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Keep your seatbelt, flying in Nigeria can be dangerous – Captain Dele Ore, former chief pilot, Nigerian Airways

Captain Dele Ore joined the Nigeria Airways as one of its earliest pilots in 1964. He rose to the positions of chief pilot, director of…

Captain Dele Ore joined the Nigeria Airways as one of its earliest pilots in 1964. He rose to the positions of chief pilot, director of operations and commander of the presidential fleet. In this interview, the retired aviation veteran spoke on his background, the industry and his experiences as a lawyer.

 

Let’s start with your background.   You schooled somewhere in Ibadan, can you tell us more about it?

It was the school on the rock; Government College, Ibadan. It was at the age of 13 or thereabouts. I got into the college after a competitive examination conducted for everybody in the country.

Not just the Western Region?

We had students from every part of the country.

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I feel fulfilled because although my original idea was to be a naval officer or an air force pilot, there was no air wing at that time as the Nigerian Air Force was just in its formative stage.

I was to have been in the first set but for the principal of our school, DJ Bullock of blessed memory. He had some soft spot for me, such that they had some kind of thinking that I was going to end up being a prefect in the school.

I was very good in hockey, I played for the national team. That team was the first in Nigeria  in  1963  or  thereabouts  to  have defeated a Ghanaian team that had always beaten us every year.

The selection was also due to the interest of the principal. And he had a friend, Dennis Sander, who was the general manager of the United  Africa  Company  (UAC). Unfortunately, I have lost contact with him.

In Ibadan?

In Lagos here, although we were in Ibadan. After   independence   he   would   send   the green-white-green with some arrangement with our principal because they were friends.

Then he would come and pick me in Ibadan to play for the UAC team here in Lagos.

Hockey?

Yes. And he knew that I was interested in flying.

You  were  born  in  a  village  setting  in Kwara, what led  you to  even think of flying, whether for the air force or a normal airline?

Chapter three of the book I put together is on “I had a Dream.” I was just eight years old then.

Where was this?

At Esie in Kwara State, very close to Offa, where I was born. That dream was so real that I  was flying a green-white-green aircraft over my father’s hut in the village, the farmland and  all that. It was so vivid that it was recurring. Some 18 years later, that same dream came true; I was flying an Astech aircraft over that village and landed in Lagos. It dawned on me that this was the dream I had as an eight-year-old boy. It was very fulfilling.

The expatriate general manager of the UAC, who used to pick me up in Ibadan to play hockey in Lagos for their team against the Pioneers, a very tough team in Nigeria, knew, through our principal, that I was interested in aviation, so he brought an advert to the school, which was asking for young Nigerians to apply for pilot training.

The school was at Kiri-kiri but we used to have a classroom at Alagbon, which I think is now being used for intelligence people. Alagbon was our classroom and Kiri-kiri the training field.

He   brought  it   and   I   applied.  He   even arranged for me to stay during the interview and  the  medical  examination  in  his  home, somewhere in Ikoyi.

He was not married, so he lived with his steward, security guard and a dog. He travelled a lot. So during the selection process he left the whole house for me, with the car dropping me at Marina and all the places the selection process was going on, as well as the medical. Unfortunately, I lost contact with him, but he made it possible.

How long did you stay in the federal flying school?

We entered on October 2, 1960.

That was almost Independence Day?

Shortly after independence. I was telling you about green-white- green independence vehicles. From there, they were holding a practice  run  at  Kiri-kiri in  the aero-dome, and we were coached, to the level where we were able to go solo, that is take the aircraft on our own without instructor.

But there was some problem because they didn’t have confidence in the maintenance of the aircraft we were flying, the Chipmunk. They did not release anyone of us to go solo.

But on the Christmas eve of 1960 we were on our  way  to  Scotland. Two to  three weeks later in Scotland, we started flight training in the British Air University in Perth.

How would you describe your stay in a cold Scotland as a young man?

It was very challenging, but the excitement was there. It was new to us. In fact, from London on the train, we saw the countryside with snow-covered field and cattle ranches all over the place. It was quite interesting. I still reminiscence about all these things and it is just like yesterday.

We  were  prepared  as  we  moved  close  to northern Scotland. We had enough warm clothing purchased from St Michaels, which some of the Nigeria Airways crew purchased for us on their trip to London. So we were all ready.

How long was the training in Scotland?

The training ended towards the end of 1964 and I headed to London.

