The Hat he has tricks to share: ‘why, we can have lots of good fun, if you wish, with a game that I call up-up-up with a Zlin!’

As a postscript I should men­tion that my Ae­ro­club chum came for lunch re­cently. He told me that the Kenyan CAA has just re­stricted twenty-nine of its op­er­a­tors to do­mes­tic flights only fol­low­ing an ICAO in­spec­tion. Africa Wins Again!

Part of the fleet we built up with such care, our Cessna 210 ’LMW on the hangar ramp

Our home base at Ka­j­jansi, painstak­ingly con­jured from ter­mite-rid­den ground

Our very sad look­ing Fuji, no longer al­lowed to fly

We in­vested in a large main­te­nance fa­cil­ity and up­graded our older air­craftBE­LOW: the CAA said our Se­abee, in­tended for mede­vac op­er­a­tions on the Nile, 'could not go on the wa­ter' − and so the project had to be aban­doned

TOP: re­fur­bis­ing our hangar...

ABOVE: ... and the fin­ished ar­ti­cle

ABOVE: our orig­i­nal AOC (top) – later re­scinded; and the CAA'S air­craft clas­si­fi­ca­tion sched­ule

ABOVE: at Good­wood, back in the UK, Madam learns aer­o­bat­ics from Czech in­struc­tor Boris

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