Monday, March 5, 2012

March 5th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Where did you get your newspaper from today? Was it delivered to your office? Did you buy it through the window of your car or tro’ on the way to work? Perhaps you browsed for it at a news booth? However, have you ever wondered about how people in rural areas access newspapers or other information?

When did you last wonder ‘Can I get today’s newspaper in Nalerigu, Sampa or Salaga?’ – the answer is ‘probably not!’ Many of the daily papers are not available till later in the day, or even the next day (at best), in many parts of the country – and in some areas are, in effect, never available whilst they are even luke-warm!

Alaska has a similar problem to Ghana, in that many of its people live in ‘challenging to reach on a regular basis’ locations. Before the internet and satellite communications the only way to ensure regular contact and support to those living in hard to reach places, was by dropping communications and supplies by air.

One account that grabs my attention is that of young Alaskan lad who used to wait each day, with his horse, near where the newspaper drop was made. The light aircraft would fly low past the drop point and push out a small green bag, with just ten or twelve newspapers in it. The young man would then collect the newspapers and take them by horse to the homes of those in his area. Some drops would be just a single newspaper, for those who were really isolated.

Today, fewer and fewer of the folks in Alaska have their newspapers delivered by air, however, many of them now have their own aircraft and fly from their ‘farm strips’ to their nearest ‘bigger township’ – bigger being a relative term! Communication, contact and support being the essential component of the connectivity, wherever and however it is in the world. Regular and timely contact and information provision is becoming a de-facto human right.

Many communities around the world maintain regular contact by air – just with a simple air-drop of a communication canister or of vital supplies. Perhaps the most regular, and spectacular, is the supply to those in Antartica. Aircraft could land on the ice pack, but to reduce risk to people, aircraft and the ice-pack as well, a simple low-level drop is carried out, generally using a canister with a long, brightly coloured streamer for easy identification and recovery.

Interestingly, supply drops from aircraft, of any nature, require special permissions – for safety and security reasons. The regulations around the world vary, but make it clear that, without special permission, no item may be dropped from an aircraft, in some cases with the caveat ‘unless for navigation purposes’. This would always amuse me as a caveat until, one day, I read about a pilot losing his headset from an open cockpit aircraft. When later questioned by the authorities as to the ‘how and why he breached regulations’ he pointed out ‘it was for navigational purposes’, and was exonerated under the ‘navigational caveat’! His argument was that he needed to mark a point on the ground to make sure he knew where he was. Today such an excuse would be unlikely to pass muster in front of any authority! (Off the record, I will admit that, some years ago, a passenger lost his cap out of the window of my plane – it was sudden and took all by surprise. Since that incident, I issue supplemental warnings to ‘cap wearers’ not to put their heads too close to the window, since, should the wind get under the peak of the cap, it will part company with the head’! I am also sure that there is a cattle herder in a remote part of the Volta Region with a very nice black and yellow cap that came as a gift from the skies!)

If you remember, last week we considered the challenges of reaching the many communities, especially around the Volta Basin, which are, for all intent and purposes isolated. The cost in time and resources to reach such communities using traditional methods is high, and, understandably, falls low on the priorities list against the ‘easier to reach, often larger, communities’ in need.

Seeing these communities day-after-day, I and my colleagues, with permission and oversight from the authorities, set about developing a safe and repeatable way to reach the dwellers in such areas, with the primary aim of taking health education materials and encouragement (a rare commodity, easily given at no personal cost) to the thousands of villages and hamlets that pepper the Basin.

We have developed two systems that are both safe and repeatable, and amazingly cost effective – and, all permissions permitting, hope to soon see them in use on a regular basis, initially around the Volta and then expanding to other needy areas.

One of the biggest challenges to overcome was how to develop a low-cost packaging and safe to deliver solution –that was waterproof and floats too. Low-cost was solved with the help and ingenuity of a Ghanaian company, Sintex, who are better known for their production of high quality water tanks and packaging materials for retail outlets as well as the production of the empty water sachets for water-baggers. With a slight adaptation of a standard product, it became possible to create a ‘finned’ delivery bag that can contain about 10 documents and light supplies, and for it to always fall in a particular manner. At first we could not believe the effectiveness of the system, we tested it, time, and time again, and found it to be the perfect answer for reaching out to those who are, for all practical purposes, ‘un-contactable’.

The first trial was carried out at Kpong, in an aircraft crewed with two young Ghanaian ladies, and it took us all by surprise. We had previously looked at systems with parachutes, recoverable aluminium carriers, and all the complicated solutions you can imagine. Yet, here was a simple ‘made in Ghana’ and ‘developed in Ghana’ solution that could change the fate of many – safe, reliable, repeatable and cost-effective.

Using a specially adapted light aircraft, it will soon be possible to reach up to fifty communities, within one hundred kilometres of the departure point, without landing, without taking excessive risks – all within three hours. Not only quicker than by road or boat, but at a lower overall cost.

If you would like to see how this is done, and perhaps participate in demonstration drop, I invite you to enter a simple ‘competition’… All you need to do is to write me an e-mail, introducing yourself and suggesting what topics for health education you would include in such a communication to a rural community, and why. The best five entries will be invited to spend a day at Kpong, seeing how aircraft are built and maintained here in Ghana, and to learn more about the way aircraft are being used to reach out to communities in our rural areas. My e-mail is – and I am waiting for your entry (or perhaps that of your teenage off-spring)! Entry deadline is 14th March 2012, winners will be contacted by e-mail by 31st March 2012.

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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