The Nigeria Airways had an office on 32, Melbourne Street and I reported there and introduced myself. Accidentally, they sent a fax message to Lagos to state that they had a young man who has finished training and wanted to come to join the Nigeria Airways, asking if they could give him a ticket. That same night, the response came, stating that they should issue a ticket for me to report to Lagos.

Were you on in-service training sponsored by the Nigeria Airways?

It was a federal government scholarship.

Was there a kind of obligation to come back and work for the government?

The  challenge  was  that  with  that  kind  of experience, nobody was going to employ us.

There was no private airline?

There was no private airline; and the experience was so limited that the minimum required was just all we had. So I arrived Lagos that early morning of April 14, 1964; and that was my commencement.

When documentation started, they brought books out to go and inspect a residence at GRA, vendors to sell car, whichever I wanted. There was UTC and SCOA. I settled for a car and everything was going good.

So, you were a young pilot back to the country.

I was just 22 years old, so I won’t say it was very intoxicating. But it was very exciting when I drove into the compound with Opel record.

In your brand new car?

Yes.

Where you married then?

No. I didn’t marry until 20 years thereafter.

It was very exciting.

Capt. Ore

 

How  was  it  working  for  the  Nigeria Airways at that point as a young pilot?

What happened was that we had two sets of Nigerian pilots that were sponsored by the federal

government. They were there before us and we were looking forward to emulate them. They were very helpful. So it was not difficult because they had already

told us while in Scotland that we would be able to fly

That’s all the Nigeria Airways had?

No. They had more than that, but that was where we were to start because it was being used for poster and delivery messages and also the DC3 aircraft, a 28-seater aircraft.

So, we made sure that for the technical details, we did examination in Scotland before arriving Nigeria. So, as soon as we were given papers of employment, we walked across the operation department, that is our result from the technical exam. Flight training started immediately, so we did not waste time at all.

And it helped. I was flying the small aircraft Astech as a commander and co-pilot with the DC3 aircraft. So we were able to garner enough experience fast enough to be able to also go for the senior licence within a very short time. The war in 1966 also helped.

During the war in 1966, shortly after you started being a pilot, the civilian arm of the Nigeria Airways was kind of involved, helping the federal side, what would you say about this?

We were not only involved, we were commandeered.

So you were forced to do it?

We were not forced, but they had power to even come to your house and seize your wife and car for war effort.

Was there a war act then?

Yes. It gave them power to do that, and of course, half of our colleagues had left for Biafra, so those of us who remained had to justify that the government of this country trained us. So, if they needed us, we were there for them.

Were you involved in supplying war items to soldiers in the frontline and evacuating wounded people?

I think the summary of it is that we were rendering support services, in that the DC3 aircraft we were talking about was used to evacuate ammunition to the warfront, as well as injured and dead people, to the University College Hospital (UCH) in Ibadan. We had a very close shaves. And Makurdi was a hotspot.

Was Makurdi the main federal air base? 

Yes. They had a base in Kaduna but it was a bit  remote  from  war  activities. However, they (Biafra) had some aircraft that used to just fly high to go and harass people in the Kaduna base and all those things.

In the book I put together there is a story of my life as a commander. There is a chapter on my role in the Nigeria civil war.

The air force had gone to Khartoum to bring anti aircraft guns, knowing full well that the western world was not ready to support the federal government with arms.

But by some diplomatic means they supplied war items through other African countries and then the air force would go and collect it and bring to Lagos.

I must recall a particular incident when the air force brought in anti aircraft equipment and I was detailed to fly it to Makurdi for installation.

During the war, the Biafran intelligence network was very good. All our old boys that left were manning the aircraft that were stolen or hijacked. They were manning the air traffic control system, meteorology system and all that.

And the radio Biafra was a mouthpiece that people used to gather round and tell you exactly how many people they had killed and how it happened.

It happened that the aircraft I was flying was loaded with anti aircraft equipment from Cairo and they were expecting me to fly to Makurdi for installation. The Biafrans had all the information.

So, as I was just landing in Makurdi, they were right on our tail, and before offloading, they came against our aircraft.

Incidentally,  we  were  wearing  white upon black and  that was the last time we ever wore that uniform because they could see the white from up. When we removed the shirt, they couldn’t see us anymore.

And they were in camouflage, so you couldn’t trace them. I called on our military to keep on shooting. They started shooting and distracted them and they went away, but not before damaging the wing of our aircraft and throwing a bomb. You will see scar on my face because when they threw the bomb the shrapnel of one hit me on the face.

We were also flying some nurses coming to Makurdi to see some of our troops that were injured. I must make mention of one Major Adams who patched me up and all the blood cleaned up. Since that day we didn’t meet again.

