The incredible story of the woman from a mud hut spotted collecting firewood by an airfield in Ghana who now builds planes in Wales
Stood beneath the shutter doors at hangar number two and in front of the two planes she’s built with her bare hands, Patricia Mawuli couldn’t be further from her west African home. She might not have been there at all were it not for an absolutely incredible chance encounter which altered her life beyond recognition from what it was.
And yet, as she flashes one of her many ready smiles and her eyes sparkle with mischief, the airfield in West Wales is exactly where the married mum-of-one wants to be and where she fully deserves to be – and not just by chance, through an amazing determination. Her story is incredible: brought up in a mud shack in Ghana with limited opportunities apart from collecting firewood in the bush, Patricia has defied everything life has thrown at her to break societal boundaries.
She was the first civilian woman to obtain a pilot’s licence in Ghana in 2009, the first woman worldwide to undertake Rotax Aircraft Engine training, and the first black female aircraft inspector for the UK non-certified oversight organisations – the Light Aircraft Association and also the British Microlight Aircraft Association. If that’s not enough, Patricia – who now lives in Pembrokeshire – was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s honours in February, 2022, for services to aviation.
If life wasn’t already hard because she’s a woman, it is doubly hard because she’s a black woman. When we met at the Haverfordwest base of the Metal Seagulls – a business set up by Patricia and her husband Jonathan Porter – she admitted there had been occasions when people had walked straight past her and sought out her husband instead. Aviation is a man’s world and the idea of a woman building planes was a bit beyond some people’s expectations, she said sadly. But she isn’t one for self-pity and nor does she want special treatment, she said with another beaming smile.
“I always say you have to be twice as good as the men in this job to be treated equally,” she shrugged. And that’s exactly what she’s doing seemingly without so much as a trace of bitterness. “I love to fly, but I also love to build, to change aircraft engine oil, to wash and polish a plane, to support those flying with a radio service or to drive the tractor to mow the grass areas around the airfield,” she added.
Patricia and Jonathan – aka Captain Yaw – are clearly a partnership and while Jonathan does his fair share of talking, there’s an implicit admiration for his wife. He reverts to her frequently as he searches out bits of equipment from the stores and checks on customer requirements that have come in earlier in the week. There’s plenty of banter between them but there’s even more mutual respect.
The beginning of their relationship is like something straight out of a Hollywood movie. Their two very different worlds collided in unlikely circumstances – British national Jonathan was running a social enterprise out of an airfield in Ghana, Patricia was in the bush collecting firewood for her family. Read here about the woman who said she used to be tailed by shop security – but how in Cardiff that doesn’t happen.
Jonathan was in charge of the project based at Kpong Airfield which provided pilot training, aircraft building and maintenance and expertise for aerial surveys, agricultural surveillance and plantation selection work. One day, in 2007, high above the crude grass runway, Jonathan was coming to the end of a training flight with a young student when he spied a woman dressed in a pale green school sports shirt, jeans, and flipflops meandering through the brush below. It was a young Patricia – Jonathan guessed her to be in her late teens or early 20s; he would later learn she did not know her exact age as she’d never had a birth certificate.
Down on the ground, Patricia looked up as the plane soared over her head. She’d never seen anything like it before and was both fearful and curious. So low in the sky, she was convinced it was chasing her. Life for Patricia had not been easy. Growing up in a mud shack in Mepe, a small rural village in the Volta Region of Ghana, there was no mains power, no mains water, telephone or internet.
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 thought she brought bad luck to the family and sent her off to be sacrificed at a local shrine when she was still a toddler. They believed that would relieve the family from the curse but with an inbuilt survival instinct, Patricia toddled away, and was lost for a few days in the wilderness. Finally, found by her paternal grandmother, she was taken in and cared for. Each day she was taken to the fields where her grandmother farmed and where she sat under a tree playing with sticks and drawing in the dirt.
That morning, in 2007, she’d 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. But on this day, she decided to follow the plane to where it had come from, found Jonathan and asked him for a job at the WAASPS base.
“I thought it was surely better than cutting trees in the bush,” Patricia said. “Where else could I go?” It’s important to her that people understand that although she didn’t have much by western standards, life wasn’t hopeless or desolate. “I liked cutting trees and it was a good way to get money,” she said. “But I just wanted to work where the plane was.”
Jonathan picks the story back up, one that’s clearly been told before and one he could be forgiven for romanticising ever so slightly. “We don’t employ women,” he replied to the wide-eyed Patricia. As far as he was concerned, West Africa was a place where the women stayed at home. But Patricia wouldn’t take no for an answer and offered to work for free.
Jonathan reluctantly acquiesced and handed her a machete and pickaxe to clear the trees to make way for a runway extension. Patricia didn’t bat an eyelid as she agreed but only on the condition she could see the “flying machines”.
“Ten minutes later Patricia was doing a better job than the men,” said Jonathan proudly. “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 labours to watch every take-off and landing. I put her on the payroll as a field hand.”
