FeaturesFEATURES: Fatal Crashes: Blaming Man, Machine Or Nature?

FEATURES: Fatal Crashes: Blaming Man, Machine Or Nature?

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February 25, (THEWILL) – When airplanes explode midair or plummet down to earth in a spiraling inferno before disintegrating into a thousand pieces, investigators look out for possible causes: an inattentive or exhausted pilot, an act of terrorism, an electrical or mechanical fault or freak weather. THEWILL examines some notable crashes resulting in untimely deaths of famous people. Michael Jimoh reports…

The first recorded human tragedy of crash-landing to earth from the sky is the much known myth of Icarus son of Daedalus. An inventor and resourceful Greek, Daedalus was imprisoned along with his son by King Minos of Crete in a tower above his palace. Ever the ingenious fellow, Daedalus coupled together birds wings (from the ones that flew near them in the fortress) and wax (from the candles they used in their cell) so he can escape with his son from the high altitude confinement.

Older, wiser and more experienced, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the Sun otherwise he will de-gravitate. Younger, inexperienced and more excitable, his son does exactly the opposite. The intense heat from the Sun melts the wax on his wings and so Icarus plunges down to death from above.

More than two thousand years after and with more refined versions far surpassing Daedalus’ cruder invention, men and machine flying high in the sky still plummet down to earth now and then with the same tragic result.

Though safer than road transportation, according to available records, aircraft crashes often make loud headlines anywhere in the world, especially those involving wealthy and famous people. Erstwhile CEO of Access Holdings Herbert Wigwe and his son Chizi were never at any time before 9 February incarcerated by royalty. For one, Wigwe himself was royalty in the banking sector in Nigeria with millions of depositors literally at his mercy as MD of Access Bank.

Unlike Daedalus and Icarus, Wigwe and son were not fleeing from the wrath of a vengeful monarch. Along with his wife Doreen, MD of Craneburg Construction, a friend and former Group Chairman of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Abimbola Ogunbanjo, they were out to enjoy themselves at a major Super Bowl match – annual league championship of the American National Football League. With a crew of two, they flew in an Airbus Helicopter EC130B4.

Like Daedalus who was a superstar inventor in his day, Wigwe was riding high on the crest of his banking career and clearly one of the wealthiest bankers in Nigeria with a net worth of between $65.2 million and $680 million. So, putting down some princely sum to watch the game from a private suit with family, friends and staff would have been nothing to him. But he never got to the venue let alone watch the game. What happened is pretty much known by now. The banker, his wife, son, Ogunbanjo and crew perished in the chopper they were travelling in near a border town between California and Nevada.

Though a full report of the crash is expected any time from now, initial investigations by US National Transportation Safety Board has shown that the crash could have been avoided if the chopper had not taken off in the first place.

At least, that is the view of Robert Clifford an American aviation lawyer and senior partner of Clifford Law Offices in Chicago. “The crash of a helicopter that killed six people including a top Nigerian banker and his family along the California-Nevada border Saturday night immediately strikes one as a tragedy that may have been avoided given the known weather conditions at that time,” Clifford wrote in his office’s website.

According to witnesses on the ground, the crash was most likely caused by inclement weather, some of them saying there was “wintry mix” weather conditions, including “rain” when the chopper went down. The crash sent seismic shock waves down the spine of many Nigerians from the presidency on down. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu described the unexpected death of Wigwe as “an overwhelming tragedy that is shocking beyond comprehension.”

The business elite, politicians and sundry professionals in Nigeria have been similarly grief-stricken, mourning the tragic death of a respected entrepreneur and philanthropist overseeing a vast business empire within and outside Nigeria. In his tribute, President Emmanuel Macron of France described Wigwe as a “humanistic and talented entrepreneur.” He also praised Wigwe for his efforts in strengthening “the relationship between France and Nigeria through his leadership of the French-Nigeria Business Council.”

To former Minister of Health Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, Wigwe’s sudden death was nothing short of losing a gem. “Herbert was one of our children, and we say to ourselves in him, a star was born, and that star developed into a gem,” Adelusi-Adeluyi said in his condolence message. “And now we are witnessing a situation that the star that was born that has turned into a gem that is gone.”

Though not in the banking sector, Professor Pius Adesanmi of the Institute of African Studies Carlton University in Ottawa Canada was another prominent Nigerian whose untimely demise Nigerians and the rest of the world received with shocked disbelief. A confirmed star among a constellation of world class intellectuals, Adesanmi was among 157 passengers and eight crew members who died in an Ethiopian Airlines jet en route Nairobi from Addis Ababa.

After taking off, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed near Bishoftu, a town 62 kilometres away from the Ethiopian capital. Investigations showed one, two, three or so brand of the aircraft in question was prone to accidents, leading to the manufacturers recalling those already in the fleet of some airlines or purchased by some countries, notably China.

Reminiscing on the late Nigerian professor’s tragic end, Pauline Rankin, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University said: “He worked tirelessly to build the Institute of African Studies, to share his boundless passion for African literature and to connect with and support students. He was a scholar and teacher of the highest calibre who leaves a deep imprint on Carleton.”

President and Vice Chancellor of the institution Benoit-Antoine Bacon paid Adesanmi a deserving tribute. “He really was a global thinker…a lot of people found strength in the work that he was doing. There’s no question that his passing, his sudden death is a crippling loss for the Institute [and] for Carleton,” adding that Adesanmi wasn’t afraid to fight for what he believed in. “He was on the ground doing things, making the world better and he inspired a lot of people in our community and internationally. One of our most brilliant minds.”

