Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Photo of the week, September 28st

The Integrated National Schistosomiasis Control Initiative - or Bilharzia control concepts - team are working hard to put together a conference next year to co-ordinate efforts between agencies, organisations and teams involved in combating this 'second most socio-economic devastating parasitic infection, after malaria'. Ghana is thought to experience around 15,000,000 cases per year, predominantly around the Volta Basin. Reaching these people in the Infrastructurally Isolated Communities is the biggest challenge in combating the infection, and the key to having an impact on it. Communities like this one, on the River Sene, are best spotted by air and then supported by combined air and water based transport solutions. It is a big challenge - but together we can make Bilharzia a thing of the past.... Photo Credit Medicine on the Move

Monday, September 26, 2011

September 26th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

 What is a cockpit? It is place where two cockerels are placed to fight! At least, that is the original definition of the word, dating from the 1500’s. Later, the similarities to that little pit, in which two hapless male chickens duelled it out in a bloody mess, were noticed in boats and ships, in regards to the location where the coxswain sits and ensures the boat stays on course!

 In 1914 the term was further used to refer to the place where the pilot (and co-pilot/Flight Engineer if applicable) controlled an aircraft from. Later, in the 1930’s the same term was used in racing cars – and all share the same similarities – a little place to sit in, generally climbed down into (think about the early aircraft), from which you take control.

 I am pleased to say that most cockpits in the aviation business are not fighting places, as the origin of the word may indicate!

 The name ‘cock’ is used to refer to a male of the avian type, that being a bird! However, these days, we see more and more women taking the helm of the flying machine.

In the early days of theatre, there was a small booth at the front of the building, and in it would generally be two women, selling tickets. That booth was called the ‘box office’. The ‘box’ in theatre terms, refers to the ‘little balconies’ around the edge of the main auditorium where ‘private groups’ could sit and enjoy the entertainment.

 So, it is no surprise that the term used to describe the cockpit when an all-female crew is on board is, colloquially, the ‘Box Office’ or ‘Boxx Office’. (the double xx representing the female chromosomes). Sadly, there are those with minds of the less ‘genteel’ kind who believe that the first word in each definition has reference to the ‘distinguishing organs’ of the genders.

 To avoid confusion, and since the modern cockpit is nothing like a pit (except in a fighter or race plane) the term ‘flight deck’ is the new name that covers all eventualities!

 It is interesting that more and more airlines like to mix a male and female pilot together to create a balanced, co-operative environment – for each has their strengths, and weaknesses. However, it is hard to do so with so few women pilots in the world. Less than 6% of the world’s pilots are women. So, ladies and girls, see the opportunity! There is a wonderful world of aviation out there, just waiting for more women to join the flock.

 Interestingly, this week sees an event being set up by Women Aviators in Africa (WAAFRIC) taking place in Accra. Chloe Grant, one of the organisers, told me a bit about it, she said, ‘This is our 3rd Annual Conference and the first in West Africa. Women Aviators in Africa intention is to move across the continent each year, this is a great chance for Ghanaian and other West African ladies to get involved in a burgeoning industry across the continent. As a NGO we endeavour to become the premier forum for women aviators throughout Africa and a change catalyst that transforms Africa’s aviation industry.’

The previous two conferences were focused on East/Southern Africa, which has more active civilian aviation than our part of the world, and with it more women in aviation.

 I am pleased to hear that the focus of the event to be held from Friday 30th September to Sunday 2nd October, is primarily on encouragement into the field of aviation – not necessarily into ‘commercial’ aviation. It is exciting to hear the WAAFRIC committee saying ‘We are very honored to have Boeing to assist with our sponsorship.’, demonstrating that the ‘big players’ are realising the potential of such a conference in our part of the world.

 Speakers are scheduled in from all over – and Ghanaian lady pilots, and student pilots, will be sharing their experiences too. I hear that folks are coming from Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Tanzania, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, the USA, Canada, France and Ireland. This is a real achievement for a conference on such a specialist sector of aviation.

 I am told that there are a few spaces left at the event and ‘last minute’ delegates can register their interest with the team, arriving in Accra on Monday (26/9), via The venue for the first two days is ‘Fiesta Royale’ and then on Sunday they are taking a field trip to learn more about women in aircraft engineering and to watch some of our local young ladies present some flying demonstrations.

There is even a segment which promotes aviation for disabled people, a very important and enabling activity for those who are physically challenged.

