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Air Force chief orders probe into independence rehearsals tragedy

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The Nigerian Air Force’s aerial display rehearsals for the October 1 Independence Day celebrations turned tragic bad on Friday when two F-7Ni fighter jets collided midair, resulting in a crash on Katamkpe Hill along the Kubwa Expressway, Abuja.

The disaster led to the death of one pilot, while two others with severe injuries were hospitalised.

The Chief of Air of Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, immediately ordered an investigation into the air crash, a statement by NAF confirmed.

It was learnt that the deceased officer, Squadron Leader Bello Baba-Ari, who was a trainer pilot flew the combat fighter jet while the hospitalised officers flew the trainer jets.

It was gathered that the 32-year-old pilot, a squadron pilot at the Air Task Force, Operation Lafiya Dole, in the North-East, had taken off with two others in three fighter jets at about 12.30pm from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

The planes collided minutes later around Katamkpe Hill.

It was learnt that the air tragedy necessitated the pilots to eject from their aircraft, which subsequently crashed on the hill, but Baba-Ari died due to complications from injuries sustained upon his impact on the ground.

A competent source at the NAF headquarters, Abuja, explained how the incident happened, noting that the two surviving pilots were receiving medical attention in a NAF medical facility.

He said, “The speed of a fighter jet is usually very fast such that immediately you take off as a pilot, you have to begin to negotiate how you will land. When he took off, he slowed down in the air so that the two others could catch up with him. But somehow, they ran ahead of him and one of them then collided with his.

“The two other pilots used parachutes to negotiate their way out of the jet but he, as a senior pilot, wanted to sort out the jet and bring it to safety. There was also a problem with his parachute. So he crashed on the ground with the jet.”

An eyewitness, who gave his name only as Miracle, attributed the death of the NAF officer to the failed deployment of his parachute.

He explained that he saw the jet crashing down and the air officer struggling as his aircraft hit the ground and burst into flames.

He said, “I watched the jets coming down and the pilots struggling to eject from the aircraft. Two officers successfully ejected from a jet, but the third one was not so lucky because the parachute did not open (deploy), so he landed on the ground and died.

“The other two narrowly escaped being roasted in the flame that engulfed their crashed aircraft, their escape and survival was nothing short of a miracle.”

The deceased officer, who was once acting Commander at the Air Defence Group, Makurdi, Benue State, was buried at about 5pm at the Gudu Cemetery in Apo area in a sober occasion attended by his father, relations, the COAS, Abubakar, and the Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Olonisakin.

The NAF Director of Public Relations and Information, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, confirmed that the COAS had ordered an investigation into the incident.

He said, “I wish to confirm that an air incident involving two Nigerian Air Force aircraft taking part in the rehearsals for the 58th Independence Day Celebrations occurred in Abuja. It is with a heavy heart that I regretfully announce that one of the pilots who successfully ejected from one of the F-7Ni aircraft passed on.

“The Chief of the Air Staff has instituted an air crash investigation to determine the remote and immediate causes of the incident.”

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