Monday, July 2, 2012

July 2nd, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

If just one more person who is trying to get out of their ‘lack of effort and achievement’, especially when it come to maintenance, says to me ‘oh, it is because this is Africa’ or anything that equates to it, I really may be liable to reach nuclear meltdown point.

In this part of the world we need to do MORE, because this is a tough environment where the tough need to get going. In order to reach the same standards as other parts of the world, we really do need to do more and to be more! This is one of the tough places on the planet, and with that comes a beautiful challenge, along with the engagement of seeking achievement and perfection where others may have failed miserably in the past. This is a ‘land of opportunity for those with a desire to make it work’.

One of the biggest, most well documented, and, sadly omnipresent, legacy issues of operations of any kind in this part of the world is MAINTENANCE. Lack of it. Non-appreciation of it. Avoidance of it. Use of the word as an excuse – or as a cuss-word at times. Failure to enforce it. Often, lack of understanding of it.

Operating light aircraft in this environment enables my amazing team to excel in maintenance and ‘tropicalisation adaptations’, far more than most people imagine – and we all enjoy it to the full!

The standard oil change for our aircraft is 100 hours. We do it at 50, or even 25 hours under harsh conditions. Spark plugs are supposed to be changed at 200 hours, we change them at 100. Inspections are done in great detail EVERY day of operations. Consequently, we have well over 20,000 movements on aircraft that are BUILT in Ghana, by Ghanaians – and we enjoy international respect for our achievements.

Internal combustion engines (whether petrol or diesel) are the basic power-production units of modern day development. They are the hearts of practically every machine that moves things or makes things, without a mains power cord attached to it. They are incredibly simple in their operation and should be outstandingly reliable, if properly maintained and respected. If you take into consideration, and adapt your procedures to, the local factors (fuel, temperature, humidity, dust, etc) you can enjoy reliable long term operations of such a machine. But only if you love it as you would your own child. The engine has a pulse. It has a heartbeat, measured in revolutions per minute. It has a ‘body temperature’. It consumes its own special ‘engine-mix’ of ‘foodstuffs’. It speaks to those who love it. It cries out if it is abused – but with cries that are only heard by those who love it with a passion. It is not just the engine itself that matters – it is the whole machine – and it needs love!

In the past 18 years I have discovered that very few organisations, and therein few human beings, give the loving care required to their pistons, cylinders, coolant systems, fuel, structural components, fittings, etc. Very few indeed.

Maintenance tends to be a challenge through lack of personnel with the passion, coupled with, at times, a lack of availability of parts and fluids to maintain the machine as required.

Last year, we were fortunate enough to enjoy the acquisition of a brand new truck. A beautiful truck, a truck made with care, clearly adapted for use in our climate and conditions. Made in an Asian country, by people who understand ‘tough conditions’. In line with the warranty requirements, the truck has been taken to the ‘authorised dealer’ for its ‘check-ups and care-maintenance’. Sadly, not a single scheduled maintenance event has taken place as it should. Not one.

On each occasion there is a lack of attention to detail. Poor communication. Coupled with a host of associated challenges. The people who work in an organisation are the face of that organisation, and in a ‘customer care’ environment you also can find ‘sleeping cashiers’, ‘can’t-get-off-of-my-seat security men’, ‘talk-about-the-client-in-a-local-language-you-think-he-does-not-understand administrative staff’, ‘couldn’t-care-less technical staff’ and ‘one-hour-promise-of-service-takes-three-hours-here-without-explanation’ time keeping, which appears to be indicative of the care that is being given to your machine under their watch.

Like most garages, the one that cared for our truck does not allow you to watch whilst they work on the vehicle. If find this to be a very negative attitude. When we work on a plane we are always happy for the client to be present – to share with them the care of their baby. Not so in the motor industry. It makes you wonder why!

Due to the lack of ‘permitted observation’, we are all extra observant ‘post-operative’. On four out of five occasions, amongst other irritating lack of attention to detail items, the engine compartment latches were not re-attached prior to ‘return to client’ of the vehicle. It is not exactly a high-tech ability to check that you have latched the engine compartment (in this case the front passenger seat latches over the engine access). In fact, it can be remarkably dangerous NOT to latch this little place.

On the last service, the latches were, once again, left undone – and the compartment seals not wiped clean either. What is more, unauthorised access was made to a storage compartment – and the latches to that were ALSO left undone.

The manager of the department, when challenged, told me, exasperated and straight to my face, ‘This is the best we can do here.’ The underlying implication being that I was a FUSSY customer – especially in Africa… Aghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I went off on a rocket powered verbal excursion, as I am well renowned for. Finally, in my bid to gain some understanding as to ‘why I was so fussy and why this irked me so’, I explained, ‘in my business the failure to latch a compartment can result in somebody’s death.’ It did not have the impact I had hoped for. It rather had the impact potential of a feather falling from a passing bird onto the back of an elephant. Undeterred in my fussiness, I added, we have found that we can achieve more in this part of the world. I even shared the adage ‘if you expect more, inspect more’. The dull look in the man’s eyes was one of despair at the challenges ahead of him – clearly jaded by years of similar complaints. I shook his hand, and drove away, late, exhausted and disappointed that an expensive, main-dealer, garage service had once again failed to cover the basics of good maintenance, and customer care.

Sadly, there is a wide-spread lack of understanding of the technical and safety detail in the care of our engines, and it may well be putting more people’s lives at risk than most realise.

If I get accused of being fussy for expecting normal maintenance, so be it! Because I love my machines, and they deserve more!

Go out there today and be a pain in the neck, tell people that ‘Because this is Africa, we need to be MORE maintenance aware than the temperate zones.’

Expect more. Inspect more. Live longer!

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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