Above & Be­yond

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - ■■ ■ JONATHAN “CAPT. YAW” PORTER

Out of Africa

“EN­GINE FAIL­URE! En­gine fail­ure!” I shouted into the ra­dio as I pulled the power on my 80-horse­power Ro­tax boxer en­gine back to idle. We were at less than 1,000 feet, climb­ing from a grass strip at Kpong Air­field in Ghana, West Africa. The baobab tree be­low reached out its naked branches like it wanted to claw us from the sky.

Kweku, the young stu­dent next to me, pushed the stick for­ward as he’d been trained to do. We set our air­speed for 55 knots, the best glide/sur­vive speed in these con­di­tions, and the ground filled the wind­shield. The air-on tem­per­a­ture was over 100 de­grees Fahren­heit, and the hu­mid­ity around 90 per­cent. Although we were only a few hun­dred feet above sea level, the heat and hu­mid­ity made our air­craft be­have as though fly­ing at 3,000 feet. Add to that the threat of wind shear, thermals, large vul­tures, and black kites, and the term “glide/sur­vive” no longer seems like an ab­strac­tion.

On the ground, I could see a young lady dressed in a pale green school sports shirt, jeans, and flipflops. She ap­peared to be in her late teens or early 20s; I would later learn she did not know her ex­act age, as she never had a birth cer­tifi­cate. Her fa­ther had died when she was just a few months old. Her mother had left her vil­lage soon af­ter. The rel­a­tives who’d raised her knew her to be a lit­tle trou­ble­some. That morn­ing, she had risen from her straw bed in­side the mud-and-thatch hut she called home, fetched wa­ter, car­ried it home on her head, cooked food over an open fire, and went back out to col­lect fire­wood to sell in the hope of earn­ing a few cents. Her name was Pa­tri­cia Mawuli.

Hear­ing the en­gine noise above her, Pa­tri­cia looked up through the canopy of a Gli­ri­cidia tree. She had never seen an air­craft so low in the sky. It made her heart beat faster, flood­ing her with fear but also cu­rios­ity. “Why are they chas­ing me?” she won­dered.

In the cock­pit, the al­time­ter was spi­ral­ing. “Where are we go­ing?” I kept ask­ing the young pi­lot, sound­ing more alarmed each time I asked the ques­tion. Kweku’s deep brown eyes told me he was afraid too. He couldn’t see the large clear­ing I had hoped he would select for our land­ing. As the avail­able height dropped be­low my com­fort zone, I fi­nally de­clared, “I have con­trol.”

Kweku ex­haled au­di­bly, hav­ing held his breath for an ex­tended pe­riod. I eased the throt­tle for­ward and pulled back on the stick un­til we climbed at a safe speed. At 600 feet, the al­ti­tude at which pi­lots en­ter the pat­tern for Kpong field, we en­tered down­wind, turned base, then fi­nal, and landed. Nei­ther of us said a word. (I was sav­ing mine for later.) And nei­ther of us were aware of the girl who’d seen us, nor of the so­ci­etal change she would in­spire.

Later that day, Pa­tri­cia found her way to the air­field. She walked to the briefing area and hopped from one leg to the other, try­ing to get at­ten­tion. I was not only the flight in­struc­tor but also the air­field man­ager, toi­let cleaner, and gen­eral dogs­body. I’d got­ten this

il­lus­tri­ous job by bring­ing to­gether the group of in­vestors who paid to build the air­field in the first place; they de­cided I ought to run it too.

Pa­tri­cia looked at me and said, “I want a job.” “We don’t em­ploy women,” I replied. West Africa re­ally is a “man’s world,” and I con­fess it didn’t oc­cur to me that a woman could work in an air­field, let alone want to try. In that part of the world, women are to re­main at home or, if they must work, do so in a field such as petty trad­ing. I did not chal­lenge this view then.

“I will work for free,” Pa­tri­cia said, look­ing me straight in the eye.

“Okay,” I said. “Here is a ma­chete and a pickax. Go and clear trees so that we can ex­tend the run­way.”

She smiled and amended her salary re­quest: “But only if I can see the fly­ing ma­chines.” The deal was struck, im­ple­ment­ing a per­ma­nent change in our hir­ing pol­icy.

That day, Pa­tri­cia cleared more trees than the men per­form­ing the same task. She did the same the next day. And the next. She came early, she left late, she stud­ied each air­craft on the site, and lifted her head from her labors to watch ev­ery take­off and land­ing. I put her on the pay­roll as a field hand.

A few weeks later I was in my work­shop, teach­ing a young man how to as­sem­ble an air­plane. I ac­ci­den­tally knocked his bag on the floor. Spare parts spilled out—stolen spare parts, from the look of it; things he would have no need to carry home with him. I sent him to the po­lice sta­tion. In these con­di­tions, swift de­ci­sions are as nec­es­sary on the ground as in the air.

I was left alone, strug­gling to fix some cot­ter pins to the air­frame. I needed a sec­ond pair of hands. Out­side the win­dow, I could hear tall grass be­ing sliced with a ma­chete. I looked out and saw Pa­tri­cia, clear­ing over­growth like a hu­man bull­dozer.

“Oi, you,” I barked. “Come here and hold this wing.”

She lit up at the in­vi­ta­tion to en­ter the work­shop. Leav­ing her ma­chete at the en­trance, she took hold of the parts nec­es­sary and as­sisted. Be­fore I knew it, she had in­serted the pins and other fix­tures with the dex­ter­ity of a sea­soned me­chanic. “Where did you learn to do that?” I asked.

“I watched you,” she said, rightly proud of her­self.

I in­vited Pa­tri­cia to be­come my ap­pren­tice, a full-time, paid po­si­tion. Sadly, her fam­ily did not want her to work in a “man’s pro­fes­sion,” and she had to leave home to pur­sue this op­por­tu­nity. Achieve­ment of­ten de­mands sac­ri­fice; Pa­tri­cia’s sac­ri­fice was mas­sive, and life-chang­ing.

She learned to build air­planes, and soon be­came the first woman to earn a Ghana Na­tional Pi­lots Li­cense and to in­struct other pi­lots. Later she found in­ter­na­tional fame as the first woman cer­ti­fied by Ro­tax Air­craft En­gines as an In­de­pen­dent Ro­tax Main­te­nance Tech­ni­cian; cre­den­tialed to in­stall and re­pair Ro­tax air­craft en­gines.

Af­ter five years of work­ing to­gether at the air­field, we qui­etly started to date. We were mar­ried in Septem­ber 2012. I had been gruff and dis­mis­sive to her in the ear­li­est days of our re­la­tion­ship, but she had earned my re­spect and love, as I had earned hers. In De­cem­ber 2013 she was ap­pointed Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of Op­er­a­tions at Kpong Air­field. For a woman to be se­lected for that po­si­tion would’ve been un­think­able when she’d first shown up there six years ear­lier. To­day, she looks for women who have the drive to suc­ceed as she has, if only given the op­por­tu­nity.

Last sum­mer, just eight years af­ter see­ing my air­craft bear­ing down on her through the trees, Pa­tri­cia was in­vited to the Ex­per­i­men­tal Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion Airven­ture fly-in in Oshkosh, Wis­con­sin, where she led a team of young Amer­i­cans with no prior air­craft build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in the “One Week Won­der” soup-to-nuts as­sem­bly of a Zenith CH750.

Kweku, my stu­dent on the day of that fate­ful ex­er­cise, never did de­velop the quick de­ci­sion-mak­ing abil­ity he needed to earn his li­cense. But if he hadn’t flown with me dur­ing that en­gine fail­ure, the en­gine-start in the life of Pa­tri­cia Mawuli might never have hap­pened.

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