ASOG Article of the Month: April 2021
ASOG Author: Patrick Ryan (ASOG acting Desk Editor)
If you didn't know, the "ASOG Member Interview" pilot project focuses on ASOs and other professional aircrew professionals to highlight the unique work they do and share professional perspectives. I think one such outstanding ASOG member fits this category perfectly – Meshank Thathane. Meshank has over 20 years as an Aerial Mapping & Surveying ASO primarily operating in Africa. Plus, he has traveled the world and experienced what it takes to be a professional global ASO and aircrew member.
Are you currently active as an ASO, and what are you doing?
Yes, I am currently based in Libreville, Gabon, and working for a French-based company, Action Air Environment. We are primarily doing Oil Spill Surveillance and Response, covering the entire Gulf of Guinea. From time to time, we do get involved in Government Maritime surveillance and Search and Rescue missions.
Can you give me a run-down of your career?
I started working in Jan 2000 as a manifesting clerk and a freight delivery/collection guy for a courier services company in Johannesburg. Six months later, I found a job as an ASO at Aircraft Operating Company. The Aircraft Operating Company was the first private Aerial Survey and Mapping Company in South Africa after the industry was commercialized by the South African Defense Force, who did all the Aerial Surveys and mapping of the country before then. The Legendary Nols Harding trained me as a PIC of a Cessna 320 and I behind WILD RC10 152m Lens film aerial camera. Almost every time I walked out of that aircraft, I had a purple eye from being hit by the telescope during bumpy summer flights.
I worked for AOC from 2000 till 2009, and one of my highlights was transforming aerial photography capture to standards where we did not need to print check prints to calculate actual drift, side, and forward overlap anymore. I knew that a strip needed to be re-flown before film was processed. That's how good I got with analogue cameras. I then trained on the Zeiss RMK Top 15, which was an advanced version then.
A tragedy struck in late 2009 which led to me losing my job with AOC. I then pursued personal business interest and started my own company Motheo Geospatial Services until mid-2012 when I received a call from Fugro EMEA asking me to join them. I worked with Fugro, operating across Africa, Europe, Middle East, and Eastern Europe until 2015, when they discontinued data collection from their list of Geospatial services. I had logged more than 14000 Survey Flight hours at this time
After Fugro, I joined Geosense, a subsidiary of UK-based Getmapping Plc, I worked with them from 2016 till 2019 before joining Action Air Environment.
Why did you pursue a career in Aerial Mapping & Surveying?
I studied for a Business Management Diploma soon after High School. However, funds proved to be a challenge during my second year, and I could not complete my Diploma. This was 1999. Like any young person growing up in a spatially misplaced township in South Africa, I headed for Johannesburg in early 2000 and immediately found a job in a courier services company. I instantly enrolled to complete my Business Management Diploma with Nelson Mandela Bay University through distance learning.
Within six months in my job, I met Maxwell who was a soccer team coach at the sports-field one Saturday. During our conversation, he asked me if I would love a job as a camera operator. I have always loved photography and said yes, but little did I know that this meant I would actually fly to take photographs. I had never flown before by the way. I wouldn't really say it was a predetermined choice for me but rather what God chose for me, and I love every single second of it, despite the personal challenges it brings.
PROFESSIONAL PERSPECTIVE & TIPS
What do you like about being an ASO, and what are some of the negatives of being an ASO?
Being an ASO is not only about operating Airborne sensors. It's a whole mood. I enjoy the challenges of an honestly regulated working environment, and being an ASO offers all that. Apart from our technical skills in operating sensors, we also become technicians by default, to troubleshoot and resolve technical issues that comes along with Airborne sensors. This includes fixing hardware and software issues. We are also involved in the mission's general planning, the logistical part, client liaison on field and project management.
Imagine having a project in Nigeria. The dynamics are so vast, and everything changes on a daily basis. I have had to meet with tribal chiefs of an oil conflict region to negotiate a working relationship in order to get access to their land to lay and survey ground control points. You also are the face of the company on the field and have to conduct yourself as such. You have to adapt to the culture of doing things in the area of your operation. All these are incredibly challenging but fascinating, and that's what I love. My motto since I became an ASO is: "We make it happen." Teamwork between ASO and PIC is one of the most important key roles in this field.
The negative is that these airborne sensors are extremely sensitive and sometimes fail while you are airborne, this can become very costly, and you have to be sharp enough to know how long you can keep trying before you abort. Landing without that data is one of the most upsetting experiences as an ASO.
What kind of skills are required for one to thrive as an Aerial Mapping & Surveying ASO?
ASO is a technical job. It is a combination of technical skills such as electronics, electrical, and computers coupled with GIS to put one in an excellent position as an ASO. It would be a bonus and quite fulfilling if you could have the passion for travel and exploration as well.
Who is or was your mentor, and what key lessons did you learn from them?
Two individuals mentored me. Maxwell Ncwane and Nols Harding. Nols determined in one training fight that I was going to be a great ASO. This was June 2000. And the key lesson I took from him was human skills. Having to share a cockpit and more than half of your day with someone and especially of different cultural background can be challenging. He taught me never to discuss politics and religion with colleagues especially given the diversity of South Africa's culture and political history. This advice has helped me be able to relate with anyone I have ever come across all over the world in the 20 years of my career.