We wish them all the greatest of success. Ghana is a great choice for such an event, with its strong history of women in aviation, dating back to the 1960’s when women in Ghana Air Force demonstrated their strengths, for which we all raise up Melody Danquah’s achievement as the first female pilot of Ghana’s Air Force, accompanied, in joining up to the armed forces to ‘learn to fly and serve’, by two other equally daring young women.

 Ghana is, today, the only country on the continent to have been awarded certain Women in Aviation Awards, holds front page of this months ‘Women in Aviation’ magazine and has the only ‘Most Female Friendly Airfield’ award on the continent, which was awarded to Kpong Airfield at the international air show in Oshkosh, USA recently. We have much to celebrate and it will be great to have such a gathering in our sub-region.

 As a male pilot and engineer and having flown many tens of different aircraft types, with many other pilots, instructors and students, I have to admit that only one of those I have flown with has left me feeling ‘pleasantly-intimidated’. The young woman, young enough to be my daughter, her blonde hair, light frame and infectious smile hides her true ability when standing on the ground. Once she steps into the cockpit (yes, I still like the 1914 name), takes hold of the throttle and stick, places her feet on the rudder pedals and visibly melts into ‘communion’ with the aircraft. Melissa Pemberton, world class aerobatic pilot, friend and supporter of young women learning to fly in Ghana, is the most able pilot I have ever sat next to. I have flown with her, and she really is my ‘heroine’ when it comes to flying. Not only can she fly with magnificence and precision, she is also able to express her skills to others, she has taught me more than many instructors, and I although she is considerably shorter than I, is a pilot that I look up to, and am proud to have as a supporter of rural aviation in Ghana. Sadly, Melissa cannot make it to the event this week (she is flying aerobatics at air shows around the world) but I know that she supports it, and so should we all, for women have the power to change the world, and let us encourage them to climb into the traditionally male cockpit and make it fly!

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Photo of the week, September 21st

As we continue to look at the isolated communities in Ghana, it is amazing to see how the development of certain villages demonstrate a 'town planning' like approach. This community on the south bank of the Afram is growing quite nicely, and as can be seen from the tracks on the left of the image, is close to a watering point for cattle. Sadly, there is no evidence of a clean water supply, and so their water is probably taken downstream from the cattle bathing and drinking spot, with its associated risks and dangers. So much can be gleaned from studying aerial photos, in relation to population, economic activity, agriculture and health. Photo Courtesy of Medicine on the Move .

Monday, September 19, 2011

September 19th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

So many people ask me ‘How can I become a pilot?’ or arrive at the airfield with the statement ‘I want to be a pilot!’ and I am glad to say that I rarely answer them! The young Ghanaians that have been trained at Kpong Airfield are more than able to answer most of such questions, but generally, there comes the crunch point that requires an ‘older face’ to answer. ‘I want to be a commercial pilot’. That is a very different matter.

In my opinion, and I am far from alone, learning to fly because you want to become a commercial pilot is the biggest mistake an individual can make. You should only learn to fly because you are passionate about aviation, because you want to explore a new skill and find the amazing release that only flying can bring. Wanting to be a commercial pilot on ‘day one’ is a major reason to fail – and to make a big hole in the bank account at the same time! The reasons are many, but let us take some time to understand the statistics.

As we have discussed before on these pages, only two percent of the world’s aircraft are airliners. Only a small percentage of the world’s airports are commercial. So, it makes sense to extrapolate the above knowledge to ‘only a small percentage of the world’s pilots are commercial pilots.’ But that is not altogether true unless you add …who earn their living as a pilot.

I know a lot of people, even here in Ghana, who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on pilot training, only to find themselves unable to find a job in aviation. The cost of gaining a ‘frozen ATPL’ – which is the thing to go for if you want to join an airline – is between $80,000 and $100,000 – PLUS other costs that are many, including loss of earnings whilst training. That is a lot of money. ‘Ahh but I will earn big bucks if I get me my licence!’, I hear. Not true. The simple economics of flying today is that ‘it is more costly in gaining the licence than most people will earn in additional earnings in their career’. The competition is great, the obstacles are many and, what happens if you are ‘unable to continue a career in commercial aviation’ due to failing a medical? You may complete your training, only the next week to be told ‘you may no longer hold a class one medical’ – essential to fly passengers commercially.

