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Aviation fuel contamination raises air safety concerns

The recent revelation of the discovery of a huge volume of water in the fuel tank of an aircraft belonging to one of the airlines…

The recent revelation of the discovery of a huge volume of water in the fuel tank of an aircraft belonging to one of the airlines has raised safety concerns in the industry with the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) moving to unravel errant fuel marketers. 

Last week, the NCAA suspended the operation of B737 aircraft in the fleet of Max Air, one of the indigenous airlines, citing a string of incidents. The suspension was to enable the regulatory authority to carry out an audit of the airline with a view to ensuring its books remain clean to continue to safely operate. 

Following the suspension, which put the domestic operation of the airline on hold, it later emerged that a large volume of water was found in the fuel tank of one of the aircraft. It was by sheer providence that a major incident was averted. 

The said aircraft, with registration 5N-MHM, was flying on the Abuja-Maiduguri route on July 7 when the pilot-in-command had to instead, land in Yola following a snag. It was the best standard and recommended decision that the pilot took when the problem was noticed. 

After the normal procedural checks by the maintenance team of the airline, the discovery was mind-boggling – a huge volume of water which sources put at over 200 litres was found in the fuel tank. For stakeholders, it was a major disaster averted and the culprits must not be spared. 

Aviation fuel, also known as Jet A1 or aviation turbine fuel, is a form of kerosene in its purest form. It is a special kind of fuel used to power aircraft and helicopters. It is usually produced with a standardised international specification which requires careful handling to avoid contamination. 

The implication of adulterated fuel, according to experts, is grave in aircraft operation as it portends grave danger.  It has a dangerous effect on the airworthiness of the aircraft and ultimately leads to engine failure. 

This was the incident averted concerning Max Air’s plane which is generating angry reactions and raised safety concerns about safety in the industry. 

Many stakeholders, who watched the video clips of the water being drained from the tank, were amazed at how the contaminant found its way into the aircraft’s fuel tank. 

The NCAA immediately swung into action, dispatching investigators to Lagos, Abuja and Kano where the airline was said to have refuelled within the period. 

The Director-General of NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu also vowed to apply necessary sanctions including suspension of license of any fuel marketer involved in the fuel adulteration. 

NCAA, as the apex regulatory body in the aviation industry, is also responsible for licensing fuel suppliers servicing both domestic and international airlines. 

According to the DG, no fewer than three suppliers are being investigated over the incident while Max Air remained suspended. 

He said, “Certainly, during aircraft fuelling, they had water in it but we do not know the amount because we were not there. That same day, when the report reached me, I called for a Zoom meeting with my folks; we spoke and that particular aircraft was grounded.”  

He also disclosed that the civil aviation authority would have a meeting with the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority (NMDPRA), the agency regulating the fuel suppliers and which, he said, has a responsibility “to ensure that fuel is not contaminated.” 

“On the issue of fuel contamination, we are doing a full investigation. We learnt the aircraft took fuel in Lagos, Kano and Abuja and we are investigating the fuel suppliers to see their fuelling procedures to ensure everything is okay. I expect to get a report very soon,” he said. 

Nuhu, who stated that the NCAA remains committed to the safety of air passengers, assured them that the regulatory authority is up and doing. “We are not sleeping. We are doing quite a lot. We are going to issue another AOL (All Operators’ Letter) to remind them (operators) to test the quality of fuel before fuelling their aircraft. I want to assure the travelling public that there is no cause for alarm.” 

The authority later followed the AOL with reference number NCAA/DAWS/AD.1104/AOL085 dated July 14, 2023, addressed to all airlines, aircraft operators and aviation fuel suppliers, signed by the Director of Airworthiness Standards of NCAA, Engr Gbolahan Abatan. 

The AOL also pointed out that there have been many flight accidents in history caused by fuel contamination resulting in abnormal operation of aircraft engines, adding that, “Water is a major contaminant, amongst others.” 

It said: “In recent times, the NCAA has been receiving mandatory occurrence reports from airlines and other aircraft operators with issues related to water being found in the fuel tank of aircraft. Recently, there was a report of a significant amount of water drained from the fuel tank of a Boeing 737 aircraft that had a fuel indication and gauge malfunction in-flight.” 

