Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23rd

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
If you saw the celebration banner and light aircraft formation flying over Kotoka International Airport last week, you witnessed a three metre tall by twenty metre long demonstration of an aerial billboard, and the three ship formation were all Ghana built aircraft.  Much as leading that flypast was an honour, more so was being flanked by two fantastic, trained in Ghana, private pilots. 
For many years I have been a proponent of aerial billboards for reaching rural communities, so being a part of using one to celebrate GCAA’s 25th  birthday, and flying it along the runway of the international airport, was a real pleasure and an active demonstration of what can be done using local skills.
Let us look at the concepts, the potential and the issues.  First we need to understand the different types of ‘aerial tow’ that can be done. 
There are the traditional ‘letters-on-a-string’.  Such letters are about two metres tall, arranged for a one-off signal in the sky.  The problem is that they are ‘graphic’ free on the whole, hard to read and have a nasty tendency to break up every now and then!
Then we have the ‘electronic-flying-billboard.  This is an LED (Light Emitting Diode) panel mounted on the side of the aircraft.  I was honoured to see a very early prototype of this type in 1992 in the south of France.  The biggest challenge at the time was powering the unit.   Today, LED technology has changed to the point where such units can be powered simply by adding an alternator to the engine.  Such panels are relatively small and are unlikely to be very effective in the high-light levels of our part of the world. 
Then there is the aerial billboard (as was flown last week).  An approach made possible by modern textiles and digital printing!  A panel, normally three to five metres tall and up to twenty metres long is carried through the sky, with a full digitally printed image.  Such panels have a flying life of one to three hundred hours.  Put that into kilometre terms, ten thousand to thirty thousand kilometres of display!  Here is the best part: the panel is visible to all below, it can have pictures/logos/words with a visibility rating of up to two kilometres.  It is active, not static, and it reaches all people – whether they have a radio, newspaper, television or the internet!  Although it is ‘non-invasive’, i.e. you are not thrusting a piece of paper into somebody’s hand or blasting music at them at close range, it is more attention grabbing than any other type of advertising. 
Next we should consider what such aerial billboards can be used for.  Major corporations use aerial billboards, sports stadiums promote events with them, information panels can be used in times of national emergency, reminders for vaccination programmes and so much more.  Furthermore, by using vibrant images and words, you can reach those who can read as well as those not as fortunate as to be able to read well.  Add to that the inquisitive factor, and you have whole communities pointing at the sky asking one another ‘What does it say?’.  In short, aerial billboards have a dramatic potential in our society for the promotion of development in a positive manner.  
Where are the negatives in using such banners? Well, personally I do not fly banners over built up areas.  The reasons are simple. They are less easy to see – for the aircraft to be low enough to have the panel read (five hundred feet above the surface), buildings and urban objects block clear line of sight of the sky.  This reduces visibility time and effect.  On the safety side, flying over a built up area increases the risks of  injury in the event that the banner has to be ‘dumped’ and also the plethora of ‘towers’ that are unmarked make the concept of flying over built-up areas a non-starter. 
Type of banners can have a negative effect too.  I have been asked to fly ‘political’ slogans as well as ‘religious’ texts.  I have refused on the basis of remaining neutral, at a cost to the development of the aerial billboard industry, and to our pockets. At one election I was approached by a party member about a campaign, and my response was a simple one.  “There is only one political banner that should be flown in Ghana.”  That got some attention, and some very wide eyes. I responded “Kokromotie power – or use your vote”.  I still stand by that.  The electoral commission is welcome to discuss with me how aerial billboards can be used in ‘awareness campaigns’ that are totally non-partisan!
In many countries the ‘route of choice’ for an aerial tow, tends to be along major highways; ‘Tune to 999Fm for traffic news’ or ‘major congestion ahead due to road-works, deviation advised’; or along coastal stretches, where the sky is clear and the visibility excellent (as well as incredibly safe); ‘Dancing competition tonight’ or ‘watch Channel 123 at 19:00 tonight’ or ‘Avoid Casual Sex, Avoid Aids’.
We have over five hundred kilometres of coastline to the sea and over four thousand kilometres of ‘coastline’ around the Volta basin!  Now, this gets even more interesting.  Many people live around the lake in what I refer to as ‘iic’s or Infrastructurally Isolated Communities.  Such communities may not readily receive newspapers, have television coverage (or even power), readily accessible radio transmissions, motorised-vehicle-suitable roads, etc., yet they do contain hard working citizens who are an active part of our society.   Through flying aerial billboards around the edge of the lake, and to a certain degree the sea coastline, it becomes possible to heighten awareness in a group of people otherwise ‘informationally-isolated’.  Flying the coastlines is relatively safe, highly visible and has the potential to make maximum impact.  Campaigns we have in mind, subject to funding, include ‘HIV/AIDS’, ‘Bilharzia reduction’, ‘General Health’, ‘vaccine awareness’, ‘flood warnings’, ‘send your girl-children to school’, and many more. 
One thing is certain, and that is ‘Aerial Billboards are very effective’, the question remains ‘Who will fund such activities?’.  It has been my sad observation through many years of flying in Ghana, that ‘funding to support people who you cannot easily get to by road’ is not easy to come by.  I do not think that it is because of lack of care, but simply due to lack of understanding that we have the capacity to reach these people, to change their lives and to create a more inclusive society. 
One way or the other, you are going to see more aerial billboards in Ghana – maybe not you, the one reading this, but certainly those in the rural communities around the lake, for I know the impact potential, and will be waiting to help to make it happen.  If you are interested in supporting rural health/community awareness outreaches, by aerial means, to the lakeside communities please contact me, I would be happy to share the strategy and create the campaign!
 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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