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
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