Kobe Bryant was certainly one of the most gifted players on the basketball court when he died in a chopper crash in January 2020 with Gianna, his 13-year-old daughter. In the crash were three generations: Gianna’s basketball teammate, Alyssa Altobeli, also 13, her mother Kerri and John Altobeli, father and basketball coach. Another teammate of Gianna Payton Chester and mother Sarah also died and the pilot Ara Zobayan.

At the time, much of the world was on lockdown because COVID-19 was decimating populations by their thousands in record time. Still, the helicopter crash of the basketball star, his family and friends evoked a sense of loss and grief reserved for role models and exceptional individuals plucked too early by the cruel hands of fate. Despite the ravaging Corona virus, Bryant’s death was something of a peculiar tragedy to Americans and the world in general. POTUS Donald Trump described the death of the occupants of the chopper as “terrible news.”

To former President Barack Obama (a basketball aficionado himself) “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.”

Though it happened a good 15 years before Obama’s pronouncement of “unthinkable day” for the surviving Bryant family, some families in Nigeria felt the same loss when Sosoliso Airlines Flight1145 (SO1145/OSL1145 crashed and burst into flames at Port Harcourt International Airport on 10 December 2005. A McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32, the flight departed Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja earlier in the day with 110 passengers and crew. All but seven of those on board died instantly with only two survivors after medical care in a hospital.

Among the casualties were Pastor Bimbo Odukoya of Fountain of Life Church Lagos and dozens of students of Loyola Jesuit College in the Federal Capital Territory. Mostly between 12 and 16 in age, the students were returning to Port Harcourt for the Christmas holiday when the plane crashed. An American and French volunteers of Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders were among the dead.

According to investigations by the Nigerian Accident Investigation Bureau, the cause of the crash was pilot error “the pilot’s decision to keep descending on the airport even though the aircraft had passed the minimum decision altitude. The pilots decided to go-around while they were in wind shear condition. This decision was also too late as they still had not configured the aircraft for a go-around and their altitude was already too low.”

Three months before on 22 October, another flight operated by Bellview Airlines had crashed soon after taking off from Domestic Airport in Lagos. Bellview Airlines Flight 210 was en route Abuja when it lost contact with the Control Tower in Lagos and then plunged into the forest at Lisa a village in nearby Ogun state. All 117 people on board died.

Death of wealthy and famous people in air crashes anywhere in the world isn’t such a novel occurrence. One of the most tragic in history involved no less a world citizen than Dag Hammarskjöld who was second Secretary-General of the U.N. 15 other people died with the Swedish diplomat in the fatal crash while on a peace mission to the Congo on 18 September 1961 in a United Nations DC-. There were rumours of assassination of the Sec-Gen by a combined team of American, British and Belgian forces. Eyewitness accounts insist they saw a smaller plane trailing the aircraft Hammarskjöld rode in, fired at it and then flew off in the opposite direction when the UN DC-6 jet began to decelerate. But a commission of inquiry by the British blamed the crash on pilot error.

Pilot error was clearly not the cause of the crash involving onetime strongman of Pakistan President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. With the sort of absolute powers favoured by old school military dictators such as Augusto Pinochet (“No blade of grass moves in Chile without my ordering it”) the sixth president of Pakistan ruled his country with a stern hand. His subjects both feared and adored him, the West (read America) was more circumspect but befriended him nonetheless. On 17 August 1988, grim news made the rounds that Zia-ul-Haq had died in a plane crash, a helicopter C-130. Among the passengers were his close assistant Akhtar Abdur Rehman, Arnold Lewis Raphel an American diplomat. The chief of the U.S. military mission in Pakistan Brigadier General Herbert M. Wassom was also in the plane.

Conspiracy theorists rooted for a plot against the Pakistani president in which he was clearly rubbed out. But eyewitness accounts of the crash recalled that the plane began to pitch “in an up-and-down motion” while flying low shortly after takeoff before going into a “near-vertical dive” and then “plunged from the sky and struck the ground with such force that it was blown to pieces exploding on impact, killing all on board.”

There have been dozens more reported crashes involving the famous and the rich, the not so rich and those in between in nearly all parts of the world. Warned against taking to the skies because of stormy weather at night back in mid July 1999, publisher of George magazine and only son of President John F. Kennedy, John Kennedy Jr. perished in an aircraft with his wife, Carolyn Bessette and sister-in-law Lauryn Bessette. The plane crashed off Martha’s Vineyard in the Atlantic Ocean.

Cause of accident? Kennedy was a victim of “spatial disorientation” because “light conditions were such that all basic landmarks were obscured, making visual flight challenging,” NTSB said of its investigation at the time.

Which brings up the question of man, machine or nature as the cause of aircraft crashes. In some cases, man has been at fault just as machines themselves prone to performing like jumping fleas on a whim. The weather has equally been culpable, too, as in the chopper accident in which Wigwe and co travelled. Still, it might do aviators and flyers well to remember what Randall Munroe, an American engineer, cartoonist and author, said of man’s first attempt at soaring above in the sky. “I’ve never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.”

About the Author

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Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist with many years experience in print media. He is currently a Special Correspondent with THEWILL.

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Michael Jimoh, THEWILLhttps://thewillnews.com
Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist with many years experience in print media. He is currently a Special Correspondent with THEWILL.

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