Maxwell taught me humility. He resembles the word. He also taught me never to be afraid to fail, always try new things, and explore. This is how we transformed aerial photographic capture in AOC before Flight Management Systems. I literally became an FMS during our missions back then with film cameras. Maxwell became the first African ASO in South Africa in 1995, also trained by Nols Harding.
What was one project/mission you worked on you found rewarding and fun?
There are just too many to count, really, and will all be in the book I am writing. However, two missions stand out.
The first was during the armed conflict in Syria around 2015. We were busy flying the whole of Turkey. We had three teams, three aircrafts. The other two teams refused to fly the area between Gaziantep and Aleppo for safety reasons. Because "We make it happen," Legendary Peter Ragg and I agreed to do the flights. In one of the flights, we literally witnessed the bombing right next to the border. The other time we spotted on our TCAS an unidentified flying object 1500FT above us, which happened to be a military drone monitoring the situation, told by ATC. Despite how frightening it was to operate in that region, Peter and I collected all the data and brought it home, and that was extremely rewarding.
The second incident happened, most recently 200nm south of Libreville, in which we took part in a search and rescue mission to locate a distressed French vessel (Marie Alexandra) and provide assistance using our onboard AIS and VHF Marine radio. Link attached. (https://www.oilspillresponse.com/es/news--media/blog/wasp-search-and-rescue/ )
These are personally rewarding missions for me and fun in that the anxiety and the adrenalin rush that comes with it makes it worth it.
What was the most challenging or dangerous flight you ever accomplished?
The most dangerous flight was a failed survey flight in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2013. The PIC got really sick to an almost point of incapacitation. I had to take charge of the radios because he could not respond to ATC and was ready for controls if needed be despite not having trained as a pilot before. I requested a priority landing which was granted by ATC. As a result, we had a very hard landing but were able to walk out of it. Sadly, the pilot passed away later. May his soul rest in peace.
You've worked around the world as an ASO. What region was the most difficult, and what was the easiest to operate in?
I honestly enjoy challenges and working hard to overcome them. Most regions are straightforward to operate in if you plan properly and involve all parties affected. Cape Town, South Africa, has proven to be one of the most challenging areas to operate due to traffic. Despite having numerous meetings with the ATC management to develop solutions, CT is still the most difficult area to conduct aerial surveys. The amount of time and costs incurred from being sent offline due to traffic is crazy. I operated in the UK within some of the busiest airspaces globally, and it was a lot easier than Cape Town.
West Africa is also a challenge in that most locals do not speak a single word of English. My French is coming up but at a very slow pace…
Since Africa is your primary area of operations, what do you recommend to other ASO before operating in this region of the world?
I have trained a number of ASO’s and SurveyPilots and this is what I always tell them: Familiarize yourself with the region's politics, culture, constitutional and traditional laws, and respect the laws at all times. Avoid being adventurous; you will be arrested for taking a mere picture of your street to add it to google maps. Take all medical precautions and enjoy the African UBUNTU. (Ubuntu means humaneness and generous hospitality).
What do you see as the latest aerial surveying trends across Africa?
This is a very difficult question because from where I stand, there isn't enough being done. It is almost as if our governments do not know of aerial surveying services. Only a few African countries take advantage of geospatial technologies and services to boost their development, especially in terms of infrastructural development planning and construction, 3D city mapping, and property valuations. I have noted the disruption that drones are causing within the industry in South Africa, but the pace is a bit slow due to civil aviation regulations.
What do you recommend to the next generation of aerial remote-sensing ASOs to study?
Geographic Information System, Engineering and programing. I would like to see Drones, sensor systems, and supporting software built and written by ASO's.
You mentioned when you joined ASOG that you were writing a book. What is the book about, and is it published?
The book is more of a personal project. It is about my journey from humble beginnings in a rural township of Northwest, South Africa, to being one of the best ASO's in the world (That's what the President of Action Air says…all the time!) and having traveled and worked in more than 26 countries in the world. The book is also about my experience as a whole, as a son, brother, father, husband, and ASO.
The book is taking longer to complete because I am trying to get inputs from hundreds of people I have met worldwide; I am interested in their experience of me and the experiences we shared. I am hoping to complete the book by the end of this year.
Overall, what do you see yourself professionally doing in the future?
Covid 19 has changed my perception of what the future could be. I am going for my Drone Pilot's License this year. I would like to own one of the best Aerial Survey companies in Africa. It is difficult to put a time frame to this objective due to changing circumstances, but this is the ultimate dream.
Before I end, Thanks to you Patrick especially for creating this platform. I hope that we can present ASO as a possible future subject that forms part of the curriculum in the mainstream educational training environment for learners who aspires to become ASO. My wish also is for stakeholders like Sensor Manufacturers such as Riegl and Vexcel to award ASO’s like myself and others with long term experience on operating their sensors with certification as proof of competence. We deserve it.
Meshank, Thank You! Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to share your fascinating and positive background and thoughts with your fellow ASOGers. Plus, the Aerial Remote-Sensing community. Like with other ASOG members, it is a true pleasure to spend time learning about the experiences and perspectives of fellow professions like you. I always walk away professionally better.
If you have any questions for Meshank, you can message him via the ASOG e-mail message service. Don't forget; you have to "Friend" him first before e-mailing.
Also, If anyone has any questions regarding this interview or the "Interview of an ASOG Member" pilot-project, please contact me or send to email@example.com.