Monday, January 16, 2012

January 16th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Speed = Security; Altitude = Life Insurance; the safety adage for those at the controls of an aircraft. Last year’s airbus disaster with Air France exemplified that even with a lot of altitude, if you lose control of the speed, disaster awaits, in large doses. May the many souls of those who have been lost by the lack of respect for these two facts, rest in peace, and may we all learn from their sad demise.

In aviation terms ‘SPEED’ is the thing that keeps you in the air – being in the correct range of it. Too much of it and your wings can, literally, come off. Too little of it and you will stop flying. The speed of the air over the wing is the key to ‘lift’, linked to the angle at which you ‘attack’ the airflow.

In the event of insufficient speed, you will lose altitude rapidly as your wing ‘stalls’. With enough height that can be a moment of heightened senses, with your visual cortex noting the rapid filling of the windshield with a view of the ground getting closer. Such a situation should be easily recovered by good airmanship and a return to normal operations established. We train for it on a regular basis – at a safe height. You see, if there is not enough height to give you the time to recover, then, an unfortunate collision between aircraft and the planet will ensue. Not something you want to try, for it will spoil your day, and that of any others in the aircraft with you!

So, when we say SPEED = SECURITY, we mean that ‘a speed above that at which the aircraft wing will stall, but less than the speed at which the aircraft wings will fail’. The maximum structural speed of an aircraft is called the ‘VNE’ or speed (V) to ‘Never Exceed’. The minimum speed at which the plane will fly is called the Stall Speed, or ‘VS; meaning speed at which the plane will Stall or stop flying. Each and every aircraft has a specific range in which it can safely operate, depending on the configuration (which can change during flight), manoeuvre (stall speed increases in the turns), load, etc., and the aircraft should be kept in that range (and clear of the ‘end zones’) to be ‘safe’.

It can be quite hard to get to the top speed without making some distinct efforts (such as maintaining a high power setting and/or pushing the controls for a quicker descent), but it can be quite easy to lose speed and ‘get slow’, perhaps through distraction or failure to realise that the load/manoeuvre has brought the stall speed closer to the current speed! As the aircraft gets close to the stall speed, the controls tend to become less effective and can feel ‘shaky’ – caused by the airflow breaking off the wings in turbulence that hits the tail surfaces, or by a mechanical warning device – and in some aircraft a warning buzzer or electronic voice prompt will alert the pilot to ‘lack of speed’

Altitude being ‘life insurance’ is really more about needing enough height. Altitude is the distance between mean sea level and the aircraft, whereas, height is the distance between Terra Firma and the flying machine. Height is, therefore, far more crucial than Altitude! Imagine flying at 3000 feet over the sea, no worries. Then try that same altitude where the terrain is 2500 feet – you only have 500 feet of height between you and the trees!

Simple rules, essential mantra. But how does this affect our business lives? I find these rules are key to practically everything I do. But let us look at a particular example first.

Expresso, the only CDMA telecoms operator in the country, is clearly not ‘flying high’ above the rest of the operators – their market penetration not extensive at an estimated 0.9% (191,000 out of 21,000,000 subscribers in Ghana). So, as a company they lack ‘Life Insurance’, they are not able to lose subscribers (read altitude) easily. Fortunately, they have an excellent Mobile Modem system that really delivers the goods – it is fast, and Speed=Security! That speed of internet access is not matched, by the ability to resolve problems… and we know that they are not alone on that score! They have had a billing problem on the internet modems for a while, it is inconvenient, but we will all live with it since the speed of data transfer is worth the occasional billing frustration. However, when it comes to voice service, there is a problem. If the voice service is not giving you ‘bang per buck’ then you can enjoy the wonders of ‘Mobile Number Portability’ – change operators. A sort of ‘subscribers parachute’ from one ‘telecoms aircraft’ to another! So, when you purchase credit, find that the service provider ‘has cancelled’ the numbers, and then have to make multiple calls, even being told ‘you have to wait till tomorrow’, you can imagine that, the option of changing or ‘porting’ to a provider with more speedy service, is on the cards. Can you imagine an older person, purchasing credit, getting home to find that, not only has the card been ‘cancelled’ but that the operator wants you to make lots of calls and to then to wait till tomorrow before they credit your account? That is tantamount to ‘stalling the wing at a very low height’, at least from my perspective!

It is not just the telecoms market, that we can easily relate this to. No, not at all. So many organisations take weeks or months to respond to letters – and some go un-responded to completely. If it is a bureaucratic/administrative outfit, we tend to accept it as ‘normal’. But if it is a business operation and we are able to ‘go elsewhere’, where the supplier has more speed and care, making us feel safer. It gives us confidence, and, interestingly as we transfer our business we tend to give the new supplier more speed and more altitude!

What about in our personal lives? We all know that it takes ‘one wrong to negate a few thousand rights’. How much ‘personal altitude’ do you have with your family and friends? If you ‘stall’ how far will drop on their ‘altimeter of confidence’? It is easy to think that this ‘Speed and Altitude business’ is fine and dandy for pilots, but, frankly it applies across the board.

So, as you look at the week ahead, how much height above the potential crash and burn site do you have? Are you moving at the right speed to be safe as you traverse the challenges of the week? Do you have a plan to recover the ‘stall’ should it occur in the weeks events? Remember, stalls can creep up on you, and the difference between life and death lies in the reaction times and technique… Speed = Security and Altitude = life insurance!

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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