Museveni wants action on airport officials over defects  

RwandAir flight RWD464 from Nairobi skidded off the runway on touchdown at Entebbe International Airport in April. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The April 20 RwandAir incident resulted in the suspension by UCAA, for at least 20 hours, of out-bound and in-bound flights, massing of passengers at Entebbe airport and a social media storm.

President Museveni has demanded action against Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) officials responsible for what he was briefed on to be less-than-satisfactory safety measures at Entebbe International Airport.

In a strongly-worded letter to the Works and Transport Minister, Gen Katumba Wamala, the political overseer of the aviation sector, the President highlighted multiple concerns for which he demanded immediate answers.

This followed findings of an ad hoc investigations by the Brig Henry Isoke-led State House Anti-Corruption Unit that Mr Museveni commissioned following an April 20 incident in which a RwandAir plane skidded off the runway, paralysing flights at Entebbe airport for hours.

Officials blamed the accident on bad weather. However, in his letter, a copy of which this newspaper has seen, the President said he wants technical and structural issues at the country’s aviation regulator, which could have been partially responsible for the mishap, addressed.

“Whether the pilot made a mistake or not, I am more interested in the mistakes of [U]CAA and the airport management,” he noted.

The letter is copied to Vice President Jessica Alupo, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja, Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka, Minister of Defence and Veteran’s Affairs Vincent Ssempijja and Chief of Defence Forces Wilson Mbadi, among others.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works, Mr Bageya Waiswa, in an in an interview confirmed the President’s letter, but said he was not the right authority to comment on the issue. He referred us to Gen Katumba, who was unavailable by press time.

Lack of equipment

The April 20 RwandAir incident resulted in the suspension by UCAA, for at least 20 hours, of out-bound and in-bound flights, massing of passengers at Entebbe airport and a social media storm.

The delay to remove the stricken plane, which prompted the government to draft in the UPDF to assist, exposed the fact that the aviation regulator lacked equipment to rescue, de-bog or salvage planes. 

“Why do they (UCAA) not have equipment for removing damaged planes? What is their work then?” the President wrote.

UCAA’s Head of Corporate Affairs Vianney Luggya in a written response to our inquiries said it is not entirely true that the regulator does not have equipment. “It is not accurate to say that the airport doesn’t have disabled aircraft removal equipment at all. The airport handling agents have tow tractors and towing bars,” he wrote.

He, however, said it will in future be necessary for the airport to acquire the Rapid Aircraft Recovery system, which is best suited to handle new generation of aircrafts which are larger, heavier and of more modern designs.

“Deployment of the Rapid Aircraft Recovery system will be on request by the aircraft operators since recovery of the disabled aircraft is the direct responsibility of the Aircraft Owner or Aircraft Operator in accordance with Aviation global procedures,” Mr Luggya added.

This newspaper understands that UCAA has sent a formal reply to the President about his inquiries, but the details were not readily available.

In his response yesterday, Mr Luggya said UCAA had studied the cost implications and is intent on seeking government help in acquiring the equipment.

Mr Museveni had in his letter also questioned why the UPDF, which runs a number of fighter jets under the Air Force, has never acquired equipment for removing damaged planes.

Daily Monitor quoting a highly-placed source, had in an earlier expose revealed that the accident could have been caused by defects on the runway which was resurfaced in 2020 under phase one of the $200 million upgrade of the airport.

Our sources indicated at the time that runway 17/35 does not have markings to guide pilots and that its design was defective.

“The runway has poor markings, surfacing and the design leads to water accumulating on the runway. And overtime as planes land, the tyre particles accumulate on the runway, making it smooth. Combined with the poor surfacing on runway 17/35, it means planes landing at Entebbe airport fail to gain traction when pilots apply the brakes, leading to planes skidding off the runway,” the source said.

In a meeting with management of this newspaper following publication of the story, UCAA officials led by Director General Fred Bamwesigye denied any defects with the new infrastructure upgrades, dismissing such claims as ill-informed. 

Runway 17/35 was resurfaced in 2020 during the first lockdown that was introduced as a Covid-19 containment measure.

Work on the runway was conducted by the Chinese construction firm, China Communication Construction Company (CCCC), under phase one of the $200m upgrade of Entebbe International Airport.

Sources inside UCAA had at the same time told Daily Monitor that matters around the quality of the runway had been discussed by the top management of UCAA in February and that plans had been drawn up to have it improved, but had remained on paper.

Runway problems

The State House Anti-Corruption Unit team led by Brig Isoke in their findings appeared to corroborate what Daily Monitor reported. 

The Isoke team report to Mr Museveni has reportedly irked top management of UCAA that has questioned the aviation professional competence of the investigators.

“The one being referred to as an investigation was not an investigation at all. The mandatory investigation that goes on when there is aviation accident is carried out by a desk at the Ministry of Works and Transport in liaison with other international bodies. That investigation took place,” a UCAA official said, without sharing the findings.

Brig Isoke’s investigation has nevertheless rekindled arguments around the defects and lack of lighting on the airport’s main runway.

Based on the findings, the President in the letter to Minister Katumba wrote: “Secondly, why have they not rectified the softness of the strip near the runway.” 

International civil aviation rules require the ground alongside a runway to be considerably firmed up with compacted gravel, which our investigations revealed was not the case.

Mr Luggya told Daily Monitor the said strip had been worked on. “The actual runway strip where RwandaAir got stuck was worked on and the entire runway strip will be worked on while implementing Phase II of the works,” Mr Luggya said.

He added that the aviation regulator had at the start of the airport expansion project conducted studies that revealed that there was a need to upgrade the strip. The planned upgrade is planned for the second phase of the expansion of the airport.

Poor lights

Mr Museveni also raised issues with the state of lighting on the runways.

“Why isn’t the old runway not lighted for night landing?” he asked.

Mr Luggya acknowledged that the secondary runway at the old airport is not used for night operations, but portable airfield lighting system can render it usable whenever the need arises. 

“Due to the split of the (airport expansion) project into two phases, the installation of lighting system of (the secondary runway), its associated taxiways with Precision Approach Path Indicators on both ends of the runway is planned to take place in Phase II of the project. This is to be prioritised during the implementation,” he noted.