Pilot said to have ignored advice from air traffic control in crash that killed 96

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) – A plane crash that killed 96 people in Nigeria might have been averted if the pilot had heeded advice from air traffic controllers to wait for a lightning storm to clear before taking off, the aviation minister said Monday.

Citing the decision as a possible cause of the third fatal passenger jet crash in this West African nation in a year, Aviation Minister Babalola Borishade said the government was preparing guidelines to stop such “reckless abuse of crew discretionary power.”

Borishade did not directly blame pilot error for Sunday’s crash, and authorities were still investigating what brought down the Boeing 737 owned by the Aviation Development Co.

The government ordered all of the privately owned airline’s planes grounded indefinitely and suspended its flying license, Borishade said.

The airline last suffered a crash in 1996 when one of its jets plunged into a lagoon outside Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, killing all 143 aboard.

The latest crash killed 96 of the 105 people aboard, including the pilot and Nigeria’s top Muslim leader, Muhammadu Maccido. The jet smashed into savannah near Abuja airport and broke apart, scattering luggage and body parts across a wide area.

Both the aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered and turned over to investigators, said Asgus Ozoka, who heads Nigeria’s Accident Investigation and Prevention Bureau.

Representatives of aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and engine maker Pratt ‘ Whitney are expected in Nigeria on Tuesday to help with the investigation, Ozoka said.

The plane crashed about one minute after takeoff in bad weather that Borishade said included rain, gusty winds, thunder and lightning.

Air traffic controllers warned the pilot of the doomed flight that the weather would worsen, he said.

“The air traffic controller re-emphasized the deteriorating weather condition and gave wind checks, which they (the crew) acknowledged,” Borishade told reporters in Abuja.

But the pilot “refused to take advantage of the weather advice and the opinion of the (control) tower to exercise patience and allow the weather to clear for a safe takeoff.”

A Virgin Airlines flight that had been on the runway about the same time did not take off because of strong winds, said Rowland Iyayi, head of the National Air Space Management Agency.

“The discretionary power of the air crew to override advice from the tower has been largely responsible for unfortunate consequences in the history of air mishaps in this country,” Borishade said. “The federal government has directed the National Civil Aviation Authority to look into this and prepare appropriate guidelines to stop this reckless abuse of crew discretionary power … to ensure safety.”

ABC News correspondent Brian Ross said on the network’s Web site that he was aboard a flight waiting to take off from Abuja Sunday and saw the burning wreckage.

“Our flight was the next to take off, directly behind the plane that crashed,” said Ross. “looking out the window I saw a large column of black smoke and burning debris.”

The airline released the flight manifest Monday, confirming the dead and nine survivors, including three daughters of the governor of Kogi state who were returning to study in the northern town of Sokoto.

“Two are in stable condition and one is still in intensive unit but has improved,” said the governor’s spokesman, Farouk Adejo. “They were all sitting separately.”

Nigeria suffered two fatal crashes last year, and the latest crash brings the death toll from the three air disasters to 320.

On Oct. 22, 2005, a Boeing 737-200 belonging to Bellview airlines crashed soon after takeoff from Lagos, killing all 117 people aboard. On Dec. 10, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 operated by Sosoliso Airlines crashed while approaching the oil city of Port Harcourt, killing 107 people, most of them children going home for Christmas vacation.

After those disasters, President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered an overhaul of the aviation sector, but it is unclear how much has been done. Airlines have been subjected to checks for air-worthiness and some planes considered unworthy were grounded.

Nigeria’s government is under increasing pressure to fix an air industry widely regarded as notoriously unsafe.

An investigation into the Bellview crash is still under way. Authorities released a report blaming the Sosoliso crash on bad weather and pilot error.

The report also blamed other officials for the Sosoliso crash, saying the plane’s pilot received no weather briefing before he descended into a rainstorm and tried to land despite poor visibility. The aircraft fell short of the runway, skidded and hit an open concrete drain before bursting into flames.

The report highlighted other serious shortcomings of the Sosoliso crash: runway lights had been switched off because staff of the Federal Airports Authority, which controls them, were not working that day.