The noise was so great that it shook my chest and I felt my intestines vibrate. My fingers jabbed at the side of my head as I sought to block my ears, as a protective measure, more quickly than the invisible pilot above me could turn his aircraft around. The trail of smoke drifting past me was being left by a FA18 fighter jet roaring through the sky at speeds as close to the speed as sound, without bursting all the glass in the windows below, as he was allowed. Low pressure induced condensation formed instantly above the wings as the aircraft pulled a ‘g’ or two more! I stood amongst an international medley of tens of thousands of people, all looking up at the mighty bird that was punctuating the mid-afternoon sky above the sleepy town of Oshkosh, an inaudible yet clearly unified wave of awe, admiration and excitement rippled across the ensemble and back again repeatedly, as if a massive Newton’s cradle of hanging aviators jaws had been activated by the passage of the jet.
Earlier that day the sky had been filled with dozens of aircraft flying in formation, simultaneously, at different altitudes, in different directions and patterns, mainly without any radio contact – in fact the Federal Aviation Authority Air Traffic Controllers stood down and handed over the air space to the ‘Airboss’, the name for the fellow on the edge of the runway area, monitoring and co-ordinating activities from the prime position.
I have been to many air shows and I have witnessed many displays, but when you see a dozen aircraft flying a circular pattern being criss-crossed by at least six groups of aircraft in formation – and all flown by enthusiasts, just to promote their passion – it has so much emotion, so much power and such an impression, many are reduced to the mental state of a five year old in ‘Ye Olde Sweet Shop’ – their eyes and minds darting from one sight of sweet pleasure to another!
I did some quick math. In the air above this small town of around seventy thousand people there were more aircraft, in number, flying simultaneously above the visitor burgeoned airfield, than actually exist in most West African countries – perhaps of several of them added together. Rumours were running around about the number of aircraft on the field, often with a tent under their wing inhabited by groups of aviation pilgrims, but it is certain that around ten thousand visiting aircraft was a reasonable estimate – more aircraft than many developed nations enjoy – and several times the combined aircraft head-count in the West African sub-region.
All but a tiny percentage of these aircraft parked on the grassy areas around the airfield for the week long ‘EAA Air Venture Air Show’ are privately owned. Some are ‘one of a kind’ aircraft designed and built for one reason only ; ‘to prove it can be done’. The United States Federal Aviation Authority encourages these developments and, as was put to me by one official, chatting without his eyes meeting mine since we were tracking the aircraft display overhead, ‘this is the grass roots of aviation’.
What are the ‘roots of’ anything? They are the generally the part of a plant that get overlooked, yet they are also the anchor that holds the structure firm, provides the access to nutrients and water to keep the loftier and more visible aspects of the plant or tree sustained. The whole word ‘roots’ bounced around my head, doing its loops and rolls, hammerheads and inverted flight between those little grey cells that were getting more ‘aviation stimulation’ than ever before.
The roots of aviation is not airliners, nor is it military aviation, and it certainly is not corporate jets! No, the roots of aviation lie in individuals with a vision and a passion, with dedication and determination. The roots of aviation lie in the contact and time spent with the young people, those ‘developing cells’ of the future growth of the industry.
Standing next to a bright yellow two seat aircraft at the edge of the Zenith Aircraft Company’s open air booth, where the Ghana contingent were being hosted, I could see a small playground for children – about ten little airplanes that toddlers could sit in. Beyond that there was an entire building full of adults asking high school children about their ‘science projects’ that had aviation and technology components in them. Past that area the open air workshops covering more than an acre of land, filled with ‘father and grandfather, mother and grandmother figures’ spending the day, gladly passing on their skills in welding, sheet-metal, woodwork, fabric coverings, engine installations and more – folks giving their time and energy to share their passion, no other reward than the smile of the individuals in that group.
Accompanied by two young African pilots, one from
Chris Heintz, aircraft designer, pilot and legend of light aviation, sat on the grass nearby, leaning against a trailer, eyes tracking the aerial passers-by. He chatted happily with the senior officials about the aircraft, designs and techniques of flight of his designs. Then, he chatted, and shared with more enthusiasm, to the younger people. Last week, at his ‘honour banquet’ where a marquee was filled to overflowing with hundreds of owners of Chris’s aircraft designs turned to flying angels, some built from scratch, some from kit parts and some purchased complete, this ‘aviation root builder and stimulator of growth’ spoke about how he started out, sharing his ideas that provided the sustainable access to aviation for thousands across the world, including Ghana.
As the meal came to a close, a young Ghanaian woman was invited to the high table and presented Chris Heintz with a painting from Ghana, hugging the man who had made aircraft building a reality for her, thanking him for the designs and encouragement that lay behind the aircraft now used in her home country to touch the lives of hundreds of young people. The whole crowd aware that
This energy is infectious, contagious beyond comprehension shared across the Atlantic by those who understand that the real engine of growth is support, encouragement and shared enthusiasm from all involved – from officialdom to ‘future pilots’.
Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics (http://www.waasps.com/ www.medicineonthemove.org e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)