Monday, February 20, 2012

February 20th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Finally the skies appear to rejecting the air-borne, visibility-reducing sand particles of the Harmattan and spitting them back to the Sahara, where they belong. The past weeks have been challenging to operate light aircraft in, and, since mid-December, we have had less than eight days of good VFR conditions at Kpong Field. Takoradi, Kumasi, Sunyani and Tamale have all had fights cancelled due to poor visibility. The funny thing is, when you are in the air during Harmattan, your vertical visibility can be perfectly acceptable. Look down, and you can make out the landmarks immediately below you without any fuss. The horizontal vis is what is really affected, due to the effect of the sunlight being scattered and re-scattered by the mini-mirror-like specs that congest the air. You are blinded by the ‘photonic disruption’ caused by the individually insignificant, air-borne detritus, which have combined to create a nightmare effect, preventing any safe progress, and the resultant grounding of many aircraft with prevention of even local training flights. It has been one of those times when the pilot tells you ‘it is better to be down here, wishing you were up there, than up there, wishing you were down here’.

Flying is not like driving, not at all. It is easier. Yes, I said it is easier! On the road, if you make an error of a metre you will probably hit something – and possibly kill somebody. In the air, pilots can be a kilometre or two off the centre line of their course and still be perfectly safe – that is why air-corridors are so wide! Imagine a road thirty kilometres wide, with little traffic and more rules! I have always said, and stick by the statement ‘I can teach anybody to fly a plane in one hour’. It really isn’t difficult to fly a plane around the sky. Now, if you want to be able to control where it goes with any accuracy, take-off and land, well, that takes a longer time – a lot longer!

Sadly, few people learn to fly, and the drop-out rate worldwide is incredibly high. One statistic I read recently indicates over eighty percent of people who start learning to fly drop out. Why? Well, there are many think-tanks asking the same questions! Cost is a big one, because it is not cheap, and it never will be. Frankly, if people took learning to drive a car as seriously as learning to fly, maintenance of vehicles as seriously as maintenance of aircraft, and the maintenance of roads as seriously as aerodrome maintenance, learning to drive would be much more expensive – and the accidents on the roads would probably be reduced to a mere trickle.

Therein lies a challenge – how can you make flying affordable without compromising safety? However, we should better ask ‘how can we make driving safer without it becoming no longer affordable?’ The answer is not something I hold in my fingers, but it is clear, that if we want to ensure safety in the skies, we need to maintain standards, and that costs money, and since we apparently don’t mind accidents on the roads (the statistics indicate this), we keep the cost of motoring down, especially in the developing nations.

A Metro bus proves the point for me. I was driving in Accra, something that I detest and consider a punishment, when this Metro bus pulled up alongside my car, leaving a bare fifteen millimetres between my wing-mirror and the bashed, scratched and otherwise variously scathed side of the mass transport solution of the city. We crawled along side-by-side, unable to improve on the separation distance, since a taxi was too close for comfort on the other side. The taxi had also seen better days.

I worked relentlessly to keep the precious barrier of air around my vehicle from further erosion. The Metro bus gained on the advance and I was soon eye-to-eye with the rear tyre.

The rear tyre, looking at me through my window, was as bald and smooth as any top-model’s legs! In fact, add a little oil and you would have sworn it had been machined to the highest standards for smoothness and low-drag resistance! I have never seen such a silky tyre – it was a work of art!

The policeman ahead of me was alternately sucking water from a bag and talking on his mobile phone whilst guiding the traffic jam slowly forwards. He, like many other policemen in the life of that tyre, would see it, admire it, and wave it on. Doing their part in keeping the costs of transport down in our country. The same for the taxi, who no longer has any working seatbelts, for the numerous lorries without working lights, for the Mama-Wagons filled to spilling with women and children packed like sardines to prevent movement in the event of another pothole in the road. Yes, these are all efforts being made to keep the cost of road transportation down.

The young men who come to me with a ‘driving licence’ and who still can’t tell me the basic road signs or what a continuous white line means are also those who have benefitted from the reduced costs of road transport growth. The poor road maintenance and acceptance of pot-hole infested and road marking erased black-top are also contributing to that low-financial-cost of transport.

In some countries the penalty for a bald tire or poor brakes is more than the cost of replacement or repair, which helps to improve safety, but increases the cost of transport. In some countries, only those who have excellent driving standards are allowed to drive, and if they don’t demonstrate good driving they lose the right to drive. But it pushes up the cost of road transport.

So, all these little bits of ‘low-cost-detritus’ blur our vision, losing us visibility of what we are really dealing with. Our very own ‘low-safety-standard-Harmattan-haze’. A haze that I hate to travel in, seeing the dangers, and with them the damage to, and cost in, human life. Based on the maimed and dead bodies we hear about, and unwillingly witness, on the roads, the reality of that cost is large quantities of blood of the citizens. Should that same blood be spilt in an air-accident much noise would be made, but it isn’t because of the safety rules and enforcements (thank you GCAA, FAA and ICAO).

So, a decision has to be made. Do we save money or do we save lives? I know what I want to save, and I know that I train my crews to high standards, both for flying and driving, because I value life more than anything else.

We need to change the safety standards, and not just on the roads. We need to ground some traffic, ground some construction sites, ground some machine shops, ground some chop-bars, and ensure that there is a clear vision of what safety is all about. We need to do that now, today, this very hour, before any more people are injured or lives are lost through lackadaisical attitudes and lack of courage to stand up for safety. Lives depend on it - including yours and mine and all those we know and love. Let’s change the system before many more of them are maimed or die unnecessarily.

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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