It has become the fad that to be taken serious, a politician must descend for his or her meetings.
Officially, there are 88 registered helicopters in Kenya, but the rate at which they are being registered — five last month alone — means by the time the elections are done, there could be more than a hundred.
A helicopter has become the status symbol in politics.
Not only does it get the candidate to his meetings in good time and keeps him a safe distance above “the great unwashed”, it is also an important prop in political theatre, it adds drama and declares that one should be taken seriously, not just by his peers but also by the electorate.
Helicopters are expensive machines in Kenya: It costs Sh170,000 to lease one for an hour.
To own, operate and maintain it is an expensive business indeed.
The irony is lost on the politicians as they buzz around the skies burning Sh2,833 a minute in a country where even the affluent middle classes do not have reliable running water, half the country lives below the poverty line and the minimum wage is almost Sh14,000.
In addition, a few of those flying in the skies are not scions of wealthy political dynasties, inventors, investors, successful business people or world class professionals who have earned their money and their expensive habits. Some are tenderpreneurs, corporate raiders, white collar thugs who have plundered public wealth with impunity, and smugglers who are showing off the to the same people they have robbed and asking for their vote too.
Insiders within the Kenya Civil Aviation and the newly registered association of helicopter pilots said they expect the number of civilian helicopters in the country to go up as the campaigns build.
While it was not possible to establish the number of helicopters owned by President Uhuru Kenyatta or his extended family, sources claimed his deputy William Ruto has four choppers while the opposition’s National Super Alliance flag-bearer Raila Odinga has two.
Mr Peter Kenneth, who is campaigning to unseat Dr Evans Kidero as Nairobi governor has two helicopters at Wilson airport.
Veteran politician Nicholas Biwott also owns helicopters through Air Kenya, a company he is associated with.
Through Eureka Holdings, veteran politician Simeon Nyachae also has a registered helicopter.
Businessman Jimmy Wanjigi, who is closely associated with Nasa campaigns, is believed to own helicopters, which he leases or provides to politicians by way of support.
Others who have helicopters are Nasa presidential running mate and Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi, Chama Cha Mashinani leader Isaac Ruto, Nyeri Senate candidate Ephraim Maina , gubernatorial candidates Ali Hassan Joho (Mombasa) and William Kabogo (Kiambu).
The above either own their aircraft or are believed to have long term leases. However, the rest of the political crowd leases their choppers by the hour.
MPs Ayub Savula (Lugari), Johanna Ng’eno (Emurua Dikir), Ken Obura (Kisumu Central) and Joe Mutambu (Mwingi Central) said helicopters have become the choice of transport for politicians because of their convenience as they are faster and penetrate all areas, even where infrastructure is non-existent.
“I am a regular user of choppers because they are very convenient during campaigns. When I went to submit my papers to the IEBC, I had several four-wheel vehicles and a chopper. That is what I am going to use in my campaigns,” said Mr Savula, who has leased a chopper.
Mr Ng’eno described helicopters as “fancy” and good at attracting crowds to a politician’s rally.
“People get excited when they see them. It is another way of pulling a crowd to your meeting. For people to know that you have arrived, you go round two laps then you land; they will come to that meeting,” he said.
He, however, warned voters not to frown upon politicians who use choppers once elected.
“They want you to be around, to go by road, by foot, facing the same challenges they are facing. But during campaigns, when you have done all your work, they are very happy. They will not have any problem. But if you are going in your first, second, third year in a helicopter, they will bring you down,” he warned.
Mr Obura said even though a helicopter saves a lot of time, Kisumu residents will not readily support their MP using it.
“The effect depends on the constituents. In a city like Kisumu, the constituents will not be impressed,” he said.
Insiders in the aviation industry estimated the price of a helicopter at between Sh340 million and Sh600 million with the former being second hand. Most of the second-hand choppers are bought in South Africa.
Though it costs Sh170,000 to hire a chopper for an hour, its maintenance costs are prohibitive.
It costs between Sh310,000 and Sh517,000 to service one that has flown for 100 hours while hangarage charges at Wilson Airport stand at Sh7,961 a day. Parking charges at any airport in the country are Sh600 a day, while an operating licence for one year is Sh103,400. Jet fuel costs Sh103 per litre.
KCAA Director General Gilbert Kibe said the authority has issued regulations to guide pilots and operators in ensuring they put the safety of crowds into consideration.
Capt Kibe added that a stern warning had been sent to the 100 registered pilots, and operators in the country to observe the rules and regulations contained in the circular, or risk having their licences revoked.
He said the authority was concerned by the trend of people hanging on to helicopters during take-off.
Under the Aeronautical Information Circular, 2017, it is mandatory for the helicopter operators to make security arrangements on the ground that they intent to land.
Reports by Fred Mukinda, Stella Cherono and John Ngirachu