Monday, January 31, 2011

January 31st

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
How wonderful it is to be back in the air – visibility is good enough for some local flights and training operations too!  However, isolated rain storms have a nasty tendency to draw the Harmattan back in and, coupled with the forecast of snow in Europe, is an indicator of more Harmattan haze weaselling its way back into our airspace!

During this window of opportunity to be in the lower airspace of Ghana, I had the privilege of flying with a time served US aviator, somebody with far more experience in a variety of machines than I could ever imagine.  Aviators and fishermen have a lot in common when it comes to telling stories, and so, we exchanged stories and experience in large volumes.  I sometimes wonder if it is ever possible to become bored at hearing about peoples experiences in flying machines.  Whether I am reading a book about a pilot, engineer, air traffic controller or some other account of an aviation exploit, or watching a movie about historical aviation (not the fictitious accounts), or, preferably, sitting nearby and looking into the eyes of the man or woman sharing their memories with colours and expressions that make the Hubble telescope look like a toy!

The added advantage of sitting at the airfield and sharing such stories, is that it can lead to a shared flight, a moment of communion in the sky, a mutual moment of story convergence and, with it, the creation of a bond, a conjugation of two aviators stories - a cross-roads of commonality.

I have shared the cockpit with many people, and some I have very dear memories of.  In 1996 I had my one and only flight in a small jet plane, two-seat, a lot of power and a kick in the small of the back thrust that made you smile.  I sat in the front seat, and although I could not see the face of my ‘mentor’ behind me, I could feel his every movement in the stick and rudder, power adjustments and changes of every moment.  It is an experience that I cherish very dearly, and one of the reasons that I have so much commitment to sharing aviation today.

I remember my first flight in a Tiger Moth, the open cockpit, the rather unpleasant smell of the old face mask, the touch of the mid-1900’s webbing holding me in as we fly upside down across the Kentish countryside.  My mentor on that day was a school teacher, who loved aviation, and when not in school teaching mathematics, was at the airfield teaching flying and conversion training.  Another bond, a link, a node on the web of experiences that makes aviation so, so special.

At one point I was privileged to fly with a British Aerospace test pilot, it was in an Opus, a little known aircraft with a three cylinder engine.  I flew it in Scotland – and I learned a lot of tricks in that one hour, from a pilot imbued with flying techniques.  That node sat in my repertoire of storytelling for a long time.  Then, a couple years ago, whist visiting another aviation story sharer, I came across the little Opus Sweetheart, sitting in a hangar, with a different engine up the front – the very same machine!  I asked, ‘where did you get that from?’ and the story telling began, creating a node that joined up and cross-linked, wove a thread and strengthened the bond anew, and in a more exciting manner than before.

Aviation is a village.  Pilots, aircraft owners, engineers, Air Traffic Controllers, airfield managers, etc. all share the same small piece of turf, and all are telling their stories, re-telling the stories that they have heard, sharing their experiences and creating a well-knit chain-mail of super-strength that protects and promotes the future of aviation.

Sadly, as in all villages, not all the players are genuine, some make up stories simply to impress - not correctly motivated, at all! 

I have heard stories that are so unbelievable, but are completely true, as well as many stories that are totally believable but complete fiction. 

Whist working in France, I was approached by the Chamber of Commerce to employ a young man with a Commercial Pilots licence who needed a job.  He could not find work in the airline industry, and wanted a job for some cash to tide him over.  I read his CV – it was impressive, how he had learned to fly in Canada, flown all over, yet unable to find work.  I met him and he shared some very believable stories, and so I gave him work that involved ‘pilot orientated skills’ in logistics and communications.  On day one, as I sat him in front of a telephone, he trembled like a building during an earthquake of great magnitude.  To reassure him, I suggested a trip to the local airfield, he declined.  After one week I fired him.  He was unable to perform the basic tasks that one would expect from even a student pilot with regards to co-ordination and logistical operations. 

The local chamber of commerce was disgusted with me, and practically banished me (hence I have not joined a chamber of commerce since).  They told me in no uncertain terms that I had ‘no regard for the high level of qualifications this young man held’.  They quickly placed him in another company.  Little did the young man know, but the CEO of that new company owned an aircraft of the type this ‘pilot’ said he had over two hundred hours in.  So, when the same pattern established itself, the CEO decided to ‘test the water’.   Telling the lad that they were going in a business trip, all joined the car… but they drove only as far as the airport. 

