Nigerian air force learning to fly helicopters in England amid human rights concerns

Nigerian air force personnel are learning to fly helicopters in Newquay, southwest England, amid allegations by Amnesty International that military aircraft have killed civilians in Nigeria. Yet the UK’s Ministry of Defence says it has no knowledge of this training.

11 November 2020

Nigerian air force personnel arm a helicopter (Photo: NAF)

Declassified caught three Nigerian air force personnel on camera in the Cornish surfing resort of Newquay on 21 October, the day after Nigerian troops shot dead at least 12 people in Lagos during protests against police brutality.

Our investigation, which can be watched below, has found that up to 10 Nigerian aircrew are learning to fly at Cobham Helicopter Academy, a private company located next to the Royal Air Force’s St Mawgan base at Newquay airport.

Cobham is authorised by the Military Aviation Authority to provide helicopter training in Newquay as well as at the Special Air Service (SAS) base in Credenhill, Hereford.

The company says it is “fully sponsored by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD)”, but the department told Declassified it had no knowledge that any Nigerian helicopter pilots are training in the UK.

Nigerian military personnel attended 37 training courses in Britain last year, Declassified has found from freedom of information requests.

However, the Cobham helicopter training does not appear on any of the official documents obtained from the MOD, because it is being delivered by a private company which is exempt from freedom of information laws. 

The Nigerian military is waging a campaign against the brutal Boko Haram terrorist group, in which government forces have also been accused of human rights abuses. Some 10,000 civilians are alleged to have died in military detention camps.

Nigeria’s air force faces accusations from Amnesty International that its aircraft, including a helicopter, killed at least 35 people who attempted to flee villages in Adamawa state, in northeastern Nigeria, in December 2017.

The Amnesty report quoted a farmer in one village saying: “The helicopter and the jet started releasing bombs. Houses started burning. Children started running for their lives. Mothers packed up their children and escaped with them. We men were unable to fight back and we started running too. This jet burnt our houses and properties to ashes.”

The Nigerian air force has denied the allegations, claiming that it should “be seen as a heroic organisation and unfortunately Amnesty International is trying to vilify the service”.

Aircraft have played a key role in the war against Boko Haram, with Nigeria’s air force purchasing a pair of Bell 412 helicopters in 2017. It fitted them with infrared sensors and pod guns to target the insurgents.

The same type of helicopter is operated by the Cobham Helicopter Academy in Newquay and has triggered noise complaints 55 miles away at Eaglescott airfield in Devon, where the aircraft flies during training runs.

The helicopter training takes place in the southwest of England. (Map: Declassified UK/Google Earth)

Parish council records reveal complaints about “jet helicopters …running seven days a week …[that] hover at full power”, sometimes late into the night. One villager claimed: “The noise is difficult to live with.” Eaglescott airfield did not respond to Declassified’s request for an interview.

John Tremayne, a parish councillor in Dolton, a village near Eaglescott, told Declassified he was “mortified” to learn that helicopter training was being given to Nigerian air force personnel.

Tremayne said: “If we are training people for that kind of flying that they’re going to be trying to deal with — you know mowing down civilians with very high rate of fire electrically operated pod guns, that’s just appalling. We should have no involvement with that — [and] be boycotted, sanctioning anyone who does have any involvement with that.”

Saudi connection?

There are also suggestions that Cobham is training pilots from the Saudi Arabian military. The Civil Aviation Authority holds records about the company teaching Saudi helicopter pilots in Newquay, but it told Declassified these files are confidential.

Human Rights Watch says a helicopter from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed dozens of refugees when it opened fire on a boat in 2017. Reports like this have angered some villagers around Eaglescott.

“People are concerned about why the hell have we got Saudis here?” Tremayne commented. “They’ve murdered journalists, they’ve beheaded people in the streets, they’ve got an appalling human rights record in Yemen. Why are we training people who are doing such appalling things?”

Cobham has a base in Saudi Arabia and has previously trained Saudi Air Force pilots on fixed-wing aircraft as a subcontractor for BAE Systems. However, the extent of its support for Saudi helicopter pilots in Newquay remains unclear.

There are other suggestions that Cobham has taught helicopter crews in Newquay from other Gulf monarchies such as Kuwait and Qatar — which have also fought in Yemen. 

In June, a Qatari student at Cobham Helicopter Academy was banned from driving after being caught speeding eight times in two months.

The Saudi Embassy, the Nigerian High Commission and the Cobham Helicopter Academy did not answer Declassified’s questions about which foreign militaries are studying in Newquay.

A Cobham spokesperson said: “The Helicopter Academy is a highly professional international defence training organisation providing specialist helicopter training services.

“The delivery of our training services for the UK and allied governments, military and public service operators from across the globe brings material benefits to UK foreign policy and supports the defence contribution to the UK prosperity agenda.”

They added: “Low flying over houses is avoided, in consideration of local residents.”

Cobham launched the helicopter academy in 2017 with Chinese maritime search and rescue pilots as their first customer. 

The academy trades under the name FB Heliservices Ltd and operates out of a hangar leased from Cornwall Council, which is run by independent and Liberal Democrat politicians.