The NCAA however advised all airlines and operators to improve their refuelling procedures as documented in their maintenance control manual/refuelling manual and fuel suppliers’ operation manual/quality control manual. 

The procedures, it stated, include inspection of aircraft refuelling equipment by ground staff with a visual inspection of fuel hose, gauges, tires and the overall body of the truck. 

The NCAA also called for testing, and checking of jet fuel quality before refuelling by ground staff with the primary concern being the presence of water in the fuel. 

The current development reminded stakeholders of the 2016-2018 era when the issue of fuel contamination was on the front burner after a series of discoveries prompting the NCAA to put in place a string of reforms including setting up a quality assurance mechanism to check fuel quality. However, the issue reared its ugly head with the Max Air incident which is now under investigation. 

A source at the airline, who spoke with our correspondent in confidence, said the crew of the airline was meticulous in swiftly discovering the fuel contamination which was shocking to the airline and immediately reported to the regulatory authority. 

“We pride ourselves with our unwavering commitment to safety at all times. The issue of suspension of our B737 operation was as a result of this fuel contamination which our maintenance discovered and we have taken an internal measure to put our operation on hold before the NCAA waded in.” 

There are indications that the Nigerian Safety Investigation Bureau (NSIB) may also join the investigation given the gravity of the issue, as fuel contamination is one of the major causative factors in previous air accident reports which claimed hundreds of lives. 

While the fuel suppliers have a responsibility to respect the sanctity of lives by selling pure and unadulterated fuel which would guarantee safe flight operations, other stakeholders say the airlines especially the pilot-in-command should also carry out secondary checks at the point of refuelling to ensure the fuel being dispensed into the aircraft was not contaminated. 

As the investigation is underway, experts say it must be thorough and that anyone found guilty should face the music as the intention was to kill. 

There have been several posers raised about how water could have found its way into the tank with some even insinuating that water could have mixed with Jet A1 through bad cap valve seals or from underground tanks, truck dispenser tanks and the airplane itself. In fact, another school of thought suggested foul play. 

“This is a very dangerous situation. The NCAA should step in today and with utmost attention to check all the fuel storage and bowsers,” said an expert who pleaded anonymity. 

But the general consensus among stakeholders is that the NCAA should conduct a thorough investigation to unravel the circumstances surrounding the discovery. 

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority (NMDPRA) said it has conducted a survey of aviation fuel imported between May 1 and July 8 with a view to tracing the source of the contamination. However, it said so far nothing negative has been found.   

Engr. Farouk Ahmed, the Authority Chief Executive of NMDPRA, who spoke during a virtual meeting NCAA held on the issue, stated that the survey is all-encompassing, from the import to coastal depots of the fuel marketers, to determine where the contamination occurred.

He said the authority had even gone ahead to hold a crucial meeting with managing directors of the fuel suppliers, adding that the authority was ready to collaborate with the aviation authorities to determine the source of the contamination. 

An airline operator, Capt. Roland Iyayi said, “There could be a lot of different reasons but the primary suspicion right now is the source of fuel because there was that too much water in the tank. If an aircraft is parked for so long and there is condensation in the tank, you would have some water. 

“However, the volume of water that was poured out in the video I saw is most likely contamination but I don’t want to speculate since it is still a function of an investigation by the NCAA and what I have you. I don’t want to pre-empt anything. Let’s wait for the outcome of the investigation.” 

Aviation safety analyst, Group Capt. John Ojikutu, said it was high time NCAA revived previous safety reports by NSIB on fuel contamination. 

He said: “Does the case of fuel contamination suggest that the fuel marketers too have no responsibility to check their fuel depot tanks, fuel dispenser tanks or hydrants? Are the fuel marketers not subjected to some level of safety regulations as the catering services and cargo handling companies?

“Again, I am aware that the NNPC former DPR once suggested to the NCAA and the marketers in about 2018 to establish a testing laboratory at the Airports fuel depot. The marketers complained about the cost, I wonder what the NCAA has done about this since then?

“I suggest the NCAA revives all the former AIB un-implemented safety recommendations on fuel contamination and ensure that responsible marketers implement the necessary safety recommendations otherwise stopped from commercial fuel services.”


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