The young man look at the plane and smiled, but quickly lost that smile when he was asked to sit in the cockpit, in the right seat.  The CEO climbed into the left seat and handed a check list to the chap.  With much cajoling the checklist was complete.  The young man refused to do the radio, and finally refused to take the controls.  They never made it to the threshold before the CEO turned the plane around and asked the young man to never come back.

Investigation proved that he had been to Canada, but he had not flown more than a couple of trial flights – he had dreamed of being a pilot, and projected it in his CV.  I was vindicated, and the young man disappeared from the area.

This week a lad arrived at our airfield, stating that he had built an aircraft, he even had pictures!  Sadly, they were from a promotional brochure of a company that we deal with!  He is on our blacklist and will not be allowed on the airfield again. Why?

Well, we all present our stories in manners that sound good, let us be honest!  But, when the story you tell misleads on matters of safety and security, then you are not a safe person to have around an aeroplane… or a business… or any other establishment.

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

Monday, January 24, 2011

January 24th

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
How often do you hear what you thought you were going to hear?  Perhaps, more often, you have asked somebody to do something, and they have smilingly said ‘yes’, and then done something totally different!  When challenged, the person tells you proudly that they did what you asked them to do!  In fact, in such circumstances, they often get quite confused when you explain that they had not listened well. 

The reality is that we all hear a) what we want to hear and b) what we expected to hear, on a regular basis.  Newspapers love headlines that are ambiguous – so that you read what you want from that headline, so it really is a human trait.

In aviation we cannot afford to get these things wrong, and so we have a procedure called ‘read back’.  Read back means that you repeat back what you heard, which generally solves the problem… but not always.  A recent incident cost the American taxpayers a lot of money, and a great deal of inconvenience on New Year’s day…

As always in these matters, exact facts are still subject to investigations, but here is the general idea of what happened.

Piedmont Airlines Flight 4352 was flying from South Carolina to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a regular route.  Along that route the pilot changes frequency on handing over from one Air Traffic Control unit to another, in the same way that it happens when you fly from Kotoka to Tamale, same procedure, same methods, throughout the world. 

At some point the tower would have stated which frequency to change to, for example ‘change frequency , one three zero decimal five’.  The pilot has to read back that frequency before changing to it, to make sure that they have heard correctly.  However, on Flight 4352 it appears that they not only mis-read-back the frequency, the ATC failed to pick up on it swiftly, in order to correct the crew, and then the pilot selected the mis-heard and mis-read-back frequency, resulting in loss of communications between air and ground, ground and air.

Imagine you tried to tune to an FM station and you tuned to the wrong station – you may not realise to start with, or you may simply get no contact, since the frequency may not be in use.

Well, that is what happened.  Unable to raise the airliner, and in accordance with the laid down procedures for that particular airspace, the authorities scrambled fighter jets from Andrews Air Force Base, worried that the aircraft may have been hijacked.  Furthermore the U.S. Capitol Police issued an order that US Capitol, Senate office and other buildings nearby were to be evacuated. 

About fifteen minutes later, communications were re-established – but not until after a lot of confusion, cost and inconvenience.  Fortunately, this was a national holiday, and the buildings were not too busy, but imagine on a busy day, with lots of people and traffic.  Accidents may have occurred, panic, fear and the disruption more costly – the knock on effects from well-trained individuals failing to hear clearly what each other said, and to failure to realise that they had it wrong after the ‘safety procedure’ of a read back!

How much more do we risk the challenge of mis-hearing and mis-understanding in our daily lives!

This was highlighted this week around the airfield and factory areas.  We have had a lot of bush fires nearby, and have taken precautions to prevent damage by burning breaks in key locations.  The tractor goes through the bush land, cuts a path and we burn an area under controlled conditions.  All well and good, if everybody listens – and understands, not only the words but also the meanings.

