Image: crash wreckage
Sunday Alamba  /  AP file
Africa's air-safety record is among the worst in the world. When a brand-new Kenya Airways Boeing 737 crashed into a jungle swamp last month seconds after takeoff from Douala airport in Cameroon,  killing all 114 people aboard, authorities initially thought it had plunged 100 miles to the south.
updated 6/6/2007 12:27:10 PM ET 2007-06-06T16:27:10

As Capt. Terry Palmer’s airliner neared the international airport at this commercial hub in central Africa, the routine weather report he received from the tower indicated light rain and scattered clouds on the final approach.

“Instead, in the fading light I saw this huge black mass, like a twister just to the side of the runway heading. It was a waterspout, the top of which appeared to be significantly above our level,” said Palmer, who was flying a Canadian-built DHC-6 twin turboprop from Cameroon’s capital of Yaounde.

“If that had been at night and if we had flown into it, I wonder if we would have survived it,” the New Zealander said.

Palmer’s experience illustrates Africa’s continuing problems with air safety. These were highlighted last month when a brand-new Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800 crashed into a jungle swamp seconds after take-off from Douala airport, killing all 114 people aboard.

The continent traditionally tops international air accident lists, with a crash rate about seven times higher than the rest of the world.

But now, Africa has a new tool to try to improve its safety record. African governments on June 28 will inaugurate a continent-wide air safety agency that is modeled on the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency and the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency.

“Until now air safety was left to individual countries, but from now on the African continent will speak with one voice,” said Harry Eggerschwiler, chief of operations for the African Civil Aviation Authority, or AFRO-CAA.

“The political will is there to reverse the trends,” he said.

Little oversight
In the 1960s and 70s, outgoing colonial powers such as France and Britain established national aviation authorities to regulate commercial carriers. But lack of qualified staff and little or no government oversight caused local airlines to quickly allow standards to slip.

“In Africa it’s not considered particularly unusual to reach a scheduled destination at night and find the airport closed, the runway lights off and air-traffic control nonfunctional,” said David Ryerson, a South African pilot who flew for the now-defunct Air Afrique. “We would usually just circle awhile and then head off to an alternate airport.”

The industry deteriorated further with deregulation in some countries, creating a large number of new operators that frequently fly old Soviet-built aircraft leased from Ukraine, Moldova or other former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

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The broader problems of extreme weather, poverty, war and corruption also have had a damaging impact on Africa’s air industry, contributing to numerous crashes over the past decade.

According to accident statistics compiled by the International Air Transport Association, the number of major accidents per million takeoffs in Africa amounted to 4.31 in 2006, compared to a worldwide average of only 0.65.

The safety record is so dismal that the European Union now bans 74 African airlines — from a total international blacklist of 91 — from entering its air space.

New safety organization
Last year the African Union, the continent’s political umbrella organization, established the AFRO-CAA as a means to stem “the alarming rate of accidents, hull losses and fatalities in the African continent when compared to statistics of other areas of the world.”

The new organization will have a total of about 80 to 100 staff members at headquarters and another 25 in its five regional offices in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Its principal tasks will be to improve overall safety standards by developing uniform technical standards known as Civil Aviation Requirements for use in flight operations and aircraft maintenance.

It also will synchronize the licensing of pilots and issuing certificates of airworthiness to airliners, which would replace widely differing national regulations. And it will provide experts to assist national authorities in implementing safety procedures.

The FAA has offered free training for air operations officers and accident investigators, Eggerschwiler said. The European Union also has offered assistance to the new agency.

“This will be a big step to improve safety in Africa,” Eggerschwiler said. “When you go to international safety meetings you always hear ‘Africa, Africa.’ Well, we are now doing something about it.”

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