But let us step back even further… let us look at the statistics of ‘people who start learning to fly’. Based on our experience at Kpong Airfield, which is specific to our region, for every one hundred ‘trial flights’, the first flight (or flights) you take to decide whether you want to progress towards a licence, perhaps two or three will register to learn to fly. This is major reason why we do not allow people to register to learn to fly, and go through all of the paperwork, until we know that this is what they really want. In our environment, there are so many who see ‘flying’ as something that is about freedom. It is true, but it is also about discipline and risk management. For one young man, his comment summed it all up ‘This is not for me – I thought it was like flight simulator and that I could pull and push the stick and do whatever I wanted – not all these rules, checks and safety things.’ I believe we saved this young man a lot of money – and today he visits to watch the planes and has a good job in ICT. He is thinking about learning to fly as a personal thing now, and laughs about his earlier desires to be ‘an airline pilot’. You see, in our environment, people are not aware to the same degree as in other countries about the true nature of flying – and for many the only taste of an aircraft that they will ever receive will be that ‘twenty minute trial flight’. This trial flight will change them, give them direction and rule out an avenue of career direction – or, in the small percentage, light a fire of passion, raise their bar of achievement and flying will become their ‘thing’ for a very long time to come.

So, we have two or three percent of the ‘starters’ who go on to ‘register and take lessons’. Wonderful, they start. Many drop out in the first ten hours due to lack of commitment, lack of funds and at times lack of ability. Flying is demanding – it requires discipline, practical and theoretical learning and… cash! For every one hundred who actually register to start learning to fly, around half will complete their first licence. That is an international commonality.

After completing the first licence, the vast majority will be happy and remain what we call ‘private pilots’, flying themselves in small planes, perhaps owning or co-owning aircraft and sharing their passion for being in the air safely with others. Such pilots are the source of great National resource – for they are ever ready to grow aviation interests and ever ready to support search and rescue missions, flying of organs, sick children and other humanitarian operations – and this is essential in all countries around the world that value the lives of their citizens.

From the fifty percent who registered and went on to gain their first licence, one or two will go on to invest in the ‘commercial training’. Out of every ten who complete their commercial training, it is far from all who are able to get a job in commercial aviation, and then, not all will be in the sector ten years down the line.

Let us look at the US statistics for so called ‘active pilots’ as at the end of 2009

Around 72 000 student pilots and over 237 000 private/recreational/sport/glider pilots (that is those flying personally), roughly 126 000 commercial pilots with 144,000 airline transport pilots. (all numbers for highest licence value held.) Furthermore there were a registered 95 000 flight instructors.

So, with a structure of nearly 600 000 active pilots we can draw some deductions…

Over half of all the active pilots are students and personal aviators (that does not take into account those who have ‘dropped out’, failed to pass medicals, etc). Over 16% of all active pilots are instructors, in addition to their highest rating. Remember, this does not indicate that they ‘exercise their licence at the highest rating’ just that they hold it. One can quickly see that over 12% of the total ‘active pilot population’ are students. So, assuming a career of 40 years, there should be over 6 700 retiring pilots each year… and the retirement in commercial aviation is strict! Therefore, the student pilots are looking at roughly a one in ten replacement potential into retirement posts, and the market shows small growth… The fact is very few who actually complete all of their investments will find and keep a job in an airliner cockpit.

The numbers say it all. You had best only enter the aviation marketplace if you have the passion for aviation – or you will be bitterly disappointed and possibly very out of pocket! Fly for the passion and see where it leads – that really is the best investment.

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Photo of the week, September 14th

The tributaries to the main body of Lake Volta are often inhabited by fishing and farming communities, isolated and taking most of their wares to market by boat, and returning with items for their daily lives and to build their communities. As was seen last week along the River Sene, near Kete Krachi, being isolated carries more dangers than one may at first conceive. Consequently education of the people, provision of suitable solutions and encouragements to building their socio-economic sustainability must be accelerated if we are to reduce the needless loss of life on our National Resource. Photo Courtesy of Medicine on the Move

Lessons from the Sene Boat Accident

Observations from Capt. Yaw.

