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

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