Monday, February 28, 2011

February 28th

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
Weather… good or bad weather… or at least weather that is or is not good for Visual Flight Rules flying at low level, is always of interest to me and the crew at Kpong Airfield.  Aviation is a weather dependent activity – akin to farming and golf!

So, when I saw weather systems running from Port Harcourt, Nigeria to Lome, Togo, building and heading as if to clip the southern part of our country with intense winds and potentially a lot of rain, I decided to make an alert call. 

Earlier last week I had the pleasure of finally meeting with our friends from NADMO, and as part of that get together, I was pleased to be able to collect a phone number of a contact person.  Ghana has not really made use of its light aviation collateral in times of need, and it is important to understand the uses and limitations of all resources – so the meeting was a pleasant and positive exchange.  Little did I realise that I would be calling our new contact person 24 hours later regarding a weather warning!

Almost every day we monitor satellite images for West Africa on-line, using our Cliq.  Since morning, a storm had been brewing in what we call ‘Cameroon Bay’ – that being the area of sea between Port Harcourt and Douala.  Many storms brew in that ‘tea-pot’, mostly they pass without touching us in Ghana – either dissipating their energies on the way to Benin, or passing along the coast, south of Ghana. 

At the end of the Harmattan and the beginning of the ‘rains’ one or more of these storms will grow, pass inland and give the Harmattan a big ‘shove’ northwards.  This is characteristically accompanied by strong winds, low cloud base and a lot of rain.  Such storms are normal, generally occurring in March and April.  In the past few weeks several big storms or groups of storms have formed and missed Ghana as the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ)  holds the weather towards the equator.  However, on Tuesday, the twenty second of February 2011, the storm systems formed a chain – a big chain.  Anticipation of heavy rains was to be expected, as far as we could see. 

At nine in the morning I spoke to our building crew and suggested that they made sure not to start any work that may be affected by heavy rains, since we would probably experience them by night fall.  They all looked at the sky, looked at me and smiled one of those ‘eh, chale, what does he mean – ‘rain’ - huh, da sky is beautiful’ looks. They did, however, take it into account and made sure that they laid no concrete.  We cancelled all of our mission flights for the day, for they needed a window of about seven hours for operations and the risk of rain in later afternoon was already ‘high’ by nine in the morning.

Early afternoon we were working in the workshops on our prototype wind turbine for rural communities; as part of the demonstration of wind power, we took a standing fan and placed it in the breeze outside a hangar.  The winds were getting stronger and we watched the standing fan free spinning in the wind.  The sky was getting more overcast the temperatures rising, atmospheric pressure was dropping.

Accessing the internet page for satellite images, our AvTech Academy girls, aged fifteen to twenty-one, all looked at the growing mass of clouds and the path of intent that the storm, now growing into a number of ‘waves’ of attack was probably going to take.  They could read the signs and made a weather forecast of ‘heavy rain’. Staff were ready to close early because we knew that we were in for a ‘biggie’ of a rain storm.

By sixteen hundred hours we could feel the pressure drop, the sky giving visual evidence, making the satellite images no longer a necessary reference point.  We hurriedly cleared the turbine to the stores and arranged transport solutions for the staff.  Building activity was halted and all tools put away.  By sixteen thirty all were packed and ready for the nascent weather as the first big blobs of water hit the apron. 

I called pilot friends with businesses that may be affected by a storm, especially in parts of Accra affected by the on-going drainage works.  Then, as the first wave of stronger winds pelted rain at us like small bullets trying to make a short-cut through our bodies, I called my contact at NADMO.  I asked if they were ready for the effects of this storm.  As a result of the conversation they apparently called the Met-office. 

I am not aware of a storm warning going out, but I am aware of a lot of damage from the storm on Tuesday night.  I hope that some warnings were made by the authorities, since this last storm is, in my opinion based on current trends and observations as a person who relies on the weather for survival, the first of a number of ‘out of the norm’ storms that will cut across the nations of West Africa in the coming weeks, months and possibly year or two.  There are a number of reasons, some of them scientific, others ‘observational’ and anecdotal.  In our line of work, getting it wrong can cost us or one of colleagues their lives.  Getting it wrong can also wreck an airframe. Those who visit the airfield will be aware of the battle cry ‘TIE DOWN’  which indicates to all and sundry that an impending storm front is coming and all aircraft are to be secured IMMEDIATELY. 

