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Hitler's pilot helped Ghana's women to fly

Unlikely friendship with Hanna Reisch led to pioneering academy that helps young women reach for the sky.

Afua Hirsch, West Africa correspondent

It is the strange story of Hitler's private pilot, a wandering English engineer and the first black woman – or woman of any race for that matter – to be qualified in building light planes.

In an inconspicuous clearing 30 miles east of Ghana's capital, Accra, a group of young women aged 16-20 are sliding shut the heavy metal doors of an airport hangar. They are students at AvTech, the Aviation and Technology Academy Ghana, a school with the unusual aim of bringing light aviation to impoverished rural Ghana.

"What people haven't realised is the use of aviation in developing nations," says chief flying instructor Jonathan Porter, or Captain Yaw as local children call him, using a typical Ghanaian name.

Porter is an English engineer who brought his own light aircraft to Ghana in a shipping container, together with his household belongings.

"Flying has always been seen as the domain of Americans and Europeans, but I saw clearly the need for light aviation which didn't focus on expats," he says. "People just don't realise what aeroplanes can do affordably."

The potential for light aircraft to play a role in development has long been recognised in Ghana. In 1962 independence leader Kwame Nkrumah founded sub-Saharan Africa's first flying school, after he formed an unlikely friendship with Hanna Reitsch, Hitler's private pilot and a record-breaking aviation hero of wartime Nazi propaganda.

After the war Reitsch, who refused to renounce Hitler and was poorly received in postwar Germany, lived in Ghana, where she helped encourage a generation of Ghanaians to embrace aviation.

"Nkrumah was smart – he realised that the best way to get from A to B in a country with poor infrastructure was to fly," says Porter.

"And there are so many other uses for these aircraft. We can teach rural people a new skill, we can change the way they think. And for the young women we are training as engineers and pilots, there is a viable career for them in agriculture, aerial surveillance of crops, selecting irrigation routes and plantation work."

The use of light aviation in development and disaster relief is well established, with organisations such as Mission Aviation Fellowship, a Christian aid group, and the Emergency Volunteer Air Corps (Evac) using planes to reach isolated areas after natural disasters.

But AvTech says it wants to move away from flying foreign aid workers in, and instead train local girls and women to become specialists.

WAASPS, the social enterprise wing of the project, capitalises on the demand for flying among Ghana's growing pool of high net-worth individuals by building the $80,000 (£50,000) planes to order, and by giving private flying lessons to business people and oil executives at weekends. The company uses the profits to subsidise training for the AvTech students – poor girls from local villages – during the week.

AvTech is run by Mawuli, a fisherman's daughter who implored Porter to train her after she saw his plane fly overhead while cutting trees in the bush.

"I consider aviation to have a key role to play in a developing nation like Ghana," she says. "I started out cutting trees from the runway with a machete, and today I can tell people I'm a pilot and an aeroplane engineer. That is spectacular, it is exceptional.

"And it is a gateway for other young women who also want to be adventurous and do something different."

Mawuli says she is the only African woman qualified in building Rotax engines, a popular Austrian brand of light aircraft engine, which she and Porter import and distribute in West Africa.

But in a country where Mawuli remains one of very few female pilots, her profession prompts some bemused reactions.

"In our culture women are not seen as people who are adventurous or risk-takers," she says. "Even now there are people who don't believe I fly planes. When they see me flying they think that there is some remote control that is flying the aircraft.

"But I know that if we train these girls today, tomorrow they will become the leaders of aviation, taking the planes to the people who need them, dropping educational materials for people who are isolated and can't be reached by road, or dropping food to victims in a disaster.

"Not many people here understand this mentality – I consider myself the person who has to start it."

Source: The Guardian UK, 16 April 2012



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