President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday said he was initially devastated by the news of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Alpha Jet, which was downed over the weekend by terrorist bandits in Zamfara State, but that the survival of the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Abayomi Dairo, who successfully ejected from the aircraft after it came under “intense ground fire” later relieved him.
While Buhari, however, hailed the pilot’s gallantry in the face of intense fire power, Dairo too said his survival was only made possible by God because the bandits wanted him alive than killing him after they knew he had ejected.
The pilot had finished a raid against kidnappers, when he came under intense fire, the Air Force spokesman, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, said in a statement on Monday.
But Flight Lieutenant Dairo was able to elude several strongholds of the bandits by using the cover of darkness and his phone set to navigate and maneuver his way to a Nigerian Army Unit, where he was finally rescued.
Reacting to the development in a statement issued last night by a presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, President Buhari said he was pained by the news of the air crash.
“I was shocked by the devastating news of the air crash but felt much relieved, following the successful ejection by the pilot and his eventual rescue. May the injured pilot recover at the earliest time,” President Buhari was quoted as saying.
Shehu said President Buhari had been briefed on the successful operation by the nation’s defence forces to rescue the pilot, few days after armed bandits gunned down the military aircraft.
The attack happened on the border of the northern Zamfara and Kaduna States.
The Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Lucky Irabor, had immediately commended the pilot for his bravery.
Irabor, who met the pilot in company with the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Oladayo Amao, before proceeding to a meeting with military veterans in the North-west, commended the pilot for the gallantry and bravery he demonstrated in the fight against banditry.
However, giving a personal account of what happened, Dairo, who declared that God made his survival possible as he waded through the stronghold of armed bandits in the Zamfara bushes at night until his rescue, said the bandits, who operated more like Boko Haram, were interested in capturing him alive than shooting him with the way they combed the bushes in search of him.
In a testimony he gave to his high school group in a WhatsApp platform, he said he prayed from the moment his plane was shot and throughout the ordeal and God answered his supplications.
He told his colleagues on the social media platform that prior to the incident, he had dreams of fighting and evading enemies.
“Before Sunday I had been having dreams, where I saw myself fighting and evading enemies like real-time war, day in day out, like nightmares, so when my jet got shot with the explosives and my flight controls were destroyed and I had no choice than to eject, I just said ‘God, finally, here we go’.
“As I was flanked by the bandits, I kept praying and I kept telling God to answer your prayers, because I know you (his group) were all praying for me. I love you all and I thank God for bestowing his love on me and saving me from death several times within that period”, he said.
According to him, “I will still share my testimonies but truly God ordered my steps, the bandits (meanwhile they are ruthless like Boko haram, I don’t know why we still call them bandits) were more interested in capturing me than shooting me (even at point blank range), eventually they got neither.
“He gave me the strength to run and walk covering almost 30kms even with one strained leg. Having not had any food or water all day, I prayed for strength, because I needed it, and he gave me”.
Further, the gallant pilot said, “I can spend hours talking of how I lost and regained hope multiple times throughout my adventure but God is faithful. It’s now that I feel all the pains I suffered from the ejection (including a fracture in my neck and painful back and chest) but God didn’t allow those pains to slow me down for the bandits to capture me.
“NAF platforms overhead also helped me to deter them a lot by making some of them to pin down while I kept running, and when they got close to me, I was still able to evade them by camouflaging (I was wearing green fg suits – in the green forest) and concealing myself”, Dairo said, adding that he encountered many obstacles in the forest but survived with God’s help.
“I ran into plenty spiders and I laid down several times out of weakness not knowing if anything poisonous would sting or bite me. All glory is to God, all glory. I have not been your most righteous brother, but I felt God’s hands in everything, even in every decisions I took immediately I was shot, all the decisions worked together to save my life”.
He narrated that that he was able to remove his phone from his lap to his protective suit before pulling the ejection handle.
“For example, removing my phone from my lap and putting it in my G -suit before pulling the ejection handle (I had to use the compass of the phone and AirNav Pro application to navigate), and making the decision to turn hard 90 degrees immediately the bandits lost sight of me on a sandy cliff, where they couldn’t trace my footpath again (the CAS told me they got information that in turn, the bandits kept going straight in the direction I was initially going and they destroyed several villages and camps, killing plenty people, thinking those people harbored me).
“So much more… the village I eventually entered at night, I told God that the first person I see and call should favour me and that happened, he gave me clothes, pain-relieving drugs, food and water and even malt, and he organised for a bike to carry me to Dansadau early next morning (throughout the night I couldn’t sleep, I was praying that the bandits don’t attack the village because my right leg was already swollen and very painful so I couldn’t jump fences or run again, plus I didn’t want to bring death upon innocent people, and it may force the guy to give me out to the bandits”, he narrated.
The pilot said his helpers dropped him where he was picked up by soldiers.
“They dropped me with the person, who with pride and joy called the army guys to come and meet me (they all had sleepless nights). NAF helicopters came to pick me up from there. There are so much to say. All thanks to God, thank you so much”, he said.
Spokesman of the Nigerian Air Force, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet confirmed the pilot’s testimony.
“Yes. It’s from the pilot. He sent it to his high school WhatsApp chat group”, he said.
Deji Elumoye and Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja