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The Land That Forgot About Planes

From Bits & Pieces Newsletter, December Issue

By Jonathan Porter, EAA 1157136

Like the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel The Land That Time Forgot, this true story is written in a land that appears to have forgotten general aviation – or has appeared to have never engaged fully in the amazing benefits that only light aviation can offer.

I first came to Ghana in 1994 and was flabbergasted at the lack of light aviation, but I was met by a people and landscape that took my breath away, stole my heart. It appears to have taken away all rational thinking, and without doubt, all of my finances! Ghana is in West Africa (famous for the Ebola outbreak in one corner).

Alaska only achieved its economic and social successes through implementation of a vibrant light aviation. Therefore, it is not hard to grasp that the lack of it here has resulted in the development curve for West Africa being flattened or even downturned.

The Land That Forgot About Planes
A mud hut hamlet

The Land That Forgot About Planes
And a village kitchen

Light aviation is an essential tool in the development of rural areas. How did I come to this conclusion? I started learning to fly in 1988 in the United Kingdom, then in France, and moved to Ghana in 1994. As I toured the country over a three-week period, I saw aviation opportunities stacked miles high. I visited three of the primary airfields in the country – only to discover that light aviation for the people was simply nonexistent. I was welcomed, not well understood, but still very welcomed – for that is the way of Ghanaians.

The planned aviation infrastructure from the days of independence (in 1957, there were an estimated 65 operational airstrips, dwindled to less than 10 in 1994) and the hope of a nationwide aviation programme that dissolved in the coup d’état in 1966 still echoed in the halls of the administration.

Officials could tell you what happened but not explain why…and there was no visible plan to resolve the situation sustainably.

But, I hear you ask, what can one person do? Well, one person is all that it really takes to start or stop anything…good or bad.

So, having shipped my old Rotax 582–powered Weedhopper AX3 from France, with household possessions, to my country of choice, I set about trying to spread the gospel of flight. Fortunately, the president at that time, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, was also aware of the challenges, and desired change.

The Land That Forgot About Planes
Flying alongside the Volta

Moreover, he regularly flew both the Aermacchi MB-339 trainer/light attack jets as well as a Ferrari Tucano tube and cloth aircraft from Italy. I was asked to help with a new flying club, called the Sankofa Aero Club, with “Sankofa” roughly translating to “You need to see where you came from to know where you are going.” I was then privileged to help reopen Afienya airfield, the very airfield where ex-president and prime minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, took flying lessons from Hanna Reitsch in the 1960s. Ghana used to be called the Gold Coast until it won its independence from British colonial rule in 1957.

Although my work was for a USAID project in data systems related to improving trade and investment, I still managed to use my little aircraft several times a week to provide familiarisation flights to as many people as I could, and I was privileged to fly with some amazing people.

I was asked to report to the Air Force base on a Sunday afternoon. I arrived, unsure of what exactly would happen. Led into a locker room, I was fitted into a military-green g-suit and given a briefing on the Aermacchi. Next, in the hot afternoon sun, I was led out to the apron, shown how to climb aboard, and then strapped into the rear seat – still unsure of the exact plan of action and what would come next.

I sat, listening to my briefing on ejection seats and having to remove the arming pin once the canopy was closed. Then the pilot for the pending flight walked out. Confidently, my jet training instructor for the next hour marched across the apron and climbed into the front seat. He was unmistakably the president of Ghana himself.

Yes, I swallowed hard, and politely said, “Good afternoon, sir.” He nodded and started the pre-start checks. For the next hour, he was not the president; he was a fellow aviator, and my life was in his capable hands.

The flight was incredible – a blur but incredible. We flew along the coast, up the River Volta, over the Akosombo and Kpong hydroelectric dams, did some aerobatics, and back to two touch-and-gos at Kotoka International Airport before landing. No better thank-you for my work in the country could have occurred. It was a life-changing experience and one that took me in flight over what is now my home, between the two hydroelectric dams. In retrospect, you could say that this single trip triggered a massive investment into Ghana in terms of aviation. But what would I say to the “big man” when we landed?

Before I could unstrap myself and fumble my helmet away from my beaming face, my “instructor” was out of the plane, across the apron, and marching head-on toward my two waiting children. He barely paused, his step simply adjusted by a partial pace, to make a simple statement to them as he passed by: “Quite a pilot, your dad,” and then disappeared into a waiting car with dark windows. Delighted would be an understatement. I do not think any language has a word to describe how I felt at that moment.

A few months later, I had the privilege of flying this inspirational pilot in my own plane. He simply walked up to the plane on the apron, handed over his belongings to his security detail, removed his presidential title, and attached his “fellow aviator” title, and we went up for a flight – short but sweet. He could fly and really well. On landing, he exited and disappeared, making a brief complimentary comment about my small tube and cloth plane…unbelievable but perfectly true!

These two events, which I rarely speak about, left me committed to making light aviation work in Ghana. Not for the president but for the people. I have not seen the big man since 1997; he has not visited me nor contacted me. He doesn’t need to. He inspired me to commit my efforts to making light aviation work for the people in West Africa.

In 2001, during a time that I was in Europe lecturing in academia for a couple of years, there was a change of government and president in Ghana by democratic means, and the Sankofa Aero Club – started with and supported by the influence of President Rawlings – was effectively dissolved.

In 2002, I was invited to return to Ghana to work on data systems at the Central Bank. As I stepped out of the British Airways 767 and into the humid, Africa-scented air of Kotoka International Airport, every step down the stairs onto and across the apron left a tear dripping from my eye. I felt I was home. I realized that home is where your heart is, and that Ghana, West Africa, had truly stolen my heart.

As soon as I could, I visited my friends in the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority, to be told several versions of what had happened to light aviation and the demise of Sankofa. Interestingly, I was asked by the then director of safety regulation a blunt question – a question that would seal my fate.

“What are you going to do to restart light aviation in Ghana?” Me? The implications of this question were massive. What could I do?

Sometimes our mouths seem to work without the intervention of our thought processes, and I heard these words spilling, in all sincerity, out of my mouth:

“The only way to see light and general aviation work sustainably is to build aircraft in West Africa. Aircraft built by West Africans, for West Africans, built here in Ghana for Ghana! We need an indigenous light aviation industry.”

I watched myself as if from a ceiling fan spinning wearily above, wanting to grab my jaw and hold it closed. But the words were out; it was the truth, but the official reaction took me by surprise.

I have rarely seen any Ghanaian or other national official laugh uncontrollably, but that day I did. I swear that he actually left his chair and bounced off of the floor twice at one point. Between his chuckles he blurted out, “We don’t even build bicycles, let alone aircraft!” 

I swiftly responded, not sure of why he was laughing so strongly, “But aircraft are easier to build than bicycles – it is not rocket science.” After all, I had built planes but never built a bicycle!

I thought back to the honour I had been given of a flight in the Aermacchi, and all my hours of flying over small villages in my own little plane in the years before. I realized the words that I had spoken in those few minutes, albeit interspersed with tears and laughter from the director, were the words of truth.

Before I left his office, we shook hands and he promised to support any ideas that could be brought forward to make aviation for the people a dream come true. Little did he realize what was started that day. He shook his head as I walked away.

Sometimes we say something and the words leave our mouths and our minds. But what I said that day is now what I live by – every day.

“Have you any idea how to make what you said happen?” I was asked by a friend. “Patience and perseverance” was the only answer I could come up with. I became the laughing stock of many – and an object of pitiable stupidity by others – but a few caught on to the idea, bit by bit.

Over the next three years, I spent two to three man-days per week trying to convince officials of the need for an LSA – light-sport (sustainable) aircraft – type solution for affordable aviation for the people and emphasizing the humanitarian aspects, as well as the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) potential of such a project.

One hot and sticky day, I was due to meet a government official. The meeting never took place. Instead I was told bluntly by an official spokesperson, “If the government wants to see aircraft being built in Ghana, then the government will do it itself.” That was the answer to my efforts.

I gave up completely and was ready to quit. I would pack my bags and leave the country. And that was that…for a maximum of 10 minutes.

Then my stubborn streak kicked in: “No way, Jose!” Politics has no place in sustainable aviation for the people. Refusing to give up – and many canceled meetings later – I was finally invited in 2005 to the National Security headquarters to meet with the head of the nation’s security agencies. That is no small thing in any country, but in West Africa, it is a privilege – but not without concerns.

He was a pleasant chap but visibly irritated by this stubborn white man who refused to take a hint from all of his subordinates and other officials! We talked at length, and after a seemingly endless barrage of interrogatory questions, he stated, “You really are sincere about all of this, aren’t you?” I looked him squarely in his dark brown eyes and said, “Yes.”

The next day, approvals were given for the creation of Kpong Airfield. Just getting to this point had exhausted me personally, but fortunately with a group of like-minded backers, the project could finally begin. Ghana Civil Aviation Authority worked hand in hand in the development of regulations, and the airfield clearing began. “Airfield” was a big word for some bushlands at the edge of the coastal Savannah in the Dahomey Gap!

That is when all the real problems started. Apart from the odd death threat, “juju” (voodoo) spell, the land issues, the integration challenges, and cows that had to be walked (and that dropped fertilizer packets) seemingly wherever we cleared land, it was a time of great energy. Finally, the first flight at Kpong took place in November 2005. The dirt strip was just 300 metres long by about ten wide at that point, with no apron, hangars, buildings, roads, or fences – and hazards in every direction. There was no infrastructure and still a few thousand problems to overcome.

Kpong Airfield

The biggest challenge was human capital. It took time to get the staffing right – a lot of learning there – but learning is okay. You only fail if you give up – and giving up is something that I have never been good at!

In order to help make the systems work on the ground, I soon stopped working contracts and began full-time management of an airfield. My personal revenues dropped by well over 90 percent, but my personal satisfaction grew exponentially. My headaches multiplied daily, too, as each day brought a new clutch of challenges.

The Land That Forgot About Planes
Our accommodations and the hangars

In the second half of this article in next month’s issue, we’ll discuss the development of the airfield, the people, and the flying activities. I’m hoping to release a book on our exploits titled Wonderful Adversity. I expect it to be available on the Amazon Kindle e-books website at the end of December. 

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