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Pilot Of Downed Fighter Jet Buried In Quiet Ceremony, Co-Pilot Remains Missing

The remains of one of the pilots were recovered during a military operation a year after the crash, while the whereabouts of his colleague remains unknown.

A Nigerian Air Force pilot killed during a combat mission in the Northeast of the country was finally buried on Thursday Oct. 13, over 18 months since his plane went down, and nearly seven months since his body was discovered. 

Flt Lt. Ebiakpo Chapele was buried with honours at the Military Cemetery in the capital Abuja. The ceremony was private, with only colleagues, friends and family attending. It was not publicly announced by the airforce.

The body of Chapele and his aeroplane was missing for over a year.

“Today we finally bury a son, a beloved brother,uncle & husband,” the pilot’s sister Tracy Chapele said on Twitter. “A patriot who since he was taught about Gowon/Ironsi in pry 6 insisted we start calling him ‘Major’ cos he’d serve Nigeria.” 

“I salute your courage little bro”, Tracy, a presenter on Wazobia FM, added. 

The body of co-pilot, John Abolarinwa, is still missing. 

The exact circumstances of how the plane came down have not been released. It is not known if the jet crashed or was shot down. 

The two Flight Lieutenants were conducting a mission in support of the counterinsurgency operations on March 31 2021, when their aircraft disappeared from radar and went down in the infamous Sambisa forest, a former stronghold of the Boko Haram terror group. 

At the time of the incident, the Air force had said that an “extensive search and rescue effort” was going on, by ground and air.

Debris of the Alpha jet recovered by Nigerian soldiers during a clearance operation in Sambisa. 

A year later, on March 26 it was announced soldiers on a clearance patrol as part of a large-scale offensive in Sambisa named ‘Operation Desert Sanity’, discovered the wreckage of an Airforce Alpha Jet with the designation NAF 475, Chapele and Abolarinwa’s plane. The Army said further explorations were “ongoing”.

The remains of a pilot were recovered. HumAngle understands that DNA verification was done to confirm that the remains were that of  Ebiakpo Chapele, following which the family was able to have closure. 

The military has mostly provided very few details on the recovery efforts for the pilots. Following the discovery of the jet’s wreckage, it’s unclear whether the military still classifies his colleague as missing. 

There is also controversy on how much information authorities withheld about the cause of the crash, the exact time the aircraft debris was discovered, and when the Air Force had confirmed the identity of the pilot. 

Days after the aircraft was declared missing, a Nigerian news outlet, THISDAY, reported that a military source revealed to them the jet had been found in Bama, central Borno, an area that also includes parts of what’s described as Sambisa. 

In that report, the source said that the body of Flight Lieutenant Chapele Ebiakpo had been found, while that of Flight Lieutenant John Abolarinwa was still missing. 

In April Boko Haram released a manipulated video that appeared to show a jet being shot down, then showing several fighters brandishing their weapons, alongside the Alpha jet debris. The video showed a masked fighter with a belt-fed machine gun standing on the debris and speaking both Arabic and English. 

At least part of the clip, where the jet can be seen taking fire and exploding, was faked. 

Nigeria also has an unresolved incident involving a missing combat pilot following the crash of another Alpha jet, NAF 466, on Sept. 11, 2014, at Kauri in the Konduga area of Borno while conducting a mission. 

The pilot, Wing Commander Chimda Hedima, was subsequently killed -beheaded on camera for propaganda purposes. The whereabouts of co-pilot, Group Captain Abdulrasheed Bamidele Braimoh, remains unknown.

Last year, an Air Force pilot on a solo combat mission in support of the military campaign in the Northwest was injured after bailing out of an alpha jet that came under intense enemy fire.

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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