As a result of my ‘weather alert’ last Tuesday I was asked by friends ‘why didn’t you contact the FM stations?’, to which I answered ‘I do not want to be accused of causing fear and panic; alerts are the responsibilities of the relevant institutions, it is for them to issue the warnings – not me.’  I thought that would be enough, but no.  I have been pestered to the point where I have to come up with a solution.  The solution is a simple one – I will tweet the weather at Kpong Airfield – and our forecasts!  For those who do not follow Twitter accounts, that will mean nothing, for those who do, please explain to those who don’t!

Captain Yaw ‘Tweets’ regularly about flights, engineering, cars, generators, visits to the various communities and events that take place around the Kpong Airfield, and will now Tweet the weather too.  All of the weather Tweets will contain ‘#KpongWX’ they will represent the predicted weather for Kpong Airfield, without prejudice or liability, for they are Captain Yaw’s personal, airfield, amateur forecast for those who are interested.  I will also Tweet, when possible, actual weather, as we perceive it, for those interested – especially our student pilots and pilots who call for weather before setting out!

You can follow our amateur weather predictions at CaptainYaw (one word) on Twitter – you may find other bits of information come along to make you smile as well, and it may help you to plan – but it carries no guarantees!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

Monday, February 21, 2011

February 21st

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
A couple of years ago I wrote an article entitled ‘How many people can you fit in a tro-tro?’ The premise behind the article was ‘one more, one more, one more’; that is, a mate can always fit ‘one more’ into the apparently over-occupied vehicle.  Such acts are common, as is the incredible ability to load a vehicle vertically with every conceivable contraption, vegetable, household item or animal.  It is not unusual to see a pickup truck loaded to height of three metres or more, and as for the Benz busses I am left wondering as to how they conceived that it may be possible to load a vehicle up to more than twice its original vertical extent!

The ability to squish, squeeze and pile people and their belongings into and onto our vehicles is only matched by the ability to load heavy goods vehicles beyond their axle limits.  We have proved beyond a doubt that the ‘limit’ given by the manufacturer is easily exceed – so much so that it is possible to break an axle whilst travelling at high speeds.  Of course, any damage to the road surfaces during these ‘Experiments’ is purely accidental!

So, when we get asked ‘how many people can you get into a two-seat aircraft?’ we are often frowned upon for stating, categorically, ‘two’.  Furthermore, when we explain that there is a ‘seat weight limit’ and then we add ‘and a baggage limit too’, people are incredulous.  Let us be fair, an Astra car has 5 seats and can carry ten people, plus baggage, and a goat.  Not to be funny, but such sights leave me with my jaw dropped open.

In the Aviation industry weight limits and seat limits are a part of safe operations that we simply do not ‘tamper with’.  We like to still be able to talk about our today tomorrow morning!   There are some exceptions, like the Israeli pilot of a 747 who, in May 1991 got one thousand and eight seven people on board his plane… but he made a compromise, he pulled out all of the seats, and sat them on the floors.  That case was exceptional, a case of evacuation – but note that he realised that in order to carry the weight he would need to shed some load.  No passenger baggage, and the safety infringement of passengers without seatbelts was weighed off against an emergency situation.  I do not believe, not even in my wildest thoughts, that we are loading our terrestrial vehicles to dangerous levels in order to save lives.  No, we see the acts we see due to several factors.

The main motivation factor seems to be greed.  Some may call it ‘making a living’, however, you cannot call ‘putting other people’s lives and belongings in jeopardy for a few extra cedis’ making a living, no, it is greed.  The operators are simply trying to make an extra cedi or two along their way, regardless of the risk they put their passengers, their passengers’ belongings, the road and other people at.  That is GREED.

Another factor is ‘ignorance’.  Many of the users of the transport system are unaware of the actual dangers of overloading and treating human beings as if they are sardines.  The people themselves want to get to their destination and are prepared to take the discomfort of being part of a ‘Ghana Benz People Sandwich’ in order to achieve their goal.

The police and other authorities, charged with protecting the population, fail on a regular basis to enforce the ‘right thing’ and I can understand it, because when they stop a vehicle in ‘infringement’ of the law, the people on the bus may make a large fuss and ‘beg for’ the driver and mate.  Therefore, the law and safety are over-ridden by greed, ignorance and consequent acceptance that it is all part of the ‘status-quo’.

This week, we started two new members of staff.  We try to do an induction programme for all new members of staff.  We show them around the premises and cover the basics of safety around the airfield.  We do not cover everything; some things take years to learn about! 