One thing that living and working in rural Africa has taught us, is that we should not assume, and that extra checks are necessary to ensure that safety is maintained.  In fact, maintaining safety in this part of the world is more costly and complicated than in many other parts of the world – due to the weather, infrastructure, language barriers and other factors.  So, when you set up your ‘burn team’ you have to cross check, ‘read back’, cross check again, and supervise.   People need to work in teams, language differences have to be addressed.  We have some team members who do not speak Twi, others who do not speak Ewe, some who speak neither, and many who work on the clearing and field work who’s English is not always as developed as we would like.  These are good workers, conscientious, devoted and reliable, but there are communication challenges.

So, when you ask somebody to start the back burning to the left of the hangar, and they repeat it ‘to the left of the hangar’ you know you are onto a good start.  But it is not the end of the matter.  In some cases ‘repeating the English’ is easy – but understanding it is more difficult.  In the particular case here, the member of staff, long serving, reliable and respected, got confused with their left and their right.  Had it not been for the procedure to check, cross-check and check again, the back burn would have become a major fire. 

I am certain that those with less experience of working in rural conditions with the diversity of personnel that we enjoy and benefit from here in Ghana, may not have watched to SEE if the words matched the actions.  There was no malice, no bad intentions here.  None at all, and when corrected, the individual was smiling and happy to be assisted - glad to have learned and more than glad to have been helped.

So many times what we learn and do in aviation has saved embarrassment, cost and inconvenience around our developments.  The constant motto of ‘Safety is NO Accident’ echoes and resounds around the place. 

How many times have I heard what I thought was said?  Too many! 
How many times have I assumed that others have understood what I have said?  Too many! 
How often should I check for understanding in others?  Always! 
How often should I check that I have understood?  Always!

If the Flight 4352 crew and associated ATC crew combination, with many millions of dollars of training, equipment and experience, following laid down procedures can get it wrong, how much more should we be conscious of the risks of misunderstanding in our day-to-day operations and mitigate against them!  You never know, it may make your operations not only safer, but more cost effective too!

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

Monday, January 17, 2011

January 17th

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
Harmattan bites hard this January, as expected.  The dust gets into every nook and cranny and leaves its distinctive, unpleasant, taste on our lips, and visibility hampered.   Therefore, our aircraft have sat in their hangars, waiting for visibility to increase sufficiently for safe flight operations.

In Europe and North America the snow and fog has had a similar effect, not only on the light aircraft operations, but also on the heavier metal, with delays and cancellations galore.

In aviation terms, this weather is known as ‘Hangar Flying’ weather.  Weather where you talk about flying, because the visibility is too low to actually fly.  Aviation related topics, become the stock and trade of the hangar flyer.  Imagine a group of grounded pilots sitting on old tyres at the edge of a hangar, looking at the gloomy Harmattan/snow/fog and talking, incessantly, about a) what they have done, b) what others have done, c) what they want to do and d) what they are going to do. 

Most of what they claim to have done will be exaggerated; their stories of others’ achievements will be embellished, their depiction of what they want to do based on making a good impression, and their declarations of what they are actually going to do more smoke and mirrors than substance.  But they enjoy their time, chatting and dreaming – and nobody can take that away from them.  The majority of dreams will never make it to a vision, because of distractions from declared intentions. 

I remember days like this in Europe.  We would all dream of going to Africa, starting flying doctors and humanitarian aviation programmes; an affordable flying school for young Africans, and an engineering base of repute.  Today, out of the many that I sat with and shared those dreams, I am the only one from the group who actually kept to the hangar flying dream - turning it into a vision and something that is making history.  I assure you that the challenge of bringing such dreams to reality is harder than ever considered whilst sitting in a hangar, during fog in Europe!  I can also assure you that the rewards are far greater – not in financial terms, but in personal satisfaction – the greatest reward of all.

No matter where you are in the world, you can always witness a similar type of event to Hangar Flying … it is called discussion group, talk-shop, oops, I mean workshop, parliament, council or the senate or something similar.  In such places, you get a lot of people who are put into a room, unable to do anything that day but sit and talk.  Their visibility is often shrouded by fog and Harmattan of administrative natures, and their direction diverted by the oft forgotten fact that they must answer one day for their inactions.  They sit there, pontificating, procrastinating, propositioning, arguing and, often, complaining.  Talking incessantly about:-  a) what they have done, b) what others have done, c) what they want to do and d) what they are going to do!

