Monday, December 5, 2011

December 5th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Bush fires are beginning to consume hundreds of acres around Kpong Airfield, and once again we will need to consider careful burning of fire-breaks. As is always the case, arguments over ‘who starts’ a fire will abound, and the Fulani will be given their share of the blame, but it is not altogether fair. I have seen fires started in people’s homes spread out and across the bush, probably a ‘fire-break-burn’ gone wrong. One way or the other, our carbon footprint will grow, and our land will bear the blackened scars for several months, waiting for the healing rains to stimulate the emerald magic that we yearn for at the end of the dry season.

Interestingly, a short flight over the Akwapim-Togo range reveals that the forest areas are still lush green, and yet the Harmattan haze is really beginning to show in the air, and it will be only a matter of days before the tones and hues are dulled down even in the forests. The Harmattan months are interesting for me, they provide a few days of ‘respite’ when we cannot fly due to low-visibility and with it the workshop gets a new lease of life. In aviation there is always something to be done, and little tasks that get pushed back for the lack of time, things like new placarding of the panel, or the replacement of the throttle grip, or perhaps upgrading the radio antenna, can finally be gotten around to.

In Europe the winter provides the same opportunity – but without the dust, and with biting cold. For me, the Harmattan is at least ten times more pleasant than winter! However, winter and Harmattan are linked. It is the pushing down of the cold fronts in Europe that move the Inter-Tropical-Convergence-Zone (ITCZ) southwards and with it the Harmattan haze.

I have a ‘rule of thumb’, that I would like you to help to establish this year. When I call my mother, who lives in the South of England, and she tells me there is a heavy frost, I reckon on two to three days to an increase in Harmattan. If she tells me that there is snow falling, I generally reckon we will not be flying in the next three days due to heavy dust haze and lower visibility. I have never ‘recorded’ this, it is an observational, anecdotal, weather forecast that I use personally – but together we may be able to find a pattern. I use this ‘method’ for my ‘on-the-fly planning and scheduling’.

So, when you are talking to family in Europe over the next few months, ask about their weather, and then see if it leads to a ‘pattern’ (generally in the three days after the start of the Europe weather) here. I am sure that it exists, but together we can prove it… even if it is only 80% accurate, it can help us form a forecast model to improve our productivity and planning in this dusty season – and it is free, fun and informative!

Planning is, of course, key to success in aviation – and every other industry I can think of. Failure to plan is planning to fail! So, the more ‘indicators’ we have at our fingertips the better we can plan. I try to establish planning rules at the airfield in relation to our on-going construction works (our new robotic centre and mini-clinic buildings are currently going up). We are not as big as Kotoka, who issue NOTAMS, often covering many months in advance, warning of planned shutdowns, but we still need to plan.

One of those rules relates to materials. It is not always possible, cash flow wise, to have all of the materials available all of the time, and with that a ‘flexible planning’ system is necessary. For example, if we are out of cement, and short of funds, trenching is a good job to get on with – not ‘sit around and wait for the cement’. There are always jobs that can be done without materials – clearing, cleaning, repairs to wheelbarrows, etc. However, if there is a call off supply of cement, sand, stones, blocks, etc. we need to be more alert in our planning and funds management.

My basic rule is ‘I need to know at least the day before that we need something’ (usually that means water to be trucked in, by the way!). When we are getting through twenty or thirty bags of cement in a day, we need to plan to get the next bags on hand and sufficient water in containers on hand too. Imagine my surprise when at midday a mason comes to me and proudly announces that he has just used the last bag of cement and needs ten more. After I have ranted a bit (I do like a good rant), I explain that the truck has just returned from town, and that he will need to cover the thirty cedis extra cost from not planning. ‘But that is more than a day’s wages’, and indeed it is. Who is going to pay for the mason’s poor planning? He is usually very good, and plans a week in advance his needs, yet on this occasion the planning got out of hand because he was focused on today, or even the morning only, and not past the next need point, costing money, losing time and annoying me. All three of those are not good – especially the last one!

I can point out a thousand times to our construction crews that a pilot needs to plan his fuel requirements or invent a way to park on clouds, yet the concept is not absorbed until one learns to fly. I can expound upon the importance of maintaining your aircraft well and sticking to the maintenance schedule until the cows come home (with or without the herdsman), but until you fly and realise that you cannot simply pause in the air to take a walk around the aircraft to see where the noise is coming from, you are simply not going to have the necessary neural connection about ‘I MUST PLAN’ to stay in the game.

Failing to plan is definitely planning to fail. In Aviation it is so blatantly obvious; in other sectors it is important and if carried out appropriately will yield amazing results. Plans are never perfect, and the ability to change the plan on the fly is increased by the amount of appropriate planning and preparation put in. Consider a well-planned cross-country flight; planned maintenance, checked oil, checked airframe, planned fuel burn and reserve, route, awareness of the weather, planning for alternate landing areas, constantly re-assessing the plan en-route and more, the very approach that makes aviation safe and successful. The very same approach that may also lead to safer, more successful and less stressful projects in all areas of our lives.

Just remember, the Harmattan is coming, bush fires are coming and failure to plan is definitely an expensive and unnecessary way to plan to fail!

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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