Our induction to working with our operations starts with a welcome and an explanation of the basis of a successful operation.  It is interesting that not one person EVER has given the right answer when we ask ‘What is the basis of a successful company and working environment?’  We may get an answer of ‘attitude’, which is part of it or ‘’money’, which demonstrates a wrong approach. 

The one word that portrays success in all that we do is ‘Safety’.  Attitude is a part of that, as is cleanliness, but making money is not the basis of operations, it is the long term consequence of good operations.   We then talk about the name and purpose of the different locations on our site, we talk about the ‘rules’ at the site.  Rules are key to safety and successful operations.  At times a certain rule may be infringed, we all understand that, but the infringement of a rule must carry with it the understanding of the consequences.  However, breaching rules without mitigation against the consequence leads to a breach in safety.  You may ‘need’ to cut through an area not normally authorised, and so before doing so you inform why, when and how and put EXTRA safety measures into place BEFORE breaching the ‘standard rule’.

We do not allow ‘open toe’ shoes in our working areas. Why?  What good does it do the employer to impose such a regulation?  Frankly, it only directly protects the employee – and then you find the employee is the one complaining about the rules!  An employee wearing safety equipment is doing so to protect themselves.  No employer EVER goes into a workshop and says ‘all those wearing boots, take them off and go bare-foot’, for if they did the employees would be affronted at the employer putting their staff in danger.  Yet, when I go into a workshop with chale-wotties everywhere, and make a comment I have been told ‘this is Africa, and we can’t wear safety boots it is too hot’.  Well, if the company is to be successful, a safe working environment is a professional working environment and with it, albeit a little slower than cutting corners, a successful operation will emerge.  In the same way, fitting an extra person on a tro-tro will only lead to more damage to the vehicle, more deaths on the road and more damage to the road surface – because a short-term vision of ‘making profit’ over ‘making a success’ is one of the main reasons that developments are not making the headway that they should.  Sadly, so many ‘get away’ with breaching safety that it becomes the ‘de facto’ – it needs to change, and sooner rather than after the next funeral.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

Monday, February 14, 2011

February 14th

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
This is a tale of three airfields.  It is a tale with history, with sadness, with joy and with disbelief – but what follows is true, and is the result of the last ten days spent on a rough and, at times, hazardous journey, accompanied by Detective Erin Nolan of the New York Police Department Aviation Unit, who is currently in Ghana promoting aviation for young ladies, alongside Ghana’s own pilot/engineer ‘extraordinaire’, Patricia Mawuli.

The first airfield visited was Kete Krachi.  A strip that was created before the flooding of the lake, and re-located to its current location.  A strip that is ‘almost useable’.  A strip which has not seen an airplane regularly land there for many years. Only 200km from Akosombo, it takes around twenty hours by boat and twelve hours by road – or less than two hours by air, in a small plane.

The community of Kete Krachi is aware of the airstrip and would like to see it returned to service.  The school children are bright and full of life and were ready to learn more about aviation and the exciting potential that it could hold for their community.  The Director of Education was ready to assist in the creation of aviation clubs.  The DCE was open to discussion and ready to see the facility returned to useable status. 

The airfield could be returned to useable status with less than one day’s manual labour.  About ten small shrubs to uproot, some dried grasses to be burnt off, bundles of sticks removed, some metal barriers stacked nicely and a serious FOD walk (to remove loose stones, rubbish and items that should not be on the strip).  There is the need to stop people and cows crossing the strip, as well as to stop the ‘driving practice’  thereon.  All of these can be achieved easily with the support of the District, community leaders and the schools in a matter of weeks.  Thus, it is conceivable that Kete Krachi Airstrip could be useable this year, if they make the appropriate applications to GCAA and all inspections and approvals go through smoothly.  That was a happy tale.

