Friday's Fabulous Flyer
Originally from India, Soumya began moving about since 1997 to destinations such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore. In 2009 he became a ‘Singaporean’ but in 2010 moved and made his home in Ghana.
Soumya’s day job consists of being a ‘marketing research’ professional, and is presently Managing Director, Millward Brown West Africa based in Accra, Ghana. Millward Brown is a global market research consultancy that is a leader in its field - brand health, media & communications research. Market Research is a specialist, yet an exciting & dynamic industry.
Soumya: “In layman friendly terms, we are the people responsible for doing things like ‘focus groups’ & having interviewers drop into people’s homes or interviewing them over phone/online to ask questions such as ‘which soap do you use’, ‘which airline do you like the most’ or indeed ‘which presidential nominee will you vote for’! The most visible aspect of what our industry does is opinion polling – when we try to ‘predict’ who is going to win the next election!”
Karlene: You've starting your flying lessons a bit later in life than some. How long have you wanted to fly?
Soumya: As a 10 year old growing up in India, I remember reading a lot of action & war comics (think they were called ‘Commandos’!), stories of Camel Sopwiths, Fokker bi & tri-planes, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancasters, Dakotas, all the WWI & II aces (Richtofen, the ‘Red Baron’ & Rickenbacker!) I was consumed & fascinated by these. Thinking about those years, I remember filling the back pages of my school exercise books with drawing of these wonderful machines. I even remember making paper planes with ailerons ‘torn out’ when I was 12 years old!
Soumya: Growing up in developing country like India at the time meant that in order to just ‘survive’ competing with literally million others like us, we needed to focus on studies, aim to get a college degree from a ‘well known’ institute and then compete amongst millions again to land a ‘decent job’, get married, make a living etc.
A lot of us from that time never had the option to ask ourselves what it is that we really wanted to do with our lives. The point that I realized I was perhaps in the ‘wrong queue’ in life was when I was in my 1st year of my master’s degree (age 21 years) and one my classmates mentioned that he had just put in an application to join the Indian Air Force – oops, it was a bit too late.
So I’ve waited a long time to fly!
Karlene: Your comment reminds me of the privilege that so many in America take for granted—the ability to follow our passion, and decide what we ‘want’ to do with our lives. I understand you love to read, and flying books were on the top of your list.
Soumya: As a teenager, I bought books such as ‘Flying Machines & Aces of WWI’, and then in my twenties & thirties, I would pick up the occasional aviation book. Books on ‘bush flying’ particularly were fascinating to read - ‘Air America’ & ‘The Ravens’ by Christopher Robbins being two that I recall having read in the 2000’s.
Last year, when I finally started flying, I picked up a couple of additional books which have been an educative & entertaining read – Brian Cosgrove’s ‘Microlight Pilot’s Handbook’ & Wolfgang Langewiesche’s ‘Stick & Rudder.’
Karlene: You happen to be learning to fly at a very special place. Can you tell us where your passion to fly is unfolding?
Soumya: My 1st trial flight in an ultralight was October last year (2011). A week later I signed on as a student pilot at ‘WAASPS’ Flying School, based in Kpong (50 kms from Accra, the capital city of Ghana) and had my 1st lesson.
GHANA! Who would have thought you could learn to fly in Ghana? What is it like learning to fly in a developing nation? I guess that’s destiny! All the more ‘developed’ places I have lived in recently – Hong Kong, China, Singapore were not really places where you could learn to fly easily (not easily available or very very expensive!). Also at that stage I had a very young family & indeed other significant financial commitments.
Before moving to Ghana in 2010, I remember surfing the internet & coming across the WAASPS website & thinking ‘that’s interesting…but tube & cloth planes & that too made in Ghana – errr… maybe I’ll skip this’!. Turned out my boss & Africa CEO Charles Foster who is based in South Africa flies ultralights & has actually owned one for the last 12 years! Sometime last year, I sent him the link to the WAASPS website and asked him what he thought – and he said ‘well, sounds good – go for it’!
It has been a fascinating experience learning to fly here in Ghana and with such wonderful people as Jonathan & Patricia! Never a dull moment! The weather & the winds change very often so no two hours within the same day seem to have identical flying conditions! As such, I feel that there is a lot of learning even within a short time flying. In one my recent lessons, we were doing touch & gos and had to switch runways to land 3 times within 15 minutes!
Karlene: The airfield you’re learning to fly at is run by girls from rural Ghana. How does it feel to be flying in a plane that is built and maintained by young girls?
Soumya: Before I actually saw this for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me that such a place could exist – i.e. a fully functional around the year airfield being run by girls from rural communities! When you actually see this for yourself, you realize what incredible thing passion, inspiration, dedication and hard work can achieve.
I actually feel quite good about the fact that I can get to interact with the people who have helped built the plane that I am flying. I think I am learning a lot just by being around as they inspect & work on the planes, replace a broken safety wire etc. All the answers to any questions I may have on the airplane are there & then – no referring to manufacturer manuals or ‘experts’ needed – these people ARE the experts.
Karlene: Yes, they are experts. I also hear that one of your instructors is a 24 year old Ghanaian Girl, what do you think about that? Is she a good pilot?
Soumya: It was Patricia who flew me on my trial flight – and then I signed up to learn to fly within the week! Honestly, I didn’t know that Patricia was 24 years old and somehow it just doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is that she’s accumulated hundreds of hours flying these machines in these very conditions and as such has a wealth of experience that I can continue to learn from.
Soumya & Jonathan after 1st SOLO
Karlene: I hear you are flying with Jonathan, alias Captain Yaw, down there too.
Soumya: Indeed, I think I am very fortunate to fly with not one but 2 great instructors and somewhat different personalities – Jonathan (Captain Yaw) (never a dull moment with him in the right seat!) & Patricia. I find that whenever I fly with Patricia, I end up learning something new.
I enjoy flying with Patricia. She is an excellent pilot and an inspiration to all pilots – men & women alike. Her landings are as smooth as silk and it just doesn’t seem to matter if the wind is straight or cross, gusty or normal etc.
Karlene: Patricia is a dynamic young lady with so many talents. Her story is one of inspiration. But so is yours. I hear you recently soloed at Kpong Airfield.
Soumya: 25th February, Saturday, 8:26am GMT – like millions of pilots who have gone through this rite of passage before me, I will never forget the day, date or time for my entire life!
Karlene: Can you tell me what happened?
Soumya: I hadn’t had a lesson in 2 weeks as I had been traveling, so even though I had cleared my medical & the theory test a while ago in eager anticipation of soloing soon, I wasn’t really expecting it to be that particular day. I turned up for my usual lesson at 7am that day. Nothing seemed unusual as we did our circuits & touch & gos except that Jonathan was asking me questions like ‘how was the week’ & ‘what plans I had for the day’. Obviously I realized later that it was all with a purpose – to see if I was mentally ‘ready’ to solo that da.y
As things were progressing well, on the final touch & go, he asked me to stop & taxi back. I still didn’t get it but then he started telling me ‘right what’s going to happen is that I am going to get out & tie the harness down, she will climb a lot faster…you may not be able to land on your 1st attempt, I will be on the radio all the time’ etc. etc.
Karlene: How did you feel about being up there alone?
Soumya: I do remember a sense of calm & purpose taking over – this was the moment I had been waiting for! There was anxiety but the brain was working in high gear going through all the checklists, preparing myself for how the plane would fly with just me in it. My take-off was smooth and she just climbed very fast with just me in it (which Jonathan had already ‘prepared’ me for). Obviously the training & hours of doing circuits took over – remove flaps, turn and level off, reduce power, BUMFITCH checks, apply descent power, landing flaps etc
Somewhere along, I remember looking over at the right side & seeing it empty & feeling ‘OK you are definitely flying & landing this on your own now, no Jonathan to help you’! On 1st approach was way too high & elected myself to go around. I remember taking a slightly longer final approach the second time so that I could work the height down better. I think I was a bit fast and a bit ‘eager’ to land, so cut the power perhaps 5 seconds too early. As she sank, I remember adding a burst of power so that the main wheels touched down & thankfully the plane didn’t bounce. Again training took over – immediately cut power, flared more as an afterthought really. A huge sense of relief, then slowly accomplishment took over as I backtracked to the holding area. As I did the shut-off checks and switched off the engine, Jonathan approached and said ‘Welcome back to the planet’ & extended his hand for a handshake. I remember getting out & giving him a big hug instead! There’s life before you solo…and then there’s life after.
Daughters Take to the sky!
Karlene: That is the most empowering statement, I've heard in a long time. "There is life before you solo, and then there's life after. For those who have done, know. I understand that you and your family helped out at the ‘fly me day’ and your company supported the event.
Soumya: I think that what Jonathan & Patricia do with for the local, rural communities of Ghana is simply awe inspiring & inspirational. The ‘FLY ME DAY’ event captures the spirit behind what they do very well. Essentially selected schools from the nearby rural communities are offered the chance for their children to come to the airfield on this particular annual day event and experience the joys of flight for the 1st time in their lives. That’s the simple way to put it! In reality it’s a logistically immense & complicated exercise with 4 planes & pilots & 120 children having a trial flight in about 4 hours! This year’s event was on the 17th of March. On that day, with over 200 movements in 4 hours, Kpong Field was without any doubt, the ‘busiest’ airfield in West Africa if not entire Africa!
Jonathan asked the student pilots if we could be around to help out as needed and quite a few of us heeded the call. I asked my wife, Mukta & our 9 & 8 year old girls Samyukta & Sanaa if they’d like to help out and everyone said an enthusiastic ‘yes’. On the day, we helped manage the students before & after their flight – i.e. take Polaroid pictures as mementos, talk to them before & especially after they landed back to ask how they felt etc. Just watching 120 wide smiles after the flights and the fact that we (the family) had a small role to play that day made us incredibly happy
Karlene: You mention you have two girls. Have they flown with Patricia?
Soumya: Samyukta & Sanaa had their 1st trial flights with Patricia fairly recently. Since they had seen the rural kids fly on the ‘Fly Me’ day, they were quite excited and eager to have a trial flight too. Both of them enjoyed their trail flights with Patricia immensely. Since then, all I have been hearing from my girls (especially from Sanaa, the younger one) is ‘dad, you are so lucky that you get to fly every weekend’! I believe we have at least one more future pilot in making in our family.
Samyukta & Sanna with Patricia(after trial flight)
Karlene: Does your family enjoy going to the airfield? What makes it special?
Soumya: It’s a nice outing for the family whenever all of us are able to make it. Other than the experience of meeting like-minded flying enthusiasts/students, the wonderful WAASPS & AvTech teams, the airfield happens to be located at a very scenic place, just at the south end of Lake Volta (which happens to be the largest man-made lake in the world!), surrounded by beautiful green ridges. We, the family are also able to participate & support the passion of one of our members (in this case –mine!) & this can only be a good thing for us as a family!
Karlene: You will be receiving your license very soon. Do you have any concerns at this stage of your flying?
Soumya: I am around the half-way mark in terms of building solo hours & in flying terms, on the ‘finals’ of the ‘flight’. Right now, what I am focusing on is just letting things e.g. weather etc. take their natural course – i.e. build my remaining solo hours as weather, time permit & prepare myself for the solo XC & the general flying test.
Karlene: Do you have any plans for after you get your license?
Soumya: I aim to be as regular a flier as I can be, given my professional & family commitments. I would certainly want to fly every month. Other than recreational flying where I may take up family or friends with me, I do hope to be able to volunteer, support & participate in all the good activities on the ground and in the air that happen out of the Kpong field, for the benefit of the rural communities in Ghana.
At some stage, hopefully get a PPL and maybe one day, become a Flight Instructor & run a similar facility somewhere in India.
Karlene: Kpong is more than just a flying school - they have the AvTech Academy and Medicine on the Move. Some of your fees go towards supporting these organizations. How does that make you feel?
Soumya: I think the fact that as I fulfill my passion in learning to fly with WAASPS, I am actually supporting along with other fellow student.
Karlene: How does the integration of these other organizations affect the experience of flying at Kpong?
Soumya: When we are at the airfield, its wonderful being around people who are 100% engaged in what they are doing, which is essentially working to make lives better for others. Michaela & Ben, who are looking after MoM are usually around and its refreshing to interact with them, Jonathan, Patricia & the AvTech girls & learn what amazing things they are doing with rural communities whilst we wait for our turn to fly. It’s a fantastic bonus.
Karlene: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Is there anything you would like to add about flying in Ghana and the organizations that are at Kpong Airfield?
Saklani Kids with visiting rural community
Soumya: I think that what these individuals & organizations are doing is unique and well ahead of the times. I know that they face incredible constraints – some financial, some regulatory.
I would just urge whoever is touched by their story to participate in whatever way they deem suitable – spreading the word, coming down to see what they do (especially if they are in Ghana), signing up for learning to fly if that’s their passion, or indeed supporting Medicine on the Move through contributions or participating in the activities etc.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, and the amazing people you're meeting in Ghana. And for your supporting the efforts of Medicine On the Move: MoM
Everyone... remember MoM this weekend.
It's Mother's Day on Sunday.
What better way than to celebrate MoM,
than by supporting MoM in her honor?!
Enjoy the Journey!