Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Pilots have a lot of idioms, acronyms and other little oddities that add flair and flavour to them, yet often providing confusion to others. Some are more amusing than functional, such as the E-check, used prior to boarding an aircraft as a pilot: Empty your bladder; Empty you pockets of loose items that may fall and block controls; Empty your mind of worries and thoughts that may affect safety; Empty your wallet to pay for the fuel! (this may apply more than I first thought to passengers too!)
More functional during a flight, and a phrase that works for me in everyday life, is Aviate-Navigate-Communicate. The meaning is simple;
  1. AVIATE: Fly the plane. Be ‘in-control’, know what is going on in relation to keeping what you are doing safe. Do not be distracted in the event of an emergency from remaining ‘in-control’ of the physical task in hand (i.e. flying the plane, driving the car, operating the machine, etc).
  2. NAVIGATE: Know where you are going, and where you have come from. Be aware of alternate routes, emergency landing areas and have in mind estimates for the times to the key landmarks or stages (waypoints) along the way.
  3. COMMUNICATE: Communication within the aircraft, between aircraft and with the Air Traffic Control units. The phraseology is important and you must be on the correct frequency, use the correct terminology and respect the rules of communication. (parallels outside of aviation are evident)Imagine that you are flying from Accra to Tamale, and about mid-way you have a control issue, your left aileron is not responding. No biggie, provided you Aviate-Navigate-Communicate! First, you change the way you fly the plane, remaining calm, use more rudder and take advantage of the secondary effect of roll that the aileron would have given. Establish which direction you can turn most easily and adapt to the conditions in order to remain flying safely. That is, you are being an Aviator.
Next, navigate, you must establish clearly where you are, where you are going. Are you going to continue to Tamale, turn back to Accra, divert to Kumasi, divert to Techiman or perhaps divert to Kete Krachi? Make some decisions and remain very conscious of where you are, where you can ‘re-navigate’ to in the event of additional challenges – get the plan sorted out in your head.

Now, you need to communicate. Which frequency should you use? Mid-country, your best chance is probably Accra Centre, or if it is tough going you may choose the emergency/distress frequency. Before you key that PTT (press to talk button) you need all the details ready to share with the Air Traffic Controller. Aircraft call sign, type, position, heading, altitude, estimates, options, etc. all should be shared concisely and appropriately.

One of my joys is that of training a particular Air Traffic Controller to fly. Theo Ago is an excellent controller based out of Kotoka, he is a clearly spoken, smart and bouncy chap with a real spring in his step, and he embraces the concept of teamwork, as one fully expects from a person in ATC. Theo came to me a while back and explained that although he had chosen to be a controller, he also wanted to better understand the concepts and challenges of ‘the other side of the microphone’ – that of the pilot.

We signed him up to learn, and on that first day sat him at the controls, and took him up where the birds fly! I remember his smile – it nearly cracked his ears off of the side of his head. His head spun in all directions looking at the landscape below, he held the controls in his hand and within thirty minutes was able to actually control the plane – not overly well, but safely enough to set a ‘sort of heading’ for a mountain, river or township. We flew till his smile looked like it would damage his mandible, and then set back towards the airfield.

Air Traffic Controllers have some wonderful phrases that they use in communicating with an aircraft under their care. One such phrase is ‘Next call, field in sight’. This means ‘let me know when you can see the airfield’. So, it was with delight that I said to Theo ‘tell me when you can see the airfield.’ So many times I have had a friendly ATC ask me to ‘call in sight’, and there I am searching for the field I have never seen from the air before. You sit in the cockpit, aircraft on heading, scanning and scanning – it is not easy. With practice it becomes easier, but first time out – it is like hunting a needle in a haystack –and we all struggle the first of doing this!

Theo was Aviate-ing (he could fly the plane, and it was taking up a fair bit of his concentration). I had the Navigation under control, and he was definitely flying towards the airfield. He could not see the field. He hunted for it intently. I smiled behind the boom mike and tried hard to avoid giving it all away. Then, as we passed over the airfield I asked him to look down. There, beneath the aircraft laid out like a tablecloth amidst the bush-lands, the thousand metre grass runway and safety areas with associated airfield buildings, stared back up at him. He laughed and laughed at his own inability to do a seemingly simple task. I explained to him that this was normal but also that he missed the opportunity to COMMUNICATE. We had a person in the tower, waiting for him to call to ask for help, but he over focused on the ‘aviate’ and although I had the ‘navigate’ in hand, he, of all people, missed the ‘communicate’.

Today, Theo is doing really well in his lessons and close to his first solo flight. I am proud to teach one of our highly valued controllers, and also to enhance their understanding of the ‘sky-tower difference’. I wish more controllers would learn to fly, as I wish more people would take the time to understand and respect the role of Air Traffic Controllers!

Air Traffic Controllers are vital to the safety of our skies, they are there monitoring, guiding and supporting aircraft movements over the Ghanaian territories, they are genuine professionals, to be held in the highest esteem. Aviation is a team effort, and we need to understand the roles of each person. Some roles are more challenging and demanding than others, and I have no difficulty in putting our pilots and Air Traffic Controllers in the same category – high-level professionals we put our lives in the hands of.

Just remember the next time you are flying, there is an angel in the tower, watching over you, communicating with the crew, safety and security clearly in their hands.

Let us celebrate all of our Air Traffic Controllers for the wonderful job that they do. The role of ATC is so important to the safety and security of our skies, these highly trained men and women, working shifts to keep us safe, need to be encouraged and supported.

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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