Monday, March 11, 2013

March 11th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

It is that time of year again… A special time… Our favourite time at Kpong Airfield. It is actually the BUSIEST time. A little stressful. Very time consuming, and very diverse.

For the past few years we have celebrated the anniversary of the first woman ever to obtain a pilot’s licence by flying young women from the rural areas of Ghana. It is a logistical challenge, a financial challenge, an engineering challenge, a piloting challenge, a ground crew challenge. It is magnificent!

In 1909, Raymonde de la Roche sat down to eat with the French aviator Charles Voisin. We are left imagining the discourse of flying stories, where he appears to have suggested learning to fly to the young woman. A daring suggestion, especially since Raymonde was the daughter of a plumber! Voisin, who later died in a car crash, personally tutored the energetic girl on her quest to beat the bonds of gravity. On March 8, 1910 she received the first pilot's license awarded to a woman – I bet that caused a stir! This turn of the twentieth century boundary stretcher was also an engineer and, although she died at the age of 36, she achieved amazing things in her time on, and above, the surface of the planet. She entered air races and set records; she flew balloons and left a legacy. Ramonde de la Roche made it clear that women can do, and can do well! That first woman’s pilot licence, issued by the French Authority, opened the door for Aviatrixes around the world.

In celebration of that first licence, co-ordinated by the Women of Aviation Worldwide, pilots from around the globe use this week to stimulate young women into aviation. Girls and women are given their first taste of the air, and it changes their lives, opens their imaginations and empowers in ways that cannot be imagined.

I can already hear the moan of ‘why only the young women?’.

Let me share some facts with you about ‘Only young women is necessary.’

There are many pilots throughout the world, yet less than 6.0% percent are female. How does that compare to other professions? Apparently, according to the U.S. Department of Labour: female boat captains and operators (8.2%), female police and sheriff’s patrol officers (15%), female doctors and surgeons (31.8%)

Furthermore, only a tiny percentage of that six percent are black African women. Of course, our particular interest is in West Africa where the statistics become ‘insignificant’ and need addressed. History has proven that women make excellent pilots. In my experience, rural West African women are trained from birth towards aviation excellence, but are rarely given the opportunity and even more rarely given the encouragement and support that is necessary to succeed.

Rural Girls have to be tough to survive here. From an early age they are carrying water, working with open fires and hot oil, balancing everything on their heads, learning to plan in the most challenging conditions. If you doubt that fact, take a meal in a remote community – be amazed at the work that went into getting that food ready! The challenge of preparation; fetching water from great distances; thinking about how, what and where to source the ingredients; multi-tasking with other duties; managing a meagre amount of funds to feed a large number; constantly battling against the elements; deftly timing the hand between the fufu mortar and pestle to retain all fingers; and the list goes on!

These are the very skills that keep a pilot alive. The balance is essential, and, in my experience, the ability to balance shifting loads on the head creates a very ‘sensitive’ set of instruments in the head of the young woman. If they are given the opportunity they can transfer that skill into incredibly smooth control management in an aircraft.

The quiet determination to walk and carry great distances, establishes a determination, coupled with two key strengths – physical and mental – and these are both essential in the cockpit. Non-aviators may not realise that flying can often require physical strength – not short term ‘ugggg uggg’ strength as you would to pick up something and load it onto a truck. No, aviation requires the strength of continued application and adaptation. Forces on the controls can be a challenge, in both the arms and the legs, as the stick and rudder forces bite at you during turbulence or a long descent in a strong crosswind! None of the young women we train ever complain about this. They seem to take it in their stride, they appear to be ‘pre-conditioned’ for such a workload!

Planning, and long term-isms are genetically implanted into women. The ability to take on a task and work at over many months, despite the challenges, despite the discomfort, and at the end to make even more effort than they initially thought physically possible, really is the strength of a woman, and the reason you can read this today. Childbirth is about extreme long termism. From conception there is a need to adapt, to change the way you do things, to handle the demands in blood flow, nutrition and then of course to ‘deliver’. But that is not the end of the story. A child has to be brought up. Despite your tiredness, despite the past nine months of carrying that load, despite the pain, the mother must take care of that dependent young person even more from the moment it parts company with her umbilical cord.

For the next eighteen or more years, the woman will, in general, be the point of reference – the GPS of life, the ‘Air Traffic Controller’ of their offspring. This maternal instinct, the ability to struggle long and hard, often without any ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’ is essential for a successful career in aviation. Rock on women, you are the mothers of us all, and the young women have what it takes to make pilots – great pilots – pilots of distinction!

With all of this in mind, consider bringing up a ‘career in aviation discussion’ with young women at the dinner table, just as Charles Voisin did, and perhaps you could inspire the next generation of pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers, etc.. Make it clear to the young women you know that ‘they can do it’ and that ‘they can do it well’ – be ready to support and encourage them. I look forward to hearing that women pilots break the 25% barrier… sadly, that appears to be a long way off. All the more reason to work harder daily to encourage the young women we know to strive to change the skies!

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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