They  took  me  to  the  military  hospital  in Yaba, where they stitched me up, but the scar is still on my head till today. I always tell my children the story.

A lot of people understand that flying to a warzone is dangerous, is a normal commercial flight also dangerous? 

Crossing the road in front of your house is as dangerous as everything else, but we have a safety management and security system that must be obeyed. We have a system for all these things.

Once you have good training and discipline, you will feel very safe as a pilot. Whenever I am a passenger I usually want to know the guys  in  front  there  flying  me.  That  will enable me to relax.

In the Nigeria Airways, the pilots and the ground crew were very well trained.

What do you always say to people who are afraid of flying?

We would lecture them on what we call the theory of flight. How does this metal get up there and what sustains it up there? If you are having a car and it doesn’t have an engine, how will it move?

If you have two engines in an aircraft, if one fails you can manage the other one to make a safe landing. We also have three-engine and four-  engine  aircraft.  I  have  flown  all  of them.

You don’t take anything for granted; everything must be according to standard operating procedures; do it by the book.

But there are unforeseen things like weather and sometimes, technical glitches, have you experienced such situations?

If you have flown for the length of time I did and didn’t have close shave, near misses and all that, then you must be a magician. We had a lot of air misses. However, we have procedures for every situation.

Meteorology is a subject you are taught, so from your cockpit you look far ahead. You have a weather radar that can look 200 miles ahead, which you can tune and find out the intensity of what is ahead. You can find out the best way to avert and avoid all that.

You  cannot  take  weather  for  granted because it can destroy an aircraft. The cell of thunderstorm can completely destroy an aircraft. The area could be dangerous as lightening strikes the aircraft with the fuel tank and all those things.

Incidentally, meteorology was one of my best subjects during training. I also put a book together in  that area. I have meteorology and hostile environment, including thunderstorm, volcanic ashes and  all those things in that book.

So, you have to take interest in things that would  affect  the  performance of  the aircraft and things that can save your life, by knowing the intricacies and the method and altitude to penetrate all these things.

I always tell my younger pilots to avoid bad weather if they can because you are not forced into it. You can divert and go back to where you started from. And bad weather is not stationary, so sooner or later it will move away and you can go.

But if you have the type of aircraft that can carry  enough  fuel,  you  can  afford  to  go 150 miles to avoid the storm on the North Atlantic flight. I was on Lagos to New York route for so many years. When you get to the North Atlantic you will see storm ahead of you and a steady 200 miles. This way, you can’t go above it and you can’t go low, and all that, so you must have enough fuel to go all the way round.

Because you can’t enter it?

If you enter it you may never come out. In few accident reports that aircraft disappeared, the storm shattered them into pieces in the middle of Atlantic.

Do you recall any of such dire situations?

No. I think the best thing is to find a way, have courage and save the situation instead of being scared. When you come out of it in one or two hours later, you can review what happened.

Have you had those kinds of experiences?

Severally, either on the North Atlantic or even across the Mediterranean sea, where the tropical wind mixes with the wind coming in from the polar, the cold region and the junction of it all, where it is usually very bad and dangerous. We were prepared for it by knowledge. You must study weather and know what meteorology is all about.

But in Nigeria, we are blessed in terms of weather for flying as we don’t have tornadoes and tsunami; what is your take on this?

Our  weather  could be very dangerous because we don’t have tornadoes but we have thunderstorms and you cannot go underneath it; you have to find a way to move faraway. Even if you didn’t enter it, it will shake you and the passengers will be wondering what you are doing.

Before departure you would go to the meteorology   department and they would brief you. They now have a system whereby they can use satellite to beam up these images. We didn’t have all those luxuries in those days. The satellite will beam on where you are going and what to expect in the next two to three hours before you pass there. This technology has helped a lot.

In your days we only had the Nigeria Airways, but now we have all sorts of private  airlines; do you  think  this is healthy  for  the  industry? Are these airlines well regulated?

I will always advocate that competition should be very healthy. When you have monopoly you are looking for trouble.

When it was only the Nigeria Airways, we had a turning point when 47 pilots were dismissed in one day due to some excesses and habits—dangerous behaviours, alcohol, drugs and all that. It was a very stabilising effect on the airline. It was like taking away all the bad eggs to be okay. It was a turning point.

How many pilots were there before the 47 were dismissed?

I think we had 250.

There were some attempts to operate Okada Air, EAS and some other companies, so when that tsunami hit the Nigeria Airways, the 47 people had to find sojourn in other places. That helped the industry.