(a Fresh Water Matter from the Fresh Air Matters page)

Last weeks accident on the River Sene, where many lives were lost when a boat capsized about 800m from shore, on a tributary to the Lake Volta ,was tragic. The loss of life, no matter what the cause, is always something that should be analyzed and lessons learned from it, in order that the death of our citizens and loved ones is not in vain. Knowing the Lake Volta as I do (flying low level along large stretches of the coastline of it on a regular basis), and especially the remoteness and inaccessibility of so many towns and villages around the lake, as well as operations on and above the lake, this incident grabs my attention with the tenacity of a vice.

To many people the Lake is just a ‘piece of water’ that our electricity comes from. To those who know it, the lake is a massive minefield of potential impacts to any vessel that floats upon it; it is a rising and falling mass that takes homes and fields away with the frequency of the dragons of folklore; it is a thief of life and equipment for those who work and travel up on it; it is also a resource that is underutilized and capable of generating far more good to this nation than it is given credit. The stump issues are not going to change in a hurry, even with all the underwater logging operations. This lake is vast – and with a coastline of nearly eight thousand kilometers, it offers more challenges – and opportunities - than can be imagined.

The ‘Infrastructurally Isolated Communities’, or iic’s as we refer to them as, are easily more than two thousand, probably more than three thousand, around the lake. A community may be as few as five houses or a settlement of many hundreds. Access to their place of abode is often limited by a dangerous water transport ride or a lengthy trek through the bush, with its own hazards. Telephone coverage is far from complete and it is possible to go missing on or around the lake for days in areas where there are few landmarks to assist with visual navigation, especially in the West and North West of the water bodies.

The community where the accident struck was not very far from Kete Krachi, a major port, and the site of the disaster itself was in shallow waters less than one kilometer from the shore of a community with many canoes on hand. The downstream riverbank, to the North of the accident site is well populated, and also equipped with a host of fisher-folk and their equipment. The southern bank of the river at that point is convoluted and sparsely inhabited, being the top end of the Digya National Park.

The cause of the accident is cited in many press releases as ‘overloading’ – yet that appears to only be a part of the story. Assuming the boat hit a tree stump, or ran aground on a mud flat, the two most probable causes (or indeed a combination of the two), and it has been intimated that the accident occurred in the night, then we must only assume that the overloading was not the very cause of the accident, but a factor in the magnitude of the accident, contributing to the rapidity of the sinking of the vessel as well as to the number of lives lost.

If reports are true, over 60% of the occupants of this vessel were saved by the local community. They must be given full credit for their part in this rescue mission – they were on site, used their own common sense and limited resources and reacted to the need at hand as they could, and they did well – considering the limitations upon them.

There have been rampant calls for the Navy to be equipped with high speed vessels in order to respond to such incidents, but I am not convinced that such a knee jerk reaction is entirely appropriate.

The Navy may not possess a vessel in the area, but has its personnel posted there. They have demonstrated that they can use the local vessels at a moment’s notice. Local vessels around the Krachi area are often in excellent shape – and, there is a Ministry of Health Vessel stationed at Kete Krachi (which does not appear in any report that I have read, but can be seen on the quayside at Krachi). Consequently, access to vessels for the Navy has not been a major issue. When we then hear of a cry for ‘high speed vessels’, more questions must be asked – one of the major causes of accidents on the Volta is the speed at which the vessels impact the hidden objects. With a level that varies from 236 to 277 feet – that is a range of over forty feet– the hidden and exposed dangers are incredibly variable. As you go along the banks and especially along the tributaries, such as the Sene, the hazards are amazingly complex – in a given stretch of one kilometer of water it is possible to have a thousand hazards – which may vary on a day-to-day basis. It is possible to fit a device called an FLS or Forward Looking Sonar, which, at best in these waters can give you 100m of ‘warning of impact’, perhaps. That is not a lot, especially if travelling at a higher speed. Impacting an object at high speed can spell disaster even for a large and well-built vessel.

Fiberglass hulls splinter in less than a second from even a minor impact, and I have personal experience on the lake of fiberglass reinforced with Kevlar (the same material as bullet proof vests) and how that material damages on floatation devices even at relatively low speed. Wooden boats also tend to have their challenges. The preferred material is metal – either marine grade aluminum (not the sort produced in Ghana) or steel. Both have their challenges but steel hulls do stand-up better and are easier to fix in our environment.

However, even if the Navy were equipped with a high speed boat from Krachi, they could not have reached the scene quicker than the local people. It is, therefore, evident that the local people need to be better equipped. Equipped through training, provision of emergency equipment and equipped to communicate.

Even communicating where an accident has occurred is a challenge on the lake, let alone being able to physically make a telephone call or radio transmission. Radio would not reach Krachi from the location of this recent accident – or indeed the vast majority of the lake, and even if the telephone network did work at such a place, we have to ask a) how do they charge their phones and b) where do they get credit! These are very remote locations – not in terms of distance, but in terms of infrastructure. They are iics.

Clearly, regulations and the enforcement thereof must be given a higher priority, but when we consider any of the many iics, we must consider empowerment. Empower them to be able to handle the challenges (show them how to improve on their response given in the current incident) – provide life belts and ‘rescue points’ around the lake, for that would be a far better investment, and probably at a lower cost, than any high speed vessel for the Navy. Furthermore, each designated ‘rescue’ point should be geo-referenced so that aircraft and vessels would be able to quickly find the site, for there is much confusion about ‘where-is-where’ along these meandering banks – and many towns with variable as well as similar names. Accurate GPS co-ordinates are needed, and tracking of the same within the reach of low budget, high reliability equipment, probably having more effect in the timely execution of a response than just about anything else.

Ideally, moor-able markers should be present showing ‘clear passage even at low water’ – but even identifying the same, let alone marking it appropriately, is not an easy task – and such markers would need geo-referenced and identification. (such a project is already being put together by a private operation for their water based services to the rural communities).

Yes, the Navy should be equipped with appropriate equipment and vessels – vessels for travelling the shores of the lake, water ambulances, capable carrying training teams, distributing and maintaining equipment – checking on the readiness of the people to handle their daily challenge on the largest man-made lake in the world, a ‘monster of our own making’, and one that we need to tame in our own service, not only in terms of electricity, but also in terms of its impact on the lives of those living around its shores.

Unless we educate and empower the people, these accidents will only get worse. Thinking that equipping a few locations with ‘maritime panaceas’ is not the solution, but a long term, inclusive empowerment plan is – and it needs to be water, land and air based – founded securely in a public-private pact for the protection and development of the people.

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 12th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

There is an old song about ‘a mouse living in a windmill in old Amsterdam’, and I wonder whether the mouse in question has a descendent living in Hong Kong. Last week an ‘unauthorised excursion’ by a rodent caused a Nepalese Boeing 757 to be grounded. Apparently, the week before, on the same aircraft, a mouse escaped – and was caught. The authorities claim that this is a ‘different mouse’. All of the passengers were put up in hotels, one may assume at the mouse’s expense – or perhaps amusement. The aircraft is not allowed to fly with a mouse aboard, unless suitably restrained in a cage. It is quite clear that as much as all passengers must have their belts fastened, so must mice be in cages, or the Captain should refuse to fly. There is a lot of safety sense in this… a rampant mouse may chew wires or controls and, possibly create a little mayhem if found meandering around the seats of the first class cabin!

I did once have a mouse nest in a wing, and a birds nest on an engine, whilst operating light aircraft in France, but I must admit to never having had a mouse aboard an aircraft that I have flown in Ghana. I have had snakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders, grasshoppers, praying mantis, wasps nests, a squirrel and on one occasion a tenacious tsetse fly that hung onto a wing for the entire flight. Clearly, as a bush pilot, preparing for ‘live stock of the unwanted nature’ is paramount to survival. Interestingly, I do know of pilots who regularly fly with their dogs. There exist special harnesses for dogs in small planes, perhaps most importantly for the mountain rescue teams. There is at least one such pilot operating the same class as of aircraft as used in Ghana, who regularly flies rescue missions with a dog in the co-pilots seat!

Securing the load appropriately is important whether it is alive or not, and that is true in planes, cars, trucks, trains and boats. Aircraft and boats are particularly sensitive to ‘bad loading’ and ‘overloading’. Either, and especially a combination of both, is likely to result in an unexpected expense – either material or corporal.

This, sadly, has been the case on the River Sene leg of Lake Volta last week, here in Ghana, with the loss of many lives, may their souls rest in peace and may their families find solace in their faith, friends and family at this time. As I have said before in this column, and no doubt will say it again, ‘all regulations have a tombstone’. Should these people have crossed over, through their watery grave, without a change in procedure, application, regulation, enforcement, policy and the approach to Search and Rescue, then, sadly, their deaths are in vain. However, if we can muster the roses of positive development out of these ashes of disaster, then, and only then, can the families of those affected know that, in the death of their loved ones, a positive outcome for future generations has been established from this incident.

