On October 3, 1915, a Breave airplane took to the air and shells from it forced a German advance backwards from Taita Taveta during World War 1. Today, in the era of the Dreamliner, images of that plane make it look like an absurdly rickety contraption. Such is the distance travelled and progress made.
That mission was a military flight. But the occasion to mark it a century later was exclusively a civil aviation affair. The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) partnered with the Kenya Association of Air Operators and the county government of Taita Taveta to congregate at Maktau, from where the plane took off, and reflect on the gains and misses of the years gone by.
The report card was mostly upbeat with the KCAA touting its rating by the International Civil Aviation Organisation as a centre of excellence in the region in matters of safety and security. And Mr John Mrutu, the Taita Taveta Governor, saying the county government was mulling over how to leverage on the Maktau site and status to attract tourists.
The last time this occasion was marked, at least with this month’s pomp and circumstance, was in 1965 when then Lt Dedan Gichuru of the one-year-old Kenya Air Force re-enacted the original flight using a similar aircraft. Gichuru, one of the original five officers to qualify as pilots, went on to become the first African commander of the Kenya Air Force. The 1965 occasion was to celebrate 50 years since the first flight.
The most notable thing across the 100 years has been a safety record that compares favourably to any other region in the world. The drawbacks have been infrastructural development that seems to always lag behind demand.
Wilson Airport, for example, was designed to handle some 300 aircraft. Today, it handles about 900, representing a major congestion challenge. It is also boxed in by housing developments all around it, leaving no room for expansion. Some houses literally hug the ends of its runways.
For its part, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has developed into the premier hub in the region. But it is badly in need of a second runway to handle ever increasing traffic.
Across their 52 years of independence, Kenyans have witnessed the highs, lows and even the bizarre of their aviation sector. When fighting broke out among factions in South Sudan, it came as a pleasant surprise to Kenyans trapped in that country that the Kenya Air Force could send its planes there and evacuate them to safety.
On the other hand, there was national outrage when the Kenya Police couldn’t raise an aircraft on time to send GSU commandos to Garissa, scene of the world’s worst terrorist attack on any university campus where 142 students and six other people were massacred by terrorists. This gave the murderers enough time to kill the students and taunt their parents as they did so. Police later dispatched a plane carrying the Interior Cabinet Secretary and the Inspector-General of Police to the scene.
Other episodes would have been funny had the consequences not been so tragic. Kenya is probably the only country in the world that has witnessed the hijacking of an armed jet fighter. It happened in 1982 when two conspirators, intent on overthrowing the Government of President Daniel arap Moi, forced, at gun-point, two Air Force F-5 fighter pilots to board their bomb-laden aircraft and ordered them to fly to Nairobi and bomb State House. The pilots went along, performed dizzying manoeuvres over the city and dumped their cargo in Mt Kenya forest. The hijackers couldn’t tell what had happened.
In 1974, the world’s attention turned to Kenya — but for all the wrong reasons. A Lufthansa Airlines Boeing 747 leaving the then Embakasi Airport crashed shortly after take-off with the loss of 59 of its 157 passengers and crew. Two 747s had been lost before but none with the loss of life. It was a grim first.
Military air shows have been part of the tradition of celebrating national days since independence. But on Madaraka Day in 1975, an horrified crowd at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park watched as an Air Force Hawker Hunter failed to pull out of a dive and ploughed into the deserted Railway Golf Club course and mercifully not in the crowd waiting to hear President Jomo Kenyatta. Both pilots died. It remains the only such accident in 52 years.
ONE CENTURY ON
The month of October marks 100 years of aviation in Kenya.
Below is a run-down of the most significant milestones of Kenya’s 100 years in aviation:
1915 – The first flight in Kenya was a military flight. A Breave airplane, which had been transported by sea and rail as a knockdown kit, was assembled at Maktau Railway Station in Taita Taveta. From there, it was used to shell German positions during the then on-going World War 1 hostilities. Its bombardment forced the Germans to withdraw further south. It first flew on October 3, and that date is marked as the first flight from Kenya’s soil.
1926 – Capt T A Gladstone, who would later make a name in the air mail service business, becomes the first aviator to fly a civilian aircraft in Kenya. He is regarded as the father of civil aviation.
1927 – The Aero Club of East Africa is formed. Then, as now, its principle objective was advancement of aviation in this region.
