Monday, October 3, 2011

October 3rd, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

The pilot’s mantra of Aviate-Navigate-Communicate cannot be repeated enough. This simple, reminder of the key to flying safely, is in my opinion the basis of success in aviation and can be in other industries too.

Aviate, meaning ‘fly the plane’ is about continuing to do what you need to do, in order to keep the aircraft in the air and ‘flying safely’. This is about keeping a steady hand on the controls, following procedure and correcting for any sudden turbulence, ensuring that the plane and all on board are ‘as comfortable and safe as possible’.

Navigate means ‘work out where you are, and where you are going ’as well as ‘how you are going to get there. A sudden storm may brew or low cloud-base require a deviation, or perhaps you are not able to contact, or understand, ATC to obtain a clearance, and so you have to take a different route. Navigation in Ghana is a bigger challenge than in many ‘light-aviation-developed’ nations. Here, the charts are not updated for VFR flying every year as they are elsewhere – for there simply is not the volume or demand. Furthermore, the markings on the available maps are often erroneous, as we found out when we flew to look for survivors after the Sene accident recently. The maps can be wrong in relation to the lay of the land, names and locations of towns.

Communicate, the third and completing part of the mantra, is the one that can help us to overcome any issues in the first two. Pilots regularly report their position, their heading and their intentions. They communicate either directly to Air Traffic Control or they can broadcast open ‘to all who may be listening’, especially useful if ATC is out of range or not responding. Other aircraft may relay messages, to and from ATC, and so the information chain can be maintained, through the network of communication for which true aviators are renowned. Poor communication, misunderstandings and the failure of just one person to initiate or respond to communications can and has led to major embarrassments, accidents and in some cases loss of life and livelihood, in the same way as it can in all walks of life.

There have been cases where pilots have had so much difficulty in getting a response from the tower that emergencies have ensued – simply because ATC refused to respond to a call ‘because they did not use the local language’ or at times ‘because the pilot had upset them’ – hard to believe, but true. At other times pilots fail to communicate, between crew as well as to the tower, trying to hide their need for help. We should all note that there is no excuse for a ‘failure to communicate’, we cannot allow pride nor prejudice to prevent communications, is not an acceptable excuse at any time, especially in aviation, even though we all seem to experience it at some point in our lives.

There was a particular day when the importance of communication, in, and out of, the cockpit, between the crew, as well as ATC was demonstrated in my flying, and I have been much bolder in my approach to communication since.

I used to fly with an excellent pilot, he knew his stuff. He had flown in the Air Force and then in commercial aviation too. In his retirement he took up flight instruction. He had a nickname, it was that of an animal, but to protect his identity, we will simply call him ‘Fox’. Fox liked flying with me, and teaching me new skills, or so he said, and I really enjoyed chatting with, and learning from, him. He taught me a great deal and I respected and held the man in high esteem.

Then, one day, he proposed a skills building lesson, saying ‘Let’s check you out on the cross-winds’. I looked at the sky and told him that it looked a little ‘sketchy’. ‘Nonsense, Old Chap’ he retorted in his terribly RAF voice, adding ‘you have come this far, you should see it can be done, I am here to help you.’ My trust in the man, at that time, was complete; he had more experience than me, even flying to many countries around the world. So, we set off.

In the plane, we lined up ready for take-off, watching the other aircraft from the area rushing back to join the circuit and land, as the sky darkened. Again, I suggested ‘it is not a good day for this’ and without answering me he requested for ‘line up and departure’. ATC came back with ‘Fox, are you sure you want to go?’, breaking protocol and using his name. He glanced at me and, as he turned down the radio, said ‘sometimes it is better not to let them know you have heard. Let’s roll’. Doubts were in my mind as to how sensible he was, but I trusted the man completely. The plane was airborne and we were climbing, behind us other aircraft hurriedly landing and tying down. He insisted we fly circuits on the main runway, 21/03, and off we flew; my hands, arms and legs aching from the many control inputs needed to retain semblances of stability. We set the aircraft up for a landing and I heard faintly on the radio ‘clear to land’, but Fox called loudly in my ears ‘touch-and-go’ and increased the power, overriding my attempts to end the flight. The PA28 climbed out, committed to another circuit. Strong winds were blowing, gusts beyond the normal operating capabilities of the aircraft. Being the only aircraft in the air, and having my communications shut down by Fox, I needed to make some immediate and tough decisions. I chose to cut the circuit short, ignoring Fox, who was yelling something in my ear about ‘you must respect my commands’. To me, and others, his advice would clearly result in both of our demises. On the approach the aircraft was now verging on being out of control – I was lining up to land but Fox wanted to fly more circuits. I locked the controls firmly in my hands. As he resorted to calling me names, I transmitted firmly ‘G-XXX is landing NOW’. Fox fought me for the controls. Finally, I cut a deal to give them to him, on condition that we landed now. He stopped talking to me from that point on. I reached forward and turned up the radio as they broadcast ‘Fox, land that plane now’. In the man’s anger, directed at me, coupled with the conditions, he did not land well. We slammed onto the runway, skidding on the freshly wetted tarmac; the undercarriage would need ‘attention’. Without a word, Fox gestured to give me control for the taxi of the limping aircraft back to the hangar, amid torrents of rain and hail. The airport manager himself came on the radio, his voice indicating his ‘disquiet’… ‘Fox, report to the office, immediately’. We parked and he disappeared, without a word.

I will share with you next week the outcome, and the moral of this true account, for it is as relevant today in all of our working, as it was then. ‘Till next week…

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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