By JULIANA TAIWO-OBALONYE
The first Nigerian female pilot, Rector and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, Captain Chinyere Kalu, has sensationally given insight into her career in the last 33 years of her profession.
She revealed how she once suffered victimisation, including being sent packing for 14 months without pay, and how she is positioning the college to produce pilots, especially female pilots that would surpass her feat.
What motivated you into this male-dominated profession at the time you did?
Well, I will say that the motivating factor is just an adventurous spirit, to venture out to see what is out there. I felt flying will be challenging and I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing at the time. I wanted something unique, something special, something challenging, something that I feel will be fulfilling. So, that is what led me into flying. I also thought it will be a good opportunity to travel all over the world and being paid for it.
Was there any opposition from your parents when you made that decision to fly?
No opposition, surprisingly. My aunt, who was my mentor, was the first person to travel to the United Kingdom from my village; she was a kind of a celebrity of her time. So, when I mentioned the idea of flying, having been the first person in my village to go to UK, where she did nursing, she didn’t have any problem with it. And having been that exposed, she just felt, this is your opportunity, don’t even look back, just make the most of it, grab it. So, she was quiet instrumental, encouraging and motivating. And because she is my mother’s elder sister, and she was more or less the head of the family, she had a lot of influence. Once she had given her blessing, her go ahead, my mother just shrouded and said, okay that is fine if I have the blessing of my aunt. So, that is what happened.
And your father?
Well, I didn’t grow up with my father. I had a lot of female influence around me when I was growing up. My mum had separated from my father long ago and I didn’t grow up under his influence.
How has the journey been so far since you became a pilot?
Well, I want to thank God, in every sense of it. It has not been easy, for a number of reasons. If you are not from the right part of the country, if you don’t speak the right language, you won’t get all the support and all the encouragement in the world. And I have suffered a lot of that. In fact, I have been a threat to a number of people, chief executives, prior to my time. They felt so threatened to the point that they felt if they left me to excel, that probably I was going to take their job. So, there was a lot of victimisation, but the bottom line is that God, who brought me from the dunghill, has made it possible for me to be on this seat at this time and I just thank Him. That is the conclusion of it all. It has not been easy; there was a period of time in my life I was sent packing for 14 months, no salary; nothing! And that was not the first time nor was it the second, but God has been faithful and that is the bottom line. It has not been easy because I didn’t have a lot of support. I didn’t have a lot of godfathers and I was there suffering but God has been faithful.
In all these, do you sometimes regret that you were in the profession?
I don’t think that has ever crossed my mind, but what I know did happen was that it kind of discouraged my children and my family members from going into flying. My daughters, two of them in the United States now, one doing her PhD, the other doing her master’s degree and even my last son would have gone abroad to do one thing or the other in this line. They were reluctant until I became a rector and they saw a kind of a safe haven to remain and pursue the career. None of us ever thought of going into aviation or into flying because it has been rough. So, God has been good and gracious.
How have you been able to combine motherhood and your career?
Well, prior to this time when I was bringing up my children, my work wasn’t this tight and so I had time to bring up the children. And I have a wonderful husband; he is very supportive, as you can see I am still in the office at this time (8 pm). The much he could do is just call and ask if I am okay. At times he will ask, when are you coming home and I will say not so soon or I am coming right back. He’s been so understanding and he doesn’t mind if I don’t cook his meals, if I don’t come home early, but he is a workaholic as well. So, even if I get home at 12 midnight, he is still very much awake and I will end up going to bed before him. So, he works late, but the truth of the matter is that he is very loving, very understanding and very supportive. If he had not been so supportive of me through it all, I don’t know how I would have managed. I just thank God and bless God for him.
Can you share some of those memorable moments you had flying?
One of the memorable moments of my life in flying was when I went on my first solo. First solo is the first time a student pilot will take off with the aircraft and land all by himself or herself without the instructions and the presence of a flight instructor. That I did, I think, on June 6, 1978. I can remember it clearly. At that time the set of instructors that we had were semi-military and they could be so harsh and unfriendly. So, my instructor said to me, well you go; if you like kill yourself! For me, as a pilot and as an instructor, I will never tell that to my students at this point. I will say I believe in you, all you need to do is to show me that you can go up and come down on your own. Go ahead I am praying for you and I know you will succeed. But he told me, well you can go if you like kill yourself that was very negative.
Well, I did go up and when I went up instead of being afraid, rigid and timid, I felt so relaxed. I could remember I was singing, flying, just praising God and thanking God. I was not frigid, I was just there doing my own thing, knowing that this man (I hope he doesn’t get to read this because he is still alive and still very much in the industry) that said well you can go if you like kill yourself, that was shouting on me was no longer there. I could do what I want, fly the way I want to fly. Of course, you have to follow rules and regulations. And I went up and came down. We are supposed to do three circuit, that is to land three times and I did that and I was so happy and thankful to God that He made it happen.
Another day was I went on a cross-country. Before you can qualify as a commercial pilot you have to do a lot of navigations and at that time we used to do solo navigations; now we have dual where you have two student pilots going to fly. One will be in command while the other one will be a co-pilot. But at our own time, it was just one person flying. I had flown to Katsina and for one reason or the other I couldn’t locate Katsina. Katsina is close to the borders; so I was afraid and I said well, I hope I don’t fly into Niger and they will shoot me down or something like that. So, I was so concerned and worried and of course, I panicked a bit and instead of doing what I had been taught to do, I was now just flying all over the place and not maintaining a constant heading and all that. I was really putting myself into trouble, but the truth of it is that God helped me to locate Katsina and from there I was able to get my bearing to the college and nobody knew what happened.
Well, there are quiet a number of them. The other incident I had was on October 6, 2006 when I had a plane crash. We had gone up with some two girls, twin sisters with another boy on a flight. At that time I think the exercise they were to do was climbing. It hasn’t been long they started flying when it happened. So, we did the normal checks, all the parameters were okay, everything was working fine and then we took off. And because I had taught them some of the exercises, so they were doing it themselves and then it got to a point and one of the students said, ‘Ma, it seems as if our aircraft is losing power.’ So, I checked and looked at the parameters and they were okay, but from the sound of the engine and the engine indicator (thermometer RPM indicator), I could see that actually we were losing power. So, I thought about what do we do; we had practised that over and over, not with this set of students, but as a pilot before you graduate, you will do a lot of false landing, engine failure, precautionary landing. We have a lot of that over and over but it wasn’t something new, only that this was real; it was no longer simulated.
So, when that happened, I took over control from her, obviously I should take over. I am the pilot in command and did all the other checks to see if we didn’t do something right or put something wrongly. I did all that and the power was not being sustained; so, I realised that this is for real. I was composed, I was calm; then I decided that we should head towards the airfield, that is, coming back to our airport here. In the past, I have had similar occasions; there was an instance I had gone to fly and somehow the engine began coughing, that is disruptive operation. So, I decided that instead of looking for field to crash land, because if you crash land, there is a lot of publicity to it; you have to come and explain. NCAA will come in; your licence will be suspended; investigation will take place and all that. So, it’s quieