Monday, September 30, 2013

September 30th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

I am often asked 'What did you study at University?', to which the answer is 'I didn't go to the usual University, however, I am still an active student in the 'University of Life' - the best University in the world'. Through surgical interventions that prevented my completion of Senior High School and 'A' Levels, I was left 'not fully able' to attend the 'lecture theatre and concrete structure learning institution' but remained 'fully determined to obtain as much education as I could, from those with outstanding practical knowledge to share'. 

As I left the orthopaedic ward of the teaching hospital, I was told that my walking and working would be 'limited' and that I should not lift more than about 1kg. Consequently, I took work in a government research laboratory. Wearing a white coat, sitting on a high stool, peering down a binocular microscope. I learned to dissect tropical insects - and how to make my own dissection tools! I was part of a team working on the diuretic hormones of disease-spreading blood suckers. It was fine, but it was not 'very challenging' - frankly it was remarkably boring, with an occasional moment of 'wow'. Once you have dissected a few thousand Rhodnius Prolixus under the microscope, cut out their central nervous systems, extracted and tied their malpighian tubules around wire posts under a ringers solution, and waited for two hours before measuring the diameter of the droplets... you can, and do, get quite bored. Although the job was within my capabilities, it was not stretching me mentally, physically nor, most importantly, did it fire any 'passion' in my heart. One autumn day, I decided that it was time to ignore medical advice and discover where the real boundaries of my envelope lay.

I spent hours walking, my back aching, my left leg and arm refusing to move normally, stopping at every factory or office I came across asking at the reception for 'any opportunity for work?'. Finally, I came across an engineering factory, on the edge of Brighton, it was a grey building with a broken sign, it smelt of metal, oil and 'man sweat'. It was an old-school engineering operation.

They had just been awarded a major aviation contract, in relation to hydraulic and pneumatic systems at a major military establishment, as part of an early airborne warning system. They were seeking 'young talent' to assist them with the added demands of the new contract. For whatever reason, I was seen as a 'youngster with potential' and put into the purchasing department technical team. My earnings were not great in financial terms, but the gains in experience would turn out to be more valuable than any money could compare to.

I spent hours visually scanning A0 blue prints, far bigger than my desk, often still damp from being pulled. The detailed drawings of pipe-work, wiring, switches and installation details abounded. I spent days counting and recounting pumps, valves, pipe fittings, electrical components and more. Quickly, I found that these drawings spoke to me, I could scan them and read them holistically, they made sense to my way of thinking - they inspired me - and I could see the effective three dimensional outcomes. Then, I started to spot ways of improving the designs. Such inputs were first met with 'discouraging noises' by my line manager, however, I made my way to the Drawing Office and met with open-minded draughtsmen. 'You see that you have used two different pumps for these two circuits? If you look at the spec sheets you could use the same one, and we could reduce the parts diversity - they both pump across the desired range...', I pointed out. Drawing after drawing was recalled, and the parts diversity was dropping - not just from my inputs, but it appeared that a 'second set of eyes' could spot things that those with 'Drawing Office Vision' were overlooking. This was before Computer Aided Design, and therefore each draughtsman, sitting at their large drawing boards, in rows like teak trees, had made independent selections for the different areas of the project. My role, in assessing the parts and putting together requirements lists, enabled me to see the bigger picture. The best part being that the design department embraced the feedback, and enjoyed the positive interaction. Despite my lack of a formal university education, I had the right approach and saw the bigger picture. Through reading the various specifications sheets of hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical and various control systems, my knowledge grew, and my ability to interact with designers and engineers grew also. I was actively contributing to the hydro-pneumatic installations for a military aircraft installation - and it made me proud to be part of the team.

Later, I was invited to the 'good inwards' department, when the delivery trucks arrived. Seeing first hand the parts, that I had only met through blueprints and spec sheets, fired a passionate flame in my chest - and my head. Holding the various parts, and knowing where each one would be installed for the aircraft that would benefit from these systems, was like touching a piece of future history. The storekeeper indulged me, showing each of the many thousands of parts in stores, spending time explaining, thus adding to my knowledge. Every lunch hour was spent gaining a fresh grain of knowledge from a mentor with years of experience. Consequently, quality control, use of measuring and testing equipment and more was within my reach, and as a result I got more and more oil on my hands - I think that oil and the manufacturing spirit were seeping deeper into my soul.

When the parts went to production, I asked to gain access to the production floor. It was granted. There I was met with the magic of machining and assembly. Both drew my eyes, hands and heart. Making things was brilliant - especially things for aircraft! Again, the time-served craftsmen on the shop floor indulged my millions of questions, and thus I learned about the early Computer Controlled Machines - perhaps it was a moment of love-finding. It was a fresh seed in my brain garden and it was planted firmly.

Economics have a nasty habit of biting, and when the contract I was working on was cancelled, it was time to seek a new financial-life-support opportunity. All the same, my seeds of engineering had been planted in a well tilled place, and, even if needing to be allowed to germinate, they had formed the early connections to aviation, engineering and the benefits of sharing knowledge in a hands-on manner.

The economics of the 80's was not good, and jobs lasted short times, but over the next few years I found myself exposed to the electronics and telecommunications industries and then, by a stroke of misfortune of working in an aviation steel stockholders where staff were treated 'not as one would think suitably', I stumbled across an advert for an apprentice CNC machine tool programmer. The seeds of my early engineering exposure were about to be given a large dose of high power fertiliser - and I would be involved in a wider range of projects than I could dream of. All because I ignored the doctors and pushed to find the limits of my envelope. Sometimes, that step out leads to a step up!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics (www.waasps.com www.medicineonthemove.org e-mail capt.yaw@waasps.com)

1 comment:

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