I leave it up to your experience and judgement in your field as to what the chances are that most of what they claim to have done will be exaggerated, their stories of others’ achievements will be embellished, their depiction of what they want to do based on making a good impression and their declarations of what they are actually going to do more smoke and mirrors than substance! 

Of course, at times, intentions of some are well meaning, but the lack of cooperation and perseverance from others will fail them – do note that it is rarely lack of physical cash – it is mainly the lack of human endeavour, effort and desire to see a project through/support it that results in the failure of projects to see the light of day!  Those without abundant cash are often more dedicated and creative, and know the value of ‘sweat capital’, the missing resource for success in so, so many projects.

This does raise the issue, a worldwide phenomenon, of the changing face of the News.  For me, the media is supposed to be reporting about what has happened, what has been achieved – or failed.   Yet, more and more there is noise about the ‘perhaps-future’ – most of which, seems to me, to be the reporting of ‘Hangar Flying talk’.  

Sadly, from time to time, there are those who make the news with a future statement made in good faith.  That statement gets publicised – at times with some corruption of the original facts - and then those who took the glory from the statement fail to support the person or persons who are ready and willing to make it a reality. 

I know that in November, when asked ‘What we would do for the North?’, we promised to take a road-show to Tamale in February, put together a plan, sought support from those in high office and those with resources – and received promises of co-operation.  Hangar Flying promises.  Although we may mean with all our hearts and all the resources at our disposition to make it happen, that promise has, today, been snatched from the lives of the young people of Tamale by the very people who are supposed to support them.

We did promise to take a road-show to the North, and it will go ahead, but not to Tamale, sadly.  No, those who agreed to support the Tamale effort when we sat on our ‘metaphorical tyres’, and those who were subsequently invited to be a part of it, who have not followed up on their part, have discouraged and prevented the Tamale events realisation.  Right now, they should be angry, for they have much to be angry about – angry at themselves for not taking their ‘Hangar Flying’ seriously.  Our efforts will be redirected towards others who appreciate development, not just want to bask in headlines for a day.

You will read in the coming editions of Fresh Air Matters, about how we are actively preparing to take aviation inspiration on a road-show (since the visibility is too low to fly), as we set out on a total of six half-day events in the Northern and Brong Ahafo regions, once again making sure that our Hangar Flying dreams make it to reality. 

These events are about educating and inspiring young people.  Inspiration is a great gift, and it is often inspired by ‘golden headlines’, only to be turned sour by the lack of dedication and effort to make it come true; by the ‘failure by omission of effort’ of a few that leads to individuals, and whole communities, feeling let down and disappointed. 

So, if you are Hangar Flying at work today, in the office, in a conference centre or in some more prestigious edifice of a building, make sure that you live up to the dreams that you are meant to turn into visions, and on into realities, for this country needs them now, not at some far off point shrouded, dulled and hidden by the Harmattan of excuses.

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

Monday, January 10, 2011

January 10th

 Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
First of all, Happy New Year to all of you… may it be a safe one, with blue skies, excellent visibility and a tail wind! 

Well, ours has not started like that at all. Harmattan has reduced visibility to less than three kilometres, the sky is dusty grey, there is barely a breath of wind, and we are below legal minima for VFR; but we are smiling, and looking forward to a ‘year of action’ in safety! 

Regular readers, will know that ‘Fresh Air Matters’ focuses on aviation, mainly light aviation, and its relationship to our everyday lives, safety and approach in all walks of life.  So, it was with pleasure that I toured the Volta Lake Transport Company facilities this week.

VLTC is a marine operation, and marine and aviation have a lot in common.   We both refer to pitch, roll and yaw; we both have cockpits, pilots, port and starboard; we both live and work in environments that do not forgive readily and snatch lives quickly, if you fail to observe the rules and regulations. 

It was interesting to learn about the VLTC fleet, to watch barges being loaded, to see the workshops and facilities that appear so desperately under-utilised and generally unknown about.  What came as a surprise was that the new CEO was a regular reader of this column, and was anxious to implement some of the aviation safety and security aspects we have developed at Kpong Airfield.  