Sadly, the civilian volunteer, Search and Rescue team at Kpong Airfield were not informed early enough to get an airborne search and rescue out in the golden twenty four hours from incident. Light aircraft are incredibly useful in the search for survivors. The ability to fly ‘low and slow’ in safety is a crucial part of their role in the searching component of the response team. Once located, rescue teams can quickly reach the site and take appropriate action.

Every hour that passes, and especially every night, the chances of a successful recovery diminish. Ideally, search aircraft should be able to operate from an airfield close to the scene of the incident. Perhaps, more community led rural airfields especially for development and for use in emergencies should become a priority for our nation, as we value our citizens as mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and children with the priceless value of life in their souls.

SOS is the international ‘distress call’ and it means ‘Save Our Souls’. Reaching out from these pages, let us please seek to ensure that all is done by every citizen to respect the value of life, not only in their day-to-day operations but also in the response to an emergency or disaster.

Appropriate vehicles on the road, on the water and in the air. Sensible loading – in weight limitations, in distribution and in the securing of the load. Appropriate regulations and policing of the operations, and an appropriate response in the event of breaching the regulations affecting the movement of goods and people across the nation.

There are those who respect the rules, even when the rules themselves are not appropriate to the situation, rules that exist from a time and reason now past, and in need of ‘review’. For those the frustration levels are high when they see others breaking the rules and then watch helplessly whilst folks die or are maimed through their inability to effect a fast enough change of pace of the status quo.

Every single person in this nation has a responsibility towards the protection of life on our roads, on our waterways and in the air, be it from overloading and poor maintenance, over-speeding or recklessness – for we all see it, but what action are we taking, apart from shaking our heads and saying ‘what a shame?’

It is not easy, and I will admit that I have had more problems from stopping overloaded vehicles and asking the authorities to intervene than the perpetrators of endangerment, and have pretty much stopped ‘getting involved’, but I know that it is wrong.

Perhaps, we should all make a point of pointing out to one tro-tro driver, boat operator or other person we find this week, who by their actions, inactions or attitudes are putting lives at risk – and to then making a short written report to the relevant authorities. Perhaps it would help… or perhaps it would just fall on deaf ears, once again, and we will all sit back and wait for the next rash of deaths followed by hollow announcements and shrug our shoulders, shake our heads and proclaim ‘what a shame?’

Know where the shame really lies if YOU are not fighting with all your might for changes that improve the lives of those around you, and especially of those you do not know, for it is all of our responsibilities and we need to take it ‘seriously seriously’ and now – or accept our personal part of the blame for the next unnecessary incident and, potentially, death.

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Photo of the week, September 7th

The number of infrastructurally isolated communities in Ghana is much larger than most people realise.  As we will explore in the coming weeks, there are  many communities far from easy road access, power, piped water, telecoms, education and health facilities.  Not only are these communities far from a tarred road, they are far from a latterite road and, in many cases, far from a road that even a 4x4 is comfortable on.  Here we see one of the many hundreds of the Volta lake-communities, homes far removed from easy access to the infrastructure necessary for sustainable socio-economic growth.  Photo courtesy Medicine on the Move

Monday, September 5, 2011

September 5th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Credit must go to where credit is due, and that, this week, must go to the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority. It appears (awaiting written confirmation) that they have waived all charges related to the inspection and opening of a small community rural airstrip – Kudos to the GCAA! It was a wonderful moment when we went in to settle a demand for charges, which had previously been notified to us, on a community strip. The community in question had worked hard, as had others, with no financial reward nor incentives, to be told by the official in the office ‘There is no need for you to worry about that, the authority is covering it’. Fantastic, that is the spirit of development that we need to see. The best part of this is that it was done with a smile and a real ‘go-get-em’ energy that gives me encouragement to support more rural communities and see many more rural airstrips opened in our fantastic country! Let us hope that this is the start of a new trend in the approach of the different authorities in their treatment of rural, low finance, poor infrastructure communities – who make an effort to help themselves. Ayekoo, Ghana Civil Aviation Authority, Ayekoo, and a bigger Ayekoo to the rural community in question!

