Monday, May 19, 2014

May 19th, 2014

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Communication - in all of its forms - is the basis of safe operation of aircraft around the world. Most air-to-ground, ground-to-air and air-to-air communications are carried out using industry standard Aviation Band Transceivers (Transmitter/Receiver). Most radio transmissions rely on 'line of sight' transmission, which works very well for aircraft in the sky and within a certain distance of operation (it varies on the strength of the signal being sent, terrain, atmospheric conditions and the power of the sending/receiving equipment). Radio is not sufficient for all that happens, and no longer meets the communication needs of the modern aviator - especially for larger aircraft. Consequently, there is a host of other information that can be sent and received - often using satellites. Don't forget the receipt of position information using GPS (Global Positioning System), and the aircraft engineering data that can be sent using a variety of systems to provide 'health, position and condition' information, fully automatically, as was used to narrow down the search area for the Malaysian MH370 flight. Sometimes aircraft can lose all their electronic communications - so what happens then? Fortunately, the air traffic controllers will generally keep an eye on the aircraft using radar, and work to help the pilot who has lost all comms. But what happens in that case when such an aircraft is coming into land? Well, there even exists a 'visual communication' system of shining lights from the tower to the aircraft using, internationally agreed, 'steady or flashing' red and green lights. In aviation we understand that communication is key to everybody working together safely, efficiently and happily - whether by voice, lights or data transmissions. A pilot without good communications is going to be disadvantaged in many ways.

It is sad that 'on the ground' humankind is struggling with communication! People 'not speaking to each other', lack of clear communication - and understanding - in so many aspects of our lives. Do you ever feel as if 'no matter how clearly we explain something' others simply do not grasp it - or perhaps ignore it? Perhaps it is a communication problem!

Apart from 'face to face', 'letters' and the printed media, our modern communication systems rely heavily on technology. Television, a simplex system (transmission in one direction only), dominates the promulgation of information from a few to the many. Telephones are duplex systems (allow transmission in both directions), and are essential tools in the modern world of personal and business communications. Most of us use our telephones every day. In many developing nations it is not uncommon to find people living in the simplest of accommodation, often without access to a toilet, mains water or electricity, who own and use a mobile phone. Being able to speak our communications quickly and efficiently across the planet has become an accepted part of our lives - even without understanding all that goes behind it, almost anybody can master the use of a telephone in a matter of minutes. The telephone has changed all of our lives - and if used properly, makes them better.

The telephone network is not just about voice! Data communications over the telephone network has been around for a long time, from the acoustic coupler to the modern day smart phone, we have found ways to send words, images, video and all manner of data across our telephone networks.

Today, if you are not 'connected to the net' you are a seriously disadvantaged person. When I am in Accra, my smart-phone allows me to send and receive e-mails at lightning pace. I can look up prices of items, download technical data, take and send photographs and videos in a matter of seconds. I can download the latest applications that will make my working life more efficient and get updates automatically. Access to information, and the ability to transmit information is key to success in the 21st Century.

Sadly, when I am back at Kpong Airfield in the Eastern Region, I do not enjoy the same connectivity. Phone lines appear to be becoming more and more unreliable - and with it data access. A simple phone call to the USA about parts needed for a machine may take five or six dropped or poor quality calls to get the information sorted out. Data, well, that is worse.

Recently we were sent a very large programme file - essential for our operations. It was impossible to download in the rural area. A 200km round trip to the city just to reliably download a file was called for. That is not competitive. Not at all. But that is the reality of our telecoms. Sending a simple e-mail can take twelve hours or more - just waiting for connectivity.

It is, therefore, good to see that the NCA (National Communications Authority) has been putting pressure on the telecoms companies to improve their quality of service across the nation. But it is more than that.

If we want to see growth in our rural areas we MUST ensure better telecommunications solutions to those areas - it should no longer be a 'wish', but become a 'necessity'. 

Whether it is sending an e-mail; downloading an updated file for the Engine Control Unit of an aircraft or the latest fix to a programme you are using to run your business; being able to access the latest weather satellite image for planning your work activities; the ability able to send a photo of your product; to check on the assembly order of a piece of machinery, or whatever, the need for business to be better connected for smoother operations is clear. But it goes far beyond than that.

Universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, lecturers, teachers, doctors, nurses, students and parents who lack reliable and responsive connectivity are disadvantaged in the world of learning and problem solving. Books are fantastic, and I never want to see a community without a library, but on-line access to data is more rapid, more wide-reaching and more effective than any other information retrieval system out there.

Let us say that in a discussion between a teacher and student the question is asked 'can starfish live in Lake Volta?' It is easy to say 'I don't think so', it may even be possible to say 'No', but to access the reason, you would be hard pushed to find it rapidly in any book readily available - but on line, you can read about the vascular system and be given the reasons in a matter of seconds, adding reliably to your knowledge in real-time - if you have the connectivity. 

What about all the new information coming out daily - work on genetics, use of pesticides, best farming practice, new policies, grant opportunities, etc? Those who have access to communications have the power of access to education, information and opportunities in the palm of their hands. 

I get frustrated at the time it takes to send the Fresh Air Matters column every week... a task that should be as simple as pressing 'send' may require that I change location, work with a variety of different modems - or tether to my smart phone - just because I live in Rural Ghana, and not the city. How much more frustrating is it for a student wanting to research a topic - waiting minutes for page of information to download that takes just seconds for their competitive student in an urban setting.

Lack of effective, reliable and responsive communications systems distributed equally across the people will inevitably result in an underclass of 'low-connectivity' - lacking the ability to connect and communicate to better themselves educationally and to develop their businesses. 

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

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