Compared to many of the facilities I have visited in West Africa, this one was well laid out, well equipped and clearly capable of delivering the goodies… but that only raised the question ‘Why hasn’t it?’ – a comment from one of our pilots accompanying me may shed some light on that… she said ‘They need to love their machines.’

Pilots of aircraft develop deep relationships with them – a real love of the machine.  When you have built the aircraft, that love is parental.  As a parent we love our children; we care for them; we clean up after them; we make sure that the environment, in which they are in, is safe and appropriate; we look out for them; we do not allow others to speak ill of them or detract from their beauty with words. In short, if we love our children we do all that we can to provide the right conditions for their growth.

In aviation that includes all the efforts on the airfield to keep it free of FOD (Foreign Object Debris aka rubbish), well maintained, clean and attractive looking.  In the marine world the same conditions apply.  In the home this is echoed by keeping the home suitably safe and clean for children.  In the office, the working environment should be safe and healthy.

If a family fails to protect its children, the family is criticised, and ultimately children are placed in homes where they are given the love, protection and environment that they deserve, and have a right to.  After all Ghana is a signatory to the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and we are a nation with more brothers and sister, mummies and daddies than, probably, any other.  So these principles are based in our culture, our law and our outlook.  Just watch the adorable youngsters dressed magnificently to go to church, and you can see that we know what this is all about – it is in every one of us.

So, why are we not loving our machines, our desks, our cars, our homes, our places of employment, our streets, our environment, one another, in such a way as it is visible? A healthy love; one of caring and wanting the best for these things that are part of our lives, and create our daily bread, keep us safe and provide opportunities to no longer sit under a tree and talk all day.  An aviator who loves not his plane, will not live long!  For an aviator to say ‘Oh, I can change that fuel filter tomorrow, it isn’t very dirty’ is a request for a funeral.  Likewise, there is no point in saying ‘oh, I was going to clean the workshop tomorrow’ if it is dirty today, or ‘I will change the filter at the next service’ if it needs changed today – because today is when we can actually do something about it – tomorrow may well be too late! What is more, there is no point in making excuses about yesterday, when it is today that needs action, if we are to see tomorrow... 

It was so refreshing to feel the desire for growth in an organisation yearning to reach out to all those who dwell around the lake edge – there is an acknowledgement that change is necessary for sustainable and suitable growth – and the management is ready to support that change, and that you can sense around the facility that the staff, probably better referred to as ‘The Team’, are wanting to help VLTC to grow into what it really is capable of. 

Of course, and especially at this time of the year, we often see such ‘good intentions’, which the ‘road to hell is paved with’, according to my old Mum!  But love is a funny thing, IF you truly love your machine, and that can be a plane, a boat, a lathe, a saw, a car, a business or a fruit stall; then your resolve will be resolute and timeless – you will be unstoppable – just like a mother and her child.  I am privileged to see such dedication to aircraft and airfields on a daily basis, but such dedication is not common outside of parenthood – and aviation!

If, in my imaginary aviation paralleled ideal world, all parents and all workers in all industries, and all citizens in all areas, were to see their children, their companies and their country as things to be protected, loved, cared for – the transformation would be so great that the world would be, not only a better place, but also a perfectly loved, loving and caring place, without bounds or limitations in what could be achieved.

Imagine, nobody dropping litter, everybody making 100% effort for the corporate good, a nation where all the workers worked for the love of the job, not the love of the salary.  I am so blessed to work in an environment where it is close to that – so I know that it is not impossible – IF we all want it. 

So, thrilled with my visit, and my experience of sensing what could come out of the Port at Akosombo, I wish all of the staff at VLTC long-term love of their machines, their boats and their facilities, and that we will see a VLTC with achievements, safety levels and approaches that make aviators envious… they can do it – and so can you, because it all begins with one person changing their approach… and it can be contagious, and create a wave…

May 2011, be a year of loving and caring for our nation, our work and our families – and one where you may get to enjoy an outing on a VLTC vessel on the majestic Lake Volta.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS – The Best Flying Experience in West Africa (   e-mail