One of the challenges to rural development, in any part of the world, is infrastructural access. Whether such access is to water, electricity, telecommunications, roads, water transport or air via a small dirt airstrip, any one of these can increase a community’s potential many fold. The more barriers that are put in the way to provision and exploitation of that access, the longer the community itself is retarded in its development, and with it the Nation.

In a vibrant discussion about provision of such facilities to the many thousands of communities in Ghana that have no access for a motor car, let alone a truck, it was expressed to me that, in essence, until there are roads we cannot go and install power, water, or even inspect airstrips. – such an idea should have the Ministry of Roads and Highways in a spin and every District Assembly turning around like tops in a hurricane!

Much as it would be wonderful to have roads, even just a track that a car or truck could navigate at more than a few kilometres per hour, it is simply not going to happen overnight – and frankly it is not something that is present in many other countries either.

So many people in the developing nations, and Ghana included, are caught in the ‘catch 22’ of development. They can do a certain amount with their own labour and resources, and many communities are already, and more willing to do so, making improvements to their portion of the planet; however, they do not have cash resources and they do not have labour resources to do much more than maintain their immediate facilities. Therefore, the many, many communities that are isolated, along a walking track that may see a bicycle once in a blue moon, are pretty much forgotten people… worse than that, they are ‘invisible people’.

When you live off of the land in one of our many truly rural locations, you often live in a subsistence farming environment. Such people are hard-working, industrious, generally exceptionally welcoming and are ready to share the little that they have with whoever may come their way. These citizens of Ghana are many, their communities ranging from an extended family to a couple of hundred people. You may well be a beneficiary of their labours, for they often sell their excess produce at a very low rate, only for it to be taken to the city and sold on at a relatively massive profit, for your delight.

Already, such people are taxed by those better off, not in cash terms, but rather in terms of ‘withholding of infrastructure’. Without infrastructure they have limited choices;

a) Remain in their condition, live hand-to-mouth and keep the life-expectancy of Ghana around the 2009 figure of 56.8 years that it is now. (down from 59.1 in 1995) 

 b) Leave their communities, abandon them and move to other communities – such as the cities, in the pursuit of a slim chance of better opportunities. 

 c) Develop their own community, demonstrate that they have a community worth investing in and improve their own lot, as a community.

Option a) is not an option, we all know that, but it is the defacto action for many due to the challenges of b) and c).

Option b) is a popular one, take a look around the cities and larger communities in Ghana, the number of ‘economic migrants’ is growing as the cost of surviving, let alone living, continues to rise. Most of these ‘eco-migrants’ are disappointed. Some end up begging on the streets, most end up living a ‘less happy life’ than in their place of origin, but are, in practical terms, ashamed to return – often spinning ‘tales’ of their Dick Whittington like transformation.

Options c) is what we all know is the best option – it is clear, and does not take an economist nor a politician to tell you that! So, why is c) not working?

Most of these communities are not looking for money… they are looking for opportunity. So, when an opportunity comes their way they are ready to make an effort towards it, often a full-community effort. 

Let us assume that a community, far from other ready access, with limited health and education infrastructural support, were to create a simple and useable air strip, it can be done in many communities, with community labour, in a matter of days, as has been proved in the middle of the Amazon jungle many times over. In today’s environment that strip is unable to be used by those willing to fly in with health care until a lengthy and expensive ‘assessment’ is undertaken by the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority. The charges system is based on the time taken to inspect the strip. Of course, the more rural the strip, the more costly the inspection in terms of labour and resources - especially when there is no road to reach the community by! Approvals can take many months (even years), and, assuming the charges could be funded, the time from application to inspection is so long that the community is unlikely to maintain the ‘usable in practice but not yet useable by regulation’ strip.  

 Many proposals have been made to simplify this process, perhaps a community may construct a suitable strip for non-commercial, non-profit related use, and provided that the strip is notified to the authorities, may be used as long its usage is reported on, at no charge – since that would be recognition of a community ‘self-help’ approach? This has been written about to the authority and tabled many times, but perhaps now, as we see our GDP growing, it is time to pass some ‘exceptions’ to allow those in need to gain access without the taxation of delay and hindrance to their own efforts?

The decision to go ahead with one rural airstrip without charges is the tip of an iceberg – it demonstrates a positive action towards rural development through light aviation, as once proclaimed by Kwame Nkrumah himself, and hopefully a return towards the opening of as many, if not more, light aircraft strips as there were in 1957. I look forward to a brighter light aviation future and to reporting on it as it grows!

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