Monday, August 29, 2011

August 29th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Thank-you to those who commented on last week’s article about airlines and their diversity. Of course, being on an airliner seems to be the most common way people fly in West Africa. It will change as the rural areas open up and airfields such as the one at Techiman gets better patronised and the one at Kete Krachi is approved for operations.

Sadly, last week a Red Arrows pilot, the ‘best of the best’ as some of us see it, died at a display in the UK. These are the selected pilots from the British Royal Air Force who display around the world providing entertainment and aviation awareness. It is said that ‘Every British pilot has received some stimulation, motivation or incentive towards flying from the ‘Reds’’. I know that I have been influenced by them. It is a sad day, not only for the family of Flt Lt Egging, but also all aviators everywhere. We all strive towards zero tolerance of accidents, and when one happens we all mourn together.

The Red Arrows display team was formed in 1965 and has flown more than four thousand displays in over fifty countries. These are single engine trainer jets – and have an excellent safety record. Last year it is reported that two jets came close enough to collide in training, but neither pilots was seriously injured. The jets have ejection seats, and it is believed that Flt Lt Egging did eject, but perhaps too late, after he tried to steer the aircraft towards fields, protecting the lives of those below him.

It would appear that it was an airframe or engine problem since the pilot issued a ‘mayday’ call prior to the crash. All British Aerospace Hawk aircraft in UK were temporarily grounded in case there was a problem that affected other aircraft. Those aircraft have since been permitted to fly, after inspection.

For the next few months experts will reconstruct the crashed aircraft, study every part, look for the cause of the problem, and also see if other problems were developing. This painstaking work is what makes aviation so safe. Every time something goes wrong, be it a problem with deployment of flaps, a bad landing in cross wind or a death, EVERY TIME, the aviation community looks at what happened, and openly discusses what went wrong and how to fix it.

Such openness and clarity from both sides, in a spirit of creating a better and safer aviation environment is paramount to the very safety that you and I experience on the airliners. Furthermore, it is what lies behind the safety in the aircraft that are built and flown in Ghana. Inspection, documentation, sharing the developments, ensuring safety by selecting carefully those who are trained, and those who do the training!

Training for when things go wrong is a very tough part of learning to fly. I admit that I enjoy teaching emergencies, for I get to see the speed of reaction and quality of decision making that goes on. We train on four broad areas of ‘emergency’; engine failures, control failures, instrument failures and recovery from unusual attitudes.

Engine failures are simply ‘the engine fails to give enough power’. That may mean fully stopped or limited power. Imagine that your car engine just quit whilst you were overtaking on the Accra-Tema motorway! The best preparation for an engine failure is to be ready for it. In fact, pilots are taught to always have a ‘chosen location’ in case of an emergency – a sort of escape route. During training I have pulled the power on many students just at the moment that they have passed over an airfield – in the early scenarios they choose a field ahead of them, having forgotten the airfield just behind them. With practice they store a ‘best option’ from the last few minutes all of the time and are ready to select an appropriate course of action whist trying to restart the engine.

Control failures are rare, but we must train for them. For instance, loss or partial loss of control of the rudder, aileron or elevator. In a car, imagine that the steering or brakes started to play up. There is always a solution, and it lies in the use of the other controls in appropriate quantities to maintain control of the aircraft.

Instrument failure training is often called ‘partial panel’, and it is similar to the concept of your speedometer or rev counter failing in your car. It does not stop the aircraft flying, but it does mean that you are not receiving vital information. To simulate this in flight we simply cover up the instrument concerned and let the pilot fly the plane using other available information. Of course, with a glass (computer based) panel, often a failure can mean you lose ALL available information, which has been attributed to some accidents already.

Recovery from unusual attitudes is far more interesting and also very likely to save your life in a moment of need. To do this we ask the student pilot to close their eyes, let go of all controls and the instructor takes control of the machine. Now, the instructor manoeuvres the plane erratically to disrupt the awareness of the student. Then, at a moment when the aircraft is presented ‘in an unusual attitude’ (such as nose high, or in a spiral descent), the instructor releases the controls and calls out ‘you have control’. The student must assess the situation, in a blinking of an eye, and return the aircraft to straight and level controlled flight.

This is not as easy as it sounds, but it is exceptionally good training. One step on from this is the spin awareness training, which requires aircraft cleared for such operations. To enter a spin, the aircraft is taken out of balance at the moment of the stall. The nose will point at the earth and the aircraft will spin, losing height rapidly, and the earth gets bigger very quickly. Recovery is relatively easy, but it needs to be done BEFORE you hit the ground! Such training is carried out at heights that provide time for the instructor to correct the spin in the event that the student fails to.

At times I feel as if I am being tested on engine failure (lack of power), control failure (lack of co-operation), instrument failure (lack of information) or indeed recovery from unusual attitudes (for many of the attitudes to what we do are strange indeed!), as I go through my everyday activities.

Fortunately for me, I have a great team around me, both in Ghana and internationally, who understand the challenges of developmental aviation and appreciate that these are times when we must forge on to make a positive difference, changing lives, one flight at a time.

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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