“I’m a strong woman and I know what I want,” retorted Patricia, with a glint in her eye.
A few weeks later, Jonathan was on his own in the workshop struggling to fix some cotter pins to the airframe of a plane. He needed a second pair of hands and outside the window, he could hear tall grass being sliced with a machete. “I looked out and saw Patricia, clearing overgrowth like a human bulldozer,” said Jonathan, who called to her to come and hold the wing. “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.”
When he asked how she knew what to do, she replied, quick as a flash: “I watched you.” At this point, she interjects again: “I was bought up around communal tractors so every time something broke I was instructed to fix it,” she said.
Jonathan invited Patricia to become his apprentice – a full-time, paid position. Her family disapproved of her choice and she was forced to cut ties with her home to pursue the opportunity. Achievement often demands sacrifice – Patricia’s sacrifice was massive, and life-changing. And yet, within just a few months, she learned to build airplanes and went on to become the first woman to earn a Ghana National Pilots License and to instruct other pilots.
Empowering women came naturally to Patricia and the pair set up an aviation school in 2010 – Aviation and Technology Academy Ghana, known as AvTech, where she trained four girls per year. The girls were trained to build and maintain ultralight aircraft, along with flight instructions, airfield operations, robotics engineering and computers. Putting her own salary into the school, she focused on educating girls from rural backgrounds who might otherwise not have had educational opportunities.
Maybe it was inevitable she and Jonathan would start dating. After five years working together they quietly became an item and were married in September, 2012. The following year, Patricia was appointed managing director of operations at Kpong Airfield.
Then, in 2015, with dreams of starting a family, the couple arrived in the UK. The day after their daughter, Gwen, was born, they set up their own business “not quite knowing what they were going to do”.
Jonathan said: “I didn’t want to miss a moment of growing up with my daughter.” Metal Seagulls Ltd was born, initially run out of a workshop in their back garden in Coventry. They moved to an airfield in Shropshire within two years while Patricia was selected as an Aviation Ambassador for the UK Department of Transport in 2019.
The Covid pandemic gave them the opportunity to “consolidate” and they started looking for a suitable airfield in Wales, which is how they ended up at Haverfordwest. “Pembrokeshire County Council and the airfield management are the best in the country,” said Jonathan. They moved to their hangar in March 2021.
“I was gobsmacked,” said Patricia. “Everybody was so helpful, I thought it must be a Welsh thing.” If the concept of learning to fly, becoming a pilot and becoming an engineer was an impossible, “unallowable” dream, it’s something Patricia hopes will never seem impossible to her own daughter or indeed other women and girls.
“Never let anyone tell you you have to be a scientist or a billionaire to learn how to fly,” she said. “It’s not rocket science, it’s really simple.” As she explains the four forces that create flight – thrust, drag, lift and weight- it’s like listening to poetry. Her Ghanaian lilt and sing song voice rises and falls as the words tumble out of her in a constant stream. Her manner is gentle, rhythmic, hypnotic and above all, compelling. She had a bunch of school kids at the hangar a few weeks back where she tried to inspire young girls and boys that aviation is more accessible than they might think.
“They had a great time,” she said, while I wistfully stated I wished I’d had had someone like her to look up to when I was that old. Her eyes widen in genuine surprise. But her husband is less than surprised: “Because of Patricia, young women were given new opportunities,” said Jonathan.
Because of Patricia, back in Ghana the focus changed for WAASPS and Medicine On the Move toward educating and working with women by delivering medical services and health education to rural communities across the country. Haverfordwest airfield is a base for NHS organ distribution across the UK and seeing the planes come and go reminds her of those humanitarian air drop missions she used to carry out.
“To be honest, I do miss those lovely 200’ flights over rural tropical villages, dropping health education packs, youth flights,” she said. “That moment just before you land when you’re skimming over the grass and then push everything out the doors. They’d phone me up afterwards and say can you come and help us stop teenage pregnancy in Ghana. I used to say how can I possibly help stop getting girls pregnant and they’d say when you fly over the school we point at you and say look, there’s a woman from Ghana flying a plane and it makes them see what they can achieve if they stay in school and work hard.”
The truly amazing thing about Patricia is that she doesn’t think what she’s achieved is amazing. And yet there can be no better role model for her six-year-old daughter Gwen or the youngsters from Pembrokeshire schools who visit the Metal Seagulls. That does make her proud – the idea of showing the next generation – and especially girls – what engineering and aviation can offer them.
“The opportunities here in the UK are so much greater than in Ghana,” she said. “I think more young people – especially girls and those from BAME backgrounds should realise that aviation is full of opportunity for them – even if there are few role models for those minorities in the sector.”
The couple have been busier than they ever expected and are now settled in their home in Haverfordwest with their daughter attending the local school. Wales is “the best place in the world”, said Patricia. “In Shropshire we were surviving but here in Haverfordwest we’re thriving. I want to inspire the next generation of kids. In short, what I want to tell young people out there is what I have found in the difference between success and failure is hard work. You can only achieve something if you put your mind to it.”