Monday, November 4, 2013

November 4th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

As a teenager, I made enquires regarding joining the British Royal Air Force, at the recruitment centre in Brighton. I was quickly told by the recruitment officer 'NO WAY'. His reasons were, I am sad to say, valid. Asthmatic, compromised spinal column, recently undergone five major surgeries, and let's be fair, not really physically acceptable. The recruitment officer could not get away from me quickly enough - I am sure he even shook his head at the idea that I could ever fly! It was one of those days when, as a young person, you grasp a door handle 'wondering if it will open'. Well, the RAF's door didn't even vibrate, let only open a crack! It did, however, set something else in motion. 

That was one of those days that could have knocked me down for the count, but it didn't, it was, for me, a machining moment. It removed a piece of metal from my corporal billet, and made a little round corner instead of a 'what can that area become' part of my life. A closed door can be a good thing, a directionally guiding thing, in one's life.

Having spent two years in a very strict public school, on a scholarship, I had learned to embrace the structure and discipline that the services represent. Those two years had more of a formative effect on my life than any other two year period. I learned so much about internationalism, varying cultures, the need for discipline and the need to learn from every moment of your life.

I am a firm believer in rules, discipline, in the concept of drill, organised bodies, structure, physical training, maintenance culture, chain of command and 'order'. Such an environment is not unique to the world of the armed forces - and nor should it be. The wonderful thing about aviation (non-military) is that it also requires the concepts of order - to the nth degree. Aviation requires the very same discipline as any force, and there is no escaping the parallels. The difference, ultimately, is the purpose for which we fly. The skills sets are not very different, the 'life on the line' component is the same, in many instances, as is the 'responsibility for others'.

A well managed airfield has a 'military look' to it. The order, the regulations, the adherence to standards. Of course, the military had a great deal of input to aviation historically too - but it took them some time.

In 1903, when the Wright Brothers made their historical flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the military of the day 'were not impressed', frankly, they were not even interested! These machines were seen as 'gadgets' and 'a flash in the pan' - horses and motor vehicles were 'the future' in the military minds of the day. The Wright Brothers could envisage military uses, and realised that Government contracts would boost their fledgling industry. Sadly, their approaches to American authorities of the day were treated, it appears, with contempt. In fact they spent two whole years trying to get Government on board, without success. Consequently, in 1908, they travelled to France to make demonstrations - and to dispel rumours that they 'did not really have a flying machine that worked'. The Europeans loved the concept of Aviation - Santos Dumont was already working with his Demoiselle and Louis Blériot was working on his own designs, taking inspiration from the visiting Americans. Blériot went on to cross the English Channel in 1909 in his own machine. We will never know how much impact seeing the Wrights fly had on him, but it had some. 

The Wrights then went back to the USA, and having been embraced by the Europeans, their own Government was now interested in their work. Between 1909 and 1915 the Wrights sold fourteen aircraft to the Army, as well as pilot training. The idea was that their aircraft could be used for observation. Clearly, a good use for any aircraft! The onset of World War I, led to massive investment and development of military aircraft around the world - a massive change in attitudes, led by the needs of the day. Of course, we all see the outcome of the aviation developments, both military and civilian, that have occurred in the hundred years since.

Apart from the 'defensive and offensive roles' that aircraft in the armed forces have played, the most important use, from my civilian perspective, has been that of the air-ambulance.

The first use of powered aircraft for evacuation of injured parties appears to have been in 1917. Yet, it was not until the late 1920's that custom built aircraft to carry injured persons were introduced. One of the most amazing facts about using aircraft to carry injured parties, is that the use of air-evacuation for causalities, in times of conflict, can reduce the mortality rate from around 60% to under 10%. The main reason for the success of air-evacuation is the reduction in time, and transport trauma, in reaching hospital or clinic services. Even a small, slow aircraft can take away the road trauma, caused by riding on bumpy rural tracks, and reduce time 'from incident to care' from tens of hours, or even days, to less than an hour. Of course, it requires skilled pilots, appropriate aircraft and a desire to see it become a reality.

Ghana has not been excluded from the concept of air ambulance. In August 1964, Kwame Nkrumah declared his desire for a network of airstrips and an air ambulance service, in his speech at Takoradi. Sadly, the concept was never realised. Of course, it does not take the military, or even Government, to establish air ambulance solutions.

Civilian air ambulances operate all over the world - some commercially, charging many thousands of dollars for a short trip to save a life of one who can pay, others operate a low cost or even 'no cost' humanitarian service (often with much simpler aircraft). What is necessary, in each case, is that the authorities embrace the concepts, and work with the providers of service, to ensure appropriate and security aware solutions.  

I look forward to seeing light aircraft used to improve and save lives in rural Ghana, and I believe that the door to that realisation will soon open. I really do believe that something is about to change. I know that there is the desire, and I believe that in the coming years we will see communities with their own airstrips, and aircraft operating for humanitarian purposes to them. However, without order, discipline, standards and rules in place (and applied), along with active co-operation between the authorities, communities and those with the desire to make it a reality, it will remain firmly on our wish list. 

My hand has been on the door handle of humanitarian aviation solutions in Ghana for many years, and I hope that, soon, that door will open positively, to the benefit all those in need of it.

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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