Monday, May 7, 2012

May 7th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Perhaps one of the most challenging, and most rewarding, jobs that I have ever done is that of teaching people to fly.

Taking somebody from that initial moment of ‘desire’ to actually being in the air; that moment when they leave the chains of earth behind as they step into the cockpit; the hesitant placing of their hands upon the controls; the phase-shift towards being a flyer. It really is the most amazing, indescribably beautiful thing.

Many of you have seen the rural young ladies I train on TV, or heard them on radio. Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi has been featured on several continents for her inspirational achievements and Lydia Wetsi for her efforts to overcome a disability in order to work towards her ambition to take health education to the rural communities. Both of these young women are the tip of an iceberg of potential, and training them has plenty of tears – both of joy and of woe. 

There are many other people that we train (from 14yrs – late 60’s) through the regular flying school at Kpong, and one of them has impressed me so much that I want to share his story with you today.

Ernest has a small shop in an Ashaiman market. He repairs mobile telephones. Ernest is a ‘sole trader’, a quiet, unassuming young man. Slender built, in fact a bit too slender – he could do with some extra carbohydrates and protein!

Ernest first came to the airfield about three years ago. He came quietly and asked to do a trial flight. He was not the most comfortable person we have ever had on a trial flight. In fact, the shake in his hands and trepidation in his voice belied a lack of confidence on that first flight.

Over time he would collect some small monies, arrive at the airfield, place the money on the table and ask ‘How many minutes can I fly for?’ It was a tough call; knowing that you are taking this chaps really hard earned cash – spending a week or more of his money in a matter of minutes in the cockpit.

We started by keeping the lessons short. He did not have enough funds to take long lessons, and so, I would often do the checks for him, and get the plane in the air as soon as possible, to maximise his ‘air-time’.

Over the years he has built up his business, possibly, in part, because of his passion to learn to fly, and the associated need to pay his fees. Not only has he grown his business, he has grown as a person.

Three years ago he would arrive like a shadow. Quietly, head down, inconspicuous, barely speaking a word. Over the time of his lessons, he has learned to stand up straighter, to speak louder and with more confidence. He passed his written exam with 100%. Not bad for a student who was unable to complete formal education. But it has not all been a bed of roses.

Last year there was a moment when we discussed ‘is it fair to keep to taking Ernest’s money?’ Progress was not swift. Partly, this was due to his irregularities, incurred by lack of finances.

We had a chat about increasing his frequency so as to maximise his progress. We worked out some support, from where we could, in relation to some of his charges, but support funds are limited. He was the one that made the effort – he, himself, increased his economic outputs to meet his desires. Ernest started a weekly lesson.

Ernest was never a quick ‘reactor’. His time to react to questions or situations was one of reflect, consider, decide and then act – in sequence, over time. Ernest could fly the plane easily, provided everything went right. Then, as we added emergencies, we had our ‘issues’.

We would be climbing out of the grass runway at Kpong, and as an instructors does, I would pull back the power and call ‘Engine Failure. Engine Failure. Engine Failure.’ My anticipation is for an IMMEDIATE response to save the aircraft and crew. We tried it, time and time again. Each time, as the aircraft went from 100% in the green, through to many shades of yellow, orange, and finally to the ‘Red-zone’, speed decreasing, aircraft losing height, trees growing in the windshield, finally, with less than a hairsbreadth left before it would be too late, I would come back on the controls, recover the aircraft and return it to him with ‘You have control.’

Together we looked the grim reaper in the face. Ernest’s time of consideration would determine whether we would shake hands with our maker or not. My role, as an instructor and friend, is to ensure that the veil remained closed. Firmly closed.

After one particular session like this, we sat in the de-briefing room and went through the ‘mistakes’, ‘lack of decisions’ and moments of adding more grey to my beard; his eyes filled. As a colleague asked what happened in his lesson. He replied ‘I got it wrong today. I should have been faster with my decision making’ and the hydraulic fluid containment attempts by his optical units failed, and he sprang a silent leak down his face.

That was probably the most positive moment in the training of Ernest. He started to realise that flying was more than just being in the plane. Flying is about your life. Flying is about your personality. Flying is about feeling a decision, naturally, fluidly, rapidly and 100% correctly – every time. We talked and shared about how our everyday lives need to change in order to ensure safety and success in the cockpit.

Ernest started to think and act differently and, as the weeks passed, his hard earned cash continued burning in the Rotax engine that dragged him through the sky. Gradually, but with a marked paced he improved each manoeuvre, he improved each decision. He gained personal confidence and stepped up to the mark that we call ‘being a pilot’. I have often said ‘Anybody can fly a plane, but it takes a special person to be a pilot. Somebody who can handle the situation and take the responsibility – in the blinking of an eye.’

Ernest is now within a lesson or two, weather permitting, of making solo. It has taken a long time. He has made a lot of efforts, finances and sacrifices. He has shown me that he is a young man with determination, patience and the ability to change at every level.

Ernest tells me he would like to work with an airline, not necessarily as pilot, but just to be around the aircraft. He deserves it. He has the makings of somebody who, given the right environment, will succeed. He will always have a ‘quiet demeanour’, that is him.

I am proud to able to teach Ernest, and I would love to see somebody support his flying passion by giving him a well-paid job, and thus enabling him to complete his National Pilots Licence, and more, exploring the skies… leaving his nest of terrestrial security and finding a home in the lower atmosphere. Well done Ernest, I and many others are very proud of you!

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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