1929 – Nairobi Aerodrome relocates from Ngong to its present site known as Wilson Airport although the name change would not occur until 1962.
1929 – The first same day Mombasa-Nairobi, Nairobi-Mombasa flight takes place.
1929 – Wilson Airways Ltd, the first commercial air services company operating between Nairobi and Mombasa is formed. Its founder is Mrs Florence Kerr Wilson, a Timau farmer’s widow who gains legendary status in succeeding years in the development of Nairobi West airfield.
1933 – Imperial Airways, which operated scheduled services from Mbeya in Tanganyika to London in Fairey Atalantas planes that took nine days, operated the first Air Mail service between Nairobi and Kisumu.
1940 – Eastleigh airfield is opened as a base for the Royal Air Force during World War II. It has since evolved to become the headquarters of the Kenya Air Force.
1946 – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania set up an airline, East African Airways, with its head offices in Kenya.
1958 – Kenya’s first major commercial airport, Embakasi, is opened by Governor Sir Evelyn Barring.
1959 – Three medical doctors, Sir Archibald McIndoe, Dr Tom Rees and Michael Wood set up the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) which later becomes the parent body of the East African Flying Doctor Service.
1962 –Wilson Airport, formerly first known as Nairobi Aerodrome and then as Nairobi West Airport, is named for Mrs Florence Wilson. The airport is home of light and charter aircraft, the Kenya Police Air Wing, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Flying Doctor Service, the Aero Club of East Africa and base of the Kenya Association of Air Operators.
1964 – Kenya’s first President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, inaugurates the Kenya Air Force.
1965 – On the 50th anniversary of Kenya’s first flight in 1915, a young KAF officer, Lt Dedan Gichuru, re-enacts the original flight at Taita Taveta using a similar Breave aircraft.
1974 – Lufthansa Flight 540, a Boeing 747-100, departing on its final segment of its scheduled Frankfurt-Nairobi-Johannesburg run, crashes on take-off at Embakasi Airport. Of its 157 passengers and crew, 59 die accounting for the first fatalities of any 747 crash in the world.
1974 – Kenya Air Force Nanyuki Station, home of its fighter wing, opens in the Laikipia plains.
1975 – Concorde, the world’s first supersonic passenger jetliner, lands at Embakasi Airport.
1977 – With the collapse of the East African Community, East African Airways breaks up and Kenya Airways is born.
1978 – A US Air Force C5 Galaxy transport plane delivers six disassembled Northrop F-5 jets to Embakasi Airport where they are assembled. Capt. Humphrey Njeru and USAF Capt Jerry Redding conduct acceptance tests. Capt Njeru lands the first F-5 at KAF Nanyuki Station. The supersonic F-5 heralds a new dawn for the Air Force.
1978 – President Kenyatta dies in his sleep at State House, Mombasa, and a KAF Buffalo transport plane freights his body to Nairobi. Embakasi Airport is renamed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport after his burial.
1982 – Enlisted men of the Kenya Air Force attempt to overthrow the government of President Daniel arap Moi. The putsch fails and the Air Force is disbanded and renamed 82 Air Force. KAF Eastleigh Station is renamed Moi Air Base and KAF Nanyuki Station is renamed Laikipia Air Base.
1993 – Following a court ruling, the 82 Air Force reverts to its original name, Kenya Air Force.
1995 – The Kenya Air Force takes delivery of Kenya’s first official presidential plane, a Fokker 70ER from its Dutch manufacturers. Col James Gitahi leads the crew that flies the ferry flight.
2000 - Kenya Airways Flight 431, an Airbus A310-300, operating a scheduled Abidjan-Lagos-Nairobi service, crashes into the Atlantic on take-off from Felix Houphouet-Boigny International Airport. Of 179 people on board, only 10 survive. It is Kenya Airways’ first fatal crash.
2006 – Major Norah Koech becomes the first female officer to be trained as a pilot by the Kenya Air Force. She flies the Y-12, a light transport aircraft.
2007 – Kenya Airways Flight 507, a Boeing 737-800 operating a scheduled Abidjan-Doula-Nairobi service, crashes on take-off from Douala International Airport. All 108 passengers and crew are lost.
2014 - Captain Irene Koki Mutungi, the first African female Boeing 787 captain to be checked out worldwide, leads an all-female crew to ferry Kenya Airways’ fourth Dreamliner plane from the assembly plant in the United States.