Capt. Ore

 

One interesting part of your career was being on the presidential flight—flying VIPs like former  heads of state  and others. Was that experience different from flying passengers on commercial aircraft?

There   was   no   difference. You   call   it presidential fleet now, but in our days we called it cabinet and special flight. But there was nothing special about it, in that you don’t have a special way of flying the VIP than you will fly even your cargo.

You must treat everything by the book, fly by the book, obey all the regulations and you will be okay.

I was very young when I was appointed to be in charge of the cabinet and special flight. The aircraft owned and operated by the Nigeria Airways was being used for this cabinet and special flight, except one, which was an F28 Gulf November. And there was a government-owned Gulf Stream two, G-2.

We received instructions that the air force was coming to pick those two aircraft. Some squadron leaders came to the office. Incidentally, I was the chief pilot. I think I was removed three times when there was a new government, then two to three months later, I was brought back about three times until I became director of  operations.

It happened that I was the director of operations  when  the  air  force  came  with their order that we  should send all those aircraft belonging to the federal government to them.

Were the aircraft needed during the war?

No. I think being with VIPs was very exciting to them. But it didn’t mean anything to me because I had the pleasure of flying many presidents.  I  did  more  of  flying  foreign heads of state.

Unfortunately, what I have done for the aviation industry in Nigeria has not been recognised. I have never received any accolade or award by the government, whereas  if  you  go Angola, Mauritania  and Guinea, I have the highest honours.

Why did they honour you?

It was because at one time or another, I was assigned  to  fly  either  their  president  or prime minister.

There’s a particular one I always like to mention, which you can’t read anywhere else because it happened to me. The Guinea prime minister arrived in Lagos and we were ordered to take him to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, from there to Kinshasa in Congo, from there to Rwanda in Angola, spending one night in those places. But the president that gave us that assignment was toppled when we were in Kinshasa.

Was that Murtala Mohammed?

I think so. The president of Guinea left me to decide for them and I said I was ready to complete my assignment.

They said they  had  their own instruction from Conakry that we should abort the trip to Rwanda  and  go to Dordan Barracks in Lagos and sign the condolence message, but the airspace had been closed and there was no way we could violate that order because the military had taken over the tower.

So, we used the high frequency radio on the aircraft to talk to the tower, asking them to advise me on what to do since the Guinean prime minister wanted to pay his condolences in Lagos.

The diplomatic crew and the embassy allowed us to go into Lagos, so they went to Dodan Barracks  to  sign the condolence and  later said we should take them back to Conakry.

When  we  arrived  in  Conakry,  you  won’t believe that what we call a state banquet had been prepared for me and my crew. I sat with the president and the prime minister. They  brought out  their national troupe to perform, hailing me. That night, I was conferred with the highest national honour in Guinea.

I was told to go to any Guinean embassy to collect my diplomatic passport, the same passport given Mariam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael, all those people. But I didn’t collect it because I didn’t need it. But it is on record in the embassy.

Can you tell us few of those VIPs you worked with? 

It was a pleasure flying General Gowon. T.Y Danjuma was not head of state but he was highly respected. It was fun to fly him.

Another person was General Joe Garba. It was a pleasure going round the whole world with  him.  There  was  hardly  anywhere  we didn’t go to.

Can you share some of your unpleasant experiences?

I think there was a time we had Yar’adua as number two man and Kingibe was the protocol and it wasn’t fun flying those people.

Why?

They would keep you waiting, with arrogance in the air. And they would come in without greeting. They would go to their seats and order you to move.

There was a time they left the crew, but I had my contingency plan, which was a company somewhere in the United States. They would take care of everything because I had an account with them.

We went to a hotel. They (crew) woke up in the morning and went to the market to buy gold and  other things. I  always told them that it was the only thing they could enjoy with their allowances so that they could make some money.

Early the next morning, people were calling me from the reception to say the VIPs were waiting at the airport and I was supposed to take them to Medina.

I  started  getting  the  crew  and  the transport. They came back and I said there was no time for breakfast, let’s go to the airport. They were waiting for us and it was a shame. I was disgusted. It made me feel very irresponsible.

We had to fuel the aircraft the previous night. Medina from Jeddah is just like Lagos from  Ibadan.  The aircraft was filled with fuel  and  you  could  not  land  at  Medina because it would be too heavy, the aircraft would just disintegrate, so we had to defuel. We took the fuel already in the aircraft back to the tanker and brought the aircraft.

When we were doing this, they looked at us and asked if we had sabotaged it. Of course the crown prince and all those people could not leave the airport until the VIPs moved.

