Airline pilots have, for years, been warning over the growing threat of a mid-air collision in African airspace. On 13 September they appear, unfortunately, to have been proved right, with the apparent en route collision of a US Air Force Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and a German air force Tupolev Tu-154 off the coast of Namibia.

Admittedly, this is only one incident, and many of the facts have still to be confirmed, including whether indeed there was a collision. Yet the picture which is now being pieced together seems to confirm all the old fears about African air- traffic-control (ATC) procedures, or the lack of them.

The C-141 had been heading out of the Namibian capital Windhoek, bound north-east towards the Ascension Islands. At the same time, the German transport was heading in from Niger airspace towards a refuelling stop at Windhoek. The last reported information suggests that they had both been heading towards the same route waypoint at the same height.

Windhoek ATC says that it had not received the Tu-154's flight-plan and that it rarely, if ever, does receive such information from African states to the north. The crew of the Tu-154, which was just inside Namibia's ATC region, had not yet made contact with Windhoek at the time of the accident. In short, Windhoek ATC simply did not know that the Tu-154 was there.

It was such a lack of basic communications between ATC regions (and even between centres and aircraft)which in 1996 led the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA) to warn that it was pure luck, combined with Africa's relatively empty skies, which had so far prevented a mid-air collision. That luck appears to have run out.

Africa's many developing nations may complain that they lack the same infrastructure resources open to their critics from the north. Little of the continent, for example, is covered by ATC radar - and probably never will be as African skies will eventually move direct to new satellite-based systems - but that alone is not an excuse. Most of the world, including the much busier skies over the north Atlantic and Pacific, are not covered by radar, but are still safely managed by good, old-fashioned procedural ATC. It is the failure to apply these procedures which has singled out African skies.

The essence of procedural ATC is timing and control of the aircraft entering the system, so that the demands of the task never exceed the system's capabilities. Crucially, that relies on communication - not just en route position-reporting by pilots, important though it is, but the communication of flight-plans to the ATC centres which will deal with the aircraft. Unlike radar, this communication is relatively easy and inexpensive to provide and maintain. It would require nothing more technological advanced than a telephone and a telex or facsimile machine.

It is, however, what much of Africa's ATC does not have or does not use, and is one of the primary reasons why the air-traffic services of all but seven of Africa's nations have been labelled by the International Civil Aviation Organisation as "critically deficient". This harsh judgement has nothing to do with the fact that most of African ATC is procedural; it simply reflects the fact that the procedures are not applied.

Such procedures also need to be applied not just in individual countries, but across the continent. Namibia, which is one of the few not on the ICAO critical list, is helpless to provide adequate separations and non-conflicting flight paths if it is being starved of ATC information from its neighbours.

To get such a procedural system up and running will require some investment. ATC staff need to be trained and paid adequately. Proper maintenance also needs to be put in place for the relatively simple components which such a system requires. Such levels of investment are relatively trivial, however, and concerned inter- national aviation bodies have indicated a willingness to help shoulder much of the burden.

The biggest missing ingredient appears to be the political will within Africa to spend the necessary time and effort on confronting the problem. If they do not, it is African states themselves which stand to lose most as air transport in the region continues to suffer.

Source: Flight International