Monday, July 30, 2012

July 30th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Losing a member of the family, a member of the team, a fellow colleague, a neighbour, or indeed a Head of State, has a profound impact on all of us. It is a reminder of our own fragility; a focal point on our mortality. The sudden departure of a soul, irretrievably snatched from the chain of contact, communication and command, makes us sit up, take note and reflect on the individual, their successes, their failures, their smiles, their scorns, their impacts on our lives and those of others. A ‘death in the family’ is never a pleasant thing, yet it is a known certainty from the moment of birth for every single one of us. Our frail human forms are unable to contain our souls for more than a few years. Some bodies die from old age, others from accidents or acts of violence, some from an illness – but one thing is certain, we will all lose our mortal canister of flesh and blood one day. We should remember that the fragile body we work from is only a container that holds our soul. More importantly, we should remember that our bodies do not have a soul, but rather our souls have a body – and that our souls are beyond understanding, beyond the confines of flesh, beyond the limits of our current dimension in time and space. Nonetheless, the passing on of our souls from our bodies is an emotive moment for all concerned. This week, in shock, all of Ghana remembers the day that President Mills died, in the same way and with the same emotions as a member of the team. May his soul rest in peace.

In aviation, we have a special way of marking the passing of one of our ‘family’; The Missing Man Formation. During the remembrance service a group of planes flies over and one of the aircraft breaks the formation and climbs skywards, symbolizing the departure towards the heavens.

On the ground, a similar demonstration of a dearly departed being respected involves a rider-less horse. The custom is thought to date back as far as the first century. However, the most interesting is the attribution to the twelfth century, and Genghis Khan. The caparisoned horse (highly decorated, usually with a special cloth and saddle) is still used at the death of a head of state in some countries. The caparisoned horse, often with the boots of the rider placed in the stirrups facing rearwards to ‘view those left behind’ has been a feature at several high profile American funerals, most recently that of Ronald Reagan.

The missing man aircraft formation is far more common as a symbol of losing a friend and is seen at funerals of civilians, military and heads of state alike. At major aviation events the ‘missing man’ is often performed to remember those who gave their lives defending the nation or lost in a major tragedy. It is normally performed with military aircraft but can equally be performed by any aircraft type. In a civilian aircraft formation, I have had the privilege of flying the ‘departing soul’ aircraft, and have felt the strength of the symbolism first hand.

Flying the key position in the formation is full of emotion. The lead aircraft visible just a few metres ahead, supported and protected by the accompanying aircraft to your side and behind; watching, waiting and anticipating for that key moment of passing the line of spectators, ready to perform with the powerful imagery that only aircraft can give. Then, at the designated place and time, just like in the real-life departure of souls, applying full-power, climbing away, leaving your friends, protectors and many ‘observers’ below; watching out the corner of your eye as they dim and diminish. Looking ahead and upward the sky beckons, the clouds now dominating your view as you ascend towards the heavens. Your colleagues and friends, still visible in formation, now far away in the distance, flying straight on, maintaining their heading and level, thus symbolising that life goes on, and those who were around you must continue the formation. Glancing down at the sombre crowd, knowing that they are remembering one who was dear to them who has left this realm, a moistness is felt in the eyes. It probably is the most ‘close to the real thing’ sensations that can be experienced, and the small amount of liquid leaking from your eye as those sensations and emotions creep into your cockpit reminds you that you are still alive and must return safely to earth, landing and stepping once again on Terra Firma with a lump in your throat. You hug your fellow ‘performers’ glad to only have been a symbol, but in the knowledge that you have paid tribute to souls that mattered.

As our Nation remembers, mourns and prepares for the next chapter in its exciting story, each of us remembers others lost from our arms. As each one of our loved-ones souls are released from the confines of their mortal canisters, we should celebrate the marking of their passage, whether by the missing man formation, the caparisoned horse or simply by giving a special thought, a moment of reflection. Moreover, we should equally remember that we must maintain our formation and fly straight ahead, keeping the course that we had, for that is the greatest honour we can give one who has moved on.

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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