Monday, August 15, 2011

August 15th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Pine Mountain Lake is a small gated community tucked away on the edge of the Sierras, not very far from the Yosemite National Park, in California, around two hundred kilometres due east of San Francisco. This community is based around the concept of personal aviation. They abide at three thousand feet above mean sea level, alongside a large canyon and a small man-made lake.

The community there is no different to any community anywhere in the world. There are those with barely enough to make ends meet, as well as those who need not worry overly much about the recent slump on the stock markets – and many shades in between. There are teachers, veterinarians, young, up-and-coming professionals, salesmen, programmers and the like as well as the older folks, no longer working in the same ways, who enjoy certain mornings of each week, when they can reminisce gleefully about their prior exploits (and they do!).

This community is remarkably clean and shares its well-kept gardens and infrequently driven roads with the wild deer and bears who wander the countryside that surrounds this growing village. There is a common, unifying thread that joins this community and also provides a life-line between it and the nearest well equipped trauma centre, at Stockton, about ninety minutes by very windy and hazardous road, or just twenty minutes by air, from their haven. Pine Mountain Lake is an air-park community, ‘plane’ and simple. Alongside modest wooden houses are spectacular aircraft hangars with integrated homes – it is certainly the hangar that is most important ‘room’ in the house in most cases!

As you drive closer to the airfield there are signs stating unambiguously that ‘Aircraft have priority’. You must drive with caution, for at any moment a Cessna, Mooney, Zenith or Beechcraft will start up from the front of a home and start its taxi towards the one thousand meter tarmac strip. Bounding each side of the runway are more homes, more hangars and a ten thousand gallon ‘self-service’ fuel depot. The sides of the runway have a number of hazards; deep drops, gravel patches, electric fences, non-frangible marker boards and the occasional deer or rabbit. There is no tower, no radio and well over fifty ‘active’ aircraft, in addition to those in storage, renovation, repair and build, alongside the human beings that make this community what it is.

This self-managed, self-sustaining community-asset is kept very much alive and incredibly dynamic by the diversity of the people who live, engineer and fly there. Many of them actually fly to work and back each day, into and out of the valley in a fraction of the time it takes to drive! From retired folks with a passion for aviation and no aircraft of their own, through the business men and women who seek refuge from the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley way below and the smattering of famous names from the aviation circuit, these folks stand, sit and fly ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’, seamlessly and with a corporate energy that makes the wattage output from the plethora of wind farms around them seem insignificant.

One of the more famous flyers is the 29,000+ hours in the cockpit Wayne Hadley, aerobatic pilot ‘extraordinare’. He flies the Extra 300L, an aircraft that flips and rolls quicker than I can say ‘what is happening’! Wayne is retired from the show circuit, and still has several records to his name, he is a kindly gentle-person with a passion for sharing. The same passion for sharing is found in large doses in the owners of those with Cessnas, Stearmans, Katanas, Zenith, Beechcraft, Maules and the rest that live together with the common passion.

Nestled down the far side of the runway is a ‘workshop’, therein all manner of apparently dead aircraft are being given the kiss of life and returned to flying duties, slowly but surely and above all else, with safety in mind, by Larry and Linda. Wandering through the workshop there reminds me of many of the ‘engineering shops’ in Ghana. There are some old lathes and mills, a cut-off saw that has seen better days and a motorcycle that is in need of a bit more than some spit and polish to return it to its former glory. The biggest difference is visible when Larry opens a rather old and creaky metal cabinet behind his mill. Whereas at home I see one or two tools sitting in the oil tray waiting to be used beyond their normal life, here I see a range of tools and cones – not one of them young by any means, laid out carefully, stored, ordered and awaiting their call-up orders to transform a metal billet into an aircraft, motorcycle or rabbit cage part.

The machines in this shop are no different to the machines at home in Ghana – in fact some of them are older than the ones at my local ‘engineering centre of excellence’. I cannot find a ‘new’ machine or tool, for this man has experience in his hands and in his tools! We joke about the pre-war articles in his ‘working museum’, knowing that a good many were formed prior to his own birth.

This is not a ‘show’ workshop – not at all. This is a working place, and the latest production of a metal rabbit cage system, designed and constructed using the same materials that flood the Ghana metal workers market (principally 2” square tube) dominates the entrance to his treasure trove.

Looking over the design and construction of the metal rabbit cage, I realised that there was something special about it. It had lots of little tabs welded neatly in place, each one tapped and aligned, furthermore the angle of the ‘droppings’ collector was not incidental, and the influence of aviation on the development of a rabbit farm (well it will hold about 40 rabbits at full whack) was more than just another project. The aviation mind of the aircraft restorer was affecting everything he does. Each weld was carefully ground back and the whole ‘over-engineered-metal-rabbit-meat-farm’ was more aviation than agricultural. Sadly, I did not get to see his chicken coup behind his hangar, but I can tell you that their eggs were good!

With five aircraft under renovation around this ‘rabbit mansion diversion project’, I stood back and realised that I was witness to the very potential that we are in need of in Ghana. Communities of like-minded people, sharing a common goal and allowing their creative expertise to bleed into their non-business activities – and to actually become involved in their own creative projects. The need for well cared for and appropriately used tooling was also evident in all that could be seen around the air-park.

What would it take to create such a community in Ghana? I am not sure that the time is yet ripe, but I am certain that the time is coming – and probably sooner than most people think. As explored in this column time and time again, there is more to aviation than just travel, it really is a way of life for those smart enough and fortunate enough to embrace it!

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

1 comment:

  1. A lovely description of a place I really enjoy going to!