The next airstrip’s tale is not such a happy one, at all.  Mole Game Reserve in the Northern Region.  Mole is fantastic – a national resource established in 1957 and improved to an acceptable standard today.  The road to Mole is long, treacherous and not one for those who only want to spend one day at the site.  The last eighty six kilometres from the main Techiman/Tamale road, near Yapei, is not pleasant.  If you drive like a madman, which many do, you can complete the road in two hours – just pray that your suspension lasts and that you do not need to use the brakes, or your last trip may be on that road.  The surface is loose, dusty, bumpy and uncomfortable – to say the very least- but it is better than it was!  Nonetheless, a safe average speed is about thirty kilometres per hour, which means that three hours are needed for the route – but still watch out for the madmen coming in the opposite directions – especially the big orange buses and those in 4x4’s who believe that they are able to travel at high speeds on such roads and still avoid a child, cow or goat should they cross their paths.  Mole has spectacular views and is a must see for those who have not seen it.  Elephants, bush-buck, hartebeest, buffalo, baboons, kob,  dyker, baboons, velvet monkeys, wart-hogs, crocodiles and so, so much more are there to see in their natural environment, splendid beyond belief.  In the mid 1990’s Mole had an airstrip built.  A nice, safe and very useable resource.  Today, in order to return the resource to a useable state would only take a few good hard working folks a couple of days, and although not perfect, it would be a safe and useable resource.  When approached about the strip, the immediate reaction of ‘Mr A’ the ‘number two big man’ on site was ‘it is all about money’, followed swiftly by ‘it is not our responsibility’ and ‘it is the fault of the Government of Ghana’ and ‘go tell the Forestry Commission people in Accra’.  This reaction and the lack of interest in their own resources only convinces me that Mole strip is, at this time, a lost cause.  I know that a few years ago a Minister of Tourism landed on the strip – for which it was cleared - and I know that it could be maintained easily.  But it is evident that, despite the genuine interest shown by the competent and welcoming game wardens lower down the command, there are those who see ‘gimme money’ and ‘not my problem’ coupled with ‘blame the government’ who will ensure that this resource is not one we can rely on as a safe place to develop.  For even if we get it safe today, tomorrow the ‘money and blame game; will be underway.  It was interesting when a verbal attack was made on our American Aviation visitor with ‘you would not maintain your facility [in the USA] without extra pay’, to which the reply was ‘of course we do – it is OUR facility, our safety and for us.’

There is, sadly, a lot of ignorance about the facts that outside of Ghana people are expected, and expect of themselves, to ensure their own facilities and community assets are maintained, since they know that their Governments are not going to step in to help.  So, for Mole, a very sad tale of a neglected runway that could have been used for many opportunities, an investment that will probably rot and wither for lack of a better understanding and approach.    

Our third Airfield is in Techiman.  Techiman Airfield is relatively new, created by the Traditional Council with the assistance of many members of the community and the municipality.  School groups regularly carry out maintenance, FOD walks, and sensitisation of the population. Techiman has thriving ‘aviation clubs’ and the community are sponsoring one of its own young ladies towards learning to fly and to learn more about aircraft engineering.  The Chiefs of Techiman have a great deal of aspirations for their airfield.  They can see that it can be more than a few hundred meters of dirt strip, and have designated enough land to make the facility a viable competitor to Kumasi and Sunyani as the private aviation sector grows – and they are independent, unlike the Ghana Airports Company Limited facilities.  Techiman has a great deal going for it.  If I were a private investor with the funds, Techiman would get my vote as a place with potential and a good return on investment.  The people are interested in Aviation.  Chiefs come to the airfield to greet arriving aircraft and the community demonstrates its interest for aviation developments in a proactive, non-partisan and responsible manner.  Thus, we end with a very happy tale of a new facility that has much potential.

Airfields are like businesses, they may be established and needing a new lease of life, they may be ignored and ready to crumble through poor attitudes and motives, such as the ‘money and blame game’, they may be young, vibrant and full of promise, aiming high and ready to compete against the established competitor’s in a tough environment. 

What is the tale of your business/organisation?

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

Monday, February 7, 2011

February 7th

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
Having set sail on Monday afternoon, heading North on the Yapei Queen, the aviation roots in maritime operations were made more and more clear.  These two industries share so much, in terminology, in risk, in dangers, and in matters of safety. 

On Wednesday the AvTech team, accompanied by Detective Erin Nolan, a pilot from the NYPD aviation unit, spoke to around one hundred children in Kete Krachi about aviation, health and safety, selecting twenty of them for flight experience, partly sponsored by VLTC.

Then, the whole concept of safety and education went up in dust!  We set out on the road, at 06:00 Thursday morning, to Yendi.  Two hundred kilometres of corrugated and gullied laterite roads.  Seven hours driving, average speed of around twenty eight kilometres per hour.  We saw trucks overloaded, people sitting atop, barely retaining their lives as the vehicle pitched and rolled along the ‘better than before’ road.

It made me think, we use many terms in aviation and maritime that are inclusive to our safety, and the road users seem unaware of their equivalences when driving.