Kingibe approached me and said he told me that I would be taking the chief of staff to Medina and I said he never spoke to me. My assignment was to take him to wherever he wanted.

Few years later, when they said he wanted to be a presidential running mate to MKO Abiola, I  campaigned against him because they did not stop there, they had sent a message to Lagos, distorting the incident and the management decided to dismiss me from service. But Captain Paul Thahal, who was the managing director at that time, said Captain Dele Ore would not do what he was accused of.

He  saved  me;  and  they  put  a  procedure, saying they would not take anything not written as a report order and signed before departure. They streamlined so many things thereafter.

But he nearly jeopardised my career and I felt very bad that somebody like Kingibe could lie.

You have since retired from the Nigeria Airways; are you still waiting for your benefits or you been fully paid?

I voluntarily retired in 1990 or thereabouts and they gave me some ‘chicken change’ as terminal payment. I was receiving a pension of N75,000 every month and I enjoyed it because it was my sweat, no matter how small it was. I enjoyed spending it more than anything anybody could give me. But they liquidated the airline in 2003   and liquidated what I was enjoying. They haven’t paid us what we are entitled to. We are still waiting for the remaining 60 per cent and other things before General Muhammadu Buhari  left office. The  money had been lodged at the Central Bank of Nigeria, but the release was never made until power changed.

Unfortunately, the current president has more urgent problems on his hand than to start worrying about some pensioners.

You are into aviation consultancy and you are also a lawyer, which one do you do?

Two incidents made me to be interested in law: an F28 was lost in Enugu and 53 passengers died; there was a judicial enquiry.

During that enquiry I think 16  lawyers quizzed  me. I was not the head of department when the plane crashed, but by the time the enquiry started, I was the head of department, so I was on the hot seat.

Bola Ajibola was the lawyer representing the surviving crew. They quizzed me so much.

During the interlude he approached me and said I was supposed to be a lawyer, not a pilot. But I told him that I was a science student and he said I could read law.

There was another situation where I was an alternate  chairman to aircraft acquisition and leasing, and to get an aircraft there was a Jewish lawyer helping us in New York. The woman was an encyclopedia and I wanted to be like her. She said I should go and read law.

After all your years as a pilot, was it difficult for you to read law?

I think I had it coming, so I had planned earlier before I left service. So, in 1988 I started in the  University  of  Lagos, from there to the Nigerian Law School. In 1994/1995, I was called to the Bar. So we were there with our children. It was fun.

How is life in retirement?

I enjoyed practising as a lawyer and solicitor. I didn’t like to do advocacy because of my experience. Once I got to court, some judges who recognised me would look at me, even when I was barely five years in the Bar and there were people who had been 30 years, and would just call on me to call my case. It was embarrassing and I stopped going to court.

I do the work of a solicitor. I do a lot of counseling and teaching. I was teaching law, airline economics, airport operations and all that. I was always quite busy in that area.

You hinted that you didn’t marry early, at what point did you settle down; and how is family life for you?

I had a wonderful elder sister. I lost her at my 80s birthday last January. May her soul rest in peace. She was a very good influence on me.

She always talked to me about all these things,  so  I  got  convinced  that  I  had  to settle down. We thank God for it.

When did you do that?

I was more than 40 before I finally settled down. We thank God that kids are all over the world now. Some are dentists, some pharmacists and some, doctors. All of them are abroad; it is only one daughter that I have in Nigeria, 12 others are outside Nigeria.

Are the 12 children from one wife?

No. You see, things didn’t work out because when they expected you to be home and you were not there, it was sort of rough for the young ladies that came my way.

But we thank God that today, we are very good friends. Despite the fact that the relationships  have  scattered,  our  children are wonderful. So we thank God for everything.

What is your typical day like?

I have retired to my country home.

So you don’t come to the office much now?

I hardly come to the office.

How do you spend your day?

I put my memoirs on paper.

So you are still very busy writing?

I have written 13 books. I think about six of them have already    been printed—The Learned                             Commander is my autobiography.

The first book I wrote was on issues in Nigerian aircraft accidents. Last year, I wrote the second edition, which was a research  paper  for  the  Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB). I am still waiting for it to be launched. I think the one I felt very happy with is Aviation Law and Practice in Nigeria, where I combined my aviation and legal experiences.

The book is ready. We printed one or two copies and are waiting for the appropriate time to launch it.

Are you not involved in the community or politics?

No. I am not cut for all that, even in the estate (where I live). I have been through all the activities and activism and can now advise young people. I don’t get myself into all that.

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