At the age of five, when most children barely understand their first language, Koki Mutungi already knew what she wanted to be — a pilot.
Her dream to find a career in the cockpit was forged out of the close relationship she had with her father who was a pilot working with the Kenya Airways.
And whereas many women in the airline industry today hold such positions as gate agents and flight attendants, Ms Mutungi has firmly established a career in an area where men still dominate.
In 1993, Ms Mutungi joined the Kenya Airways becoming the first female pilot. And for the next six years, she was the only female pilot in the airline.
Today, the Boeing girl, as she is popularly known by her colleagues, is the only female pilot in Africa licensed to fly Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
“For me, this is a dream come true in a big way. My dad was a pilot and we were very close so he always let us into the cockpit.
The interest developed and now I am proud of the decision I made,” she said moments after delivering KQ’s fourth Dreamliner at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport last week.
The 15-hour flight from Boeing Corporation assembly in Charleston, South Carolina, US, was attended by an all-female crew, led by captain Koki.
“It is a big machine and that is why I love it. Its capacity is about 234 passengers. Its efficiency is unmatched. I’ve enjoyed flying it more than any other aircraft,” Ms Mutungi told Smart Company.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a long-range, wide body modern aircraft featuring the latest aerodynamics, design and technology.
It measures about 57 metres long, has a wingspan of 60 metres and 17 metres height while on the tarmac. It can attain 945 kilometres per hour cruise speed at 40,000 feet (approximately 12.2 kilometres).
The aircraft has become a darling of leading global airlines particularly due to its efficiency in fuel consumption.
STRIKE A BALANCE
Ms Mutungi’s career started at the age of 18 when she joined the Kenya School of Flying based at Wilson Airport, Nairobi, immediately after completing high school. She went for further studies in the US before returning home to take a job at the Kenya Airways.
It has been two decades of flying since then but she says it feels as if she has just started. The nature of her work means she doesn’t always get to spend a lot of time with her eight-year-old son.
“It is hard balancing work and family especially in a career such as this where you are out of the country many times. But after doing something for so many years, you tend to strike a balance. This has happened and now all of us are happy,” she says.
Her greatest wish is to see her son develop an interest in aviation and hopefully become a pilot too.
“I would love him to do this but it will be his choice to make. He has not shown any strong interests so far but he is familiar with the whole concept of flying. It would be nice if he shared the same dream and keep continuity in the family,” she said.
Ms Mutungi has made a name in a career that is largely dominated by men and she hopes other African women can rise up and exploit their potential beyond the perceived limitations of gender.
“A lot of African women are doing a lot of extraordinary things across the continent. I think women have recognised the potential they have and there is a deliberate effort to show what we are capable of doing,” she said.
Determination, self-belief and hard work are ingredients of success, she says, adding that the belief that “particular jobs can only be done by people of a certain gender” is out of touch with reality.
Ms Mutungi humility belies her great achievements. The 39-year-old, who looks much younger than her age, is down to earth, polite, soft-spoken, and addresses her juniors with a lot of respect.
She is the airline’s designated pilot for the Nairobi-Paris route using one of the Dreamliners which KQ has acquired. The other Dreamliner aircraft fly to Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Bangkok-Hong Kong routes.
Her job at KQ has become a major selling point for the airline which has the highest number of female pilots in Africa. Today, the airline has 530 pilots, 39 of whom are female.
“This is a historical moment for Kenya Airways as we have proved to the world and our aviation peers of our deliberate commitment to human resource development by providing an equal opportunity to our sisters,” said Kenya Airways finance director Alex Mbugua.
“I look forward to a day in the near future when this aircraft will be managed 100 per cent by ladies crew now that we already have two first officers undergoing certification.”
The airline is expecting to receive two more Boeing 787 Dreamliners next month.
As part of the airline’s long-term fleet and route development strategy over the next 10 years, it is implementing a plan geared at growing fleet size, modernising aircraft and simplifying it by cutting the number of aircraft types from seven to four.