Nigerian airspace has improved tremendously over the years. The country still needs huge and right investment in further securing its airspace not only for the travelling public but for the security of the nation against terrorists. WOLE SHADARE writes that primary radar acquisition may perhaps provide the answers to the security hiccups and by extension keep travelers safer
The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) has come of age and has lived up to the objective of its creation. NAMA is an air navigation service provider. It provides air navigation services at all airports. The airspace is one, so whether it is military aircraft, private aircraft, security aircraft, or anyone, they fly within the same airspace and its responsibility is to ensure the safety of all flights irrespective of the owner of the aircraft. It does not discriminate within any category of aircraft.
NAMA is the sole provider of air navigation services and we provide communication facilities; ground-to-ground communication facilities connecting all the airports, air-ground communications between pilots and our communication varies. It has short-range and long-range communication. Every control tower has radios that they use to communicate with pilots on the ground or has taken off. The control tower deals with landing and taking off aircraft within the airport or during flight training.
The agency is not in short supply of short-range communication. Every airport has to have that range of communication, aircraft taking off has to communicate and be given information, approval, directives, directions, and so on. The moment the aircraft takes off, it goes to the medium-range communication facilities; those that go beyond the airport level.
The country is divided into two and the southern part is controlled by Lagos while Kano controls the northern part. Kano will control aircraft whether it is over Maiduguri or Northwest or Northeast. Lagos will control aircraft in Obudu, Port Harcourt, or towards the oceanic side. That is long-range communication.
The above preamble lays the foundation for analyzing the challenges, prospects, and solutions to the communication problems the agency had faced in the past including making the multi-billion Naira Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria, otherwise known as TRACON function maximally and expanding the scope of the project or programme which the Ministry of Aviation and NAMA have embarked on.
In the past, we have had pilots complain about radio communication and that has to do with the expansion the country has enjoyed. New airports have come up and new air routes have to be created to connect them.
In 1994 when the communications infrastructure that NAMA is using was established, airports like Asaba, Uyo, and Gombe were not captured because they had not been built. Today, there is a multitude of airports coming up. There are now new airports in Bayelsa, Anambra, Ebonyi very soon, Obudu, Lagos, Damaturu, Ogun, Ekiti, and even Abia.
New airports expand scope
As new airports come up, communication infrastructure is required to be updated to be able to take care of these new air routes connecting these new airports; a situation that has forced the airspace agency to do an upgrading following the expansion in the Nigerian airspace.
Experts in airspace management admitted that upgrade was completed, leading to tremendous improvements in air-ground communication, long range.
They said, “We’ve never had any problem with long and medium range. When we talk about medium range, we are talking about aircraft in the range of about 100km from an airport. When we talk about the short-range we are talking about aircraft that is about 40km from an airport. There is no problem with communication in this area. What we have now done is upgrade the existing long-range or what we call extended-range communication infrastructure and there have been a lot of improvements.”
One major advantage to securing the country’s airspace is the deployment of a modern radar system for airspace surveillance. Radar visualizes the entire airspace. Airspace managers or air traffic controllers see all the aircraft, their speed, their bearing, their distance, and their proximity, and then the aircraft controller can adequately manage each of them efficiently by turning them left or right, sending them up or down to ensure separation and accessing the airport safely. That is what our total radar coverage is doing.
Nine radar sites
The radar will is strategically positioned in nine sites and this was done after feasibility studies by experts, on where to mount the equipment to give total surveillance over Nigeria. They came up with locations that had nothing to do with political, or geographical location.
Among the nine sites are those in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano, Obubura, Kebbi, and Adamawa; all of them cover Nigeria in totality. Each of them has about 256 nautical miles, which is almost a 500km radius and when it is triangulised, they overlap each other so they give Nigeria total coverage.
Any aircraft in flight will be seen by this surveillance system and the efficiency for the aircraft controller will be able to see and manage them, giving them shorter routes. That is what the radar is all about because you can actually see, turn the aircraft and fly her on the shortest distance possible. When we have radar functioning, the pilot only takes direction from the air traffic controller. Everything is on the radar.
Limitation and expansion
There are two types of radars; secondary and primary radars. The secondary radar which is in use maximally is limited in scope and operations and only picks aircraft that have the transponder and put it on. The secondary radar that covers the whole of Nigeria requires that the aircraft is equipped with an air system and also activate it. If it is turned off, it is like having a tracker and turning it off or removing it. They can’t track you. That is the way the secondary radar is, it’s cooperative radar, and it requires cooperation from the aircraft.
But if Nigeria desires to win the war on terror and curb insecurity in many parts of the country, the primary radar has become more important than ever. Primary radar can detect anybody without asking the aircraft. It detects the direction of the aircraft, and the speed and displays it for the aircraft controller to see. If your equipment goes off either deliberately or by technical failure you will still be detected by primary radar. That is an advantage that primary radar has.
We have had instances where people narrate tales that helicopters are flying in the Northwest, and northeast, in support of terrorist activities. These incidents occur because there is no radar to detect the activities of illegal helicopter operations that are going on unchecked and that is worrisome to the people.
The Managing Director of NAMA, Mr. Mathew Lawrence Pwajok said he shuddered at the criticism by some that the country does not need primary radar. He said, “Primary radars are very important. I’ve heard criticism where people say we don’t need it because we don’t use it. If you land in Haiti you will see the primary radar. If you land in any US major airport you will see the primary and secondary radar. The antennae are different and I told a politician once that any day that antennae are not turning, call me. 24:7, 365 days a year, all the antennae are rotating anywhere in Nigeria.”
“We have decided to buy primary radar because people complain that helicopters are operating in the fringes, borders, and boundaries and they are not being detected. The primary radar in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and Port Harcourt are short-ranged, 60 nautical miles each. These are busy airports and you can’t afford an aircraft fail. It was deliberately included when we were doing radar coverage. In these four airports, there is no how you won’t be detected and it’s not for security. It’s because an aircraft system can fail, it’s a technical system and someone can mistakenly off the system without knowing, it happens.”
Right from the beginning when we had the total radar coverage, the secondary and primary radar are co-located at Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and Port Harcourt but the secondary has a longer range and the primary has a shorter range and it is obvious.
The NAMA boss disclosed that the agency is required by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) that every safety requirement must have a backup.
“It’s a requirement; we are not looking at cost. It doesn’t require a cost-benefit analysis, airlines can do that, they are for benefits but my job is for the safety and security of our airspace, so I don’t look at the cost. The regulation requires the same thing.”
“If you are providing communication infrastructure, an aircraft coming in to land and the communication between her and the control tower goes off, it could lead to panic, the pilot may panic and take a decision that might lead him colliding with another aircraft because he requires you to guide him on what next to do. If lives are involved, I’m sure Nigerians will ask why you didn’t have a backup.”
The challenge of not having a primary radar system is a very serious one. NAMA had had instances where it was accused of not being able to detect helicopters that do nefarious activities and we don’t have a defense.