For example, we use Port and Starboard are terms used to refer to the left and right of the craft. Port contains four letters, as does the word LEFT, and this makes it easy to remember which is which.  However, road users, despite being told that we ‘drive on the left’, drive on the best available section of terrestrial surface.  Supposedly we pass ‘left to left’ but often pass ‘right to right’ , especially if it is a motorbike skidding along, its back tire squirming around like a snake in the dust.

Abeam is a wonderful word, and one that I get asked regularly to explain, it means ‘alongside’, and is often used to locate where you are.  Whether operating an aircraft or a waterborne vessel, it is often impossible to tell somebody where you are exactly, since the water and the air are not ‘named’ per se.  Therefore, if you are alongside a town or landmark it is a practical reference point. Hence, ‘Abeam Kpando’ means that you have Kpando, to one side of you!  However, on the roads we say we are ‘coming’ or ‘nearly there’ or ‘on it’, which means when you ask somebody ‘where are you?’ the response provides no increased knowledge, and with it the ability to assist in case of need.

Horizon is a descriptor that seems to be missed out in most of the schools teaching around the world, and yet it is a line that we can all see every day.  The horizon is defined as the meeting point of the sky and the land, in the far away distance.  It is used to visually indicate if the craft is level, and both aircraft and boats look to the horizon for reference on a regular basis.  Yet, on the road, the horizon is a neglected tool, it is often consumed in brown dust or black smoke from the poorly maintained engine of the truck in front of you.  When climbing a hill, the horizon is actually an ‘event-horizon’, since you have no idea what is about to come careering over the top of the hill towards you!

Pitch, Roll and Yaw are the three basic movements of a vessel in the water or an aircraft in the air.  Pitch is best described as the up and down movement of the front of the craft.  Roll, the left to right movement or ‘rocking’, and Yaw as the movement about the longitudinal axis.  The first two are easy to grasp, but Yaw (pronounced as in Yawn and not like the name of the Thursday born) is more challenging.  Yaw is best visualised as when the craft remains horizontal, no pitching up or down and no rolling left and right, but the nose to tail or bow to stern is moved from left to right, and the craft effectively ‘crabs’ along. 

On the road from Kete Krachi to Yendi, like so many others, cars, trucks and motorcycles are subject to these same movements.  The sudden pitch down as you enter a hidden gully, the roll to the side as you slide down the edge of the road to avoid a head-on collision with the oncoming dust wrapped and overladen mama-wagon!  Do not think that cars are exempt from Yaw either!  Think of one of those tro-tro’s you have seen coming down the street as if it is not quite right – it is not ‘aligned’ front to back and if you stand head on to the direction of movement you can see some of the side of the vehicle – well, that is Yaw!

Bulkheads are common in both types of craft, but the origin of the word is related to cargo, since the word bulki in an old seafaring language meant cargo and head meant wall.  Thus a bulkhead was a cargo wall, intended to stop things moving to where they should not and also to provide structural strength.  Boats and planes use bulkheads to prevent their loads shifting dangerously in transit.  On the roads it seems that a well secured load is not a required condition – and we see cargo and people bouncing up and down, sliding back and forth in a manner that no sea or air captain would consider acceptable.

Navigation skills are paramount in all sectors, and the skill of the VLTC captains is outstanding.  Navigating at night with just a compass and a watch, coupled with a keen eye, our Ghanaian inland mariners are to be respected.  Now, I would not want to navigate with an aircraft in the same way as they approach the watery routes, but I am informed that more modern navigation equipment will soon be on the boats and GPS will become our common electronic nav-aid for the coming years.  Every boat and every aircraft will continue to host a magnetic compass, with all of its foibles, it continues to be the mainstay of ‘backup’ navigation for so many and often the ‘primary’ navigation instrument of choice.

On the roads, our navigation skills must be much sharper.  In the absence of complete road maps, and missing or incorrect road signs, we are dependent upon the use of ‘stop-and-ask’ navigation.  That is, we stop the car and ask somebody which way to go. 

In Yendi we were told three different routes to go to Tamale!  I am sure that the problem was the language barrier, despite having tried English, Twi and Ewe!  Thankfully, we had a GPS in the car, borrowed from an aircraft – and that saved the day!

There is so much to do to bring the levels of safety and comfort of air and water travel to our roads, and yet so many people still do not use aircraft due to cost and water travel due to lack of understanding. 

I would happily sail to Kete Krachi on the overnight boat from Akosombo again, for it was very comfortable; but the road journey from Kete Krachi to Yendi is not one I intend to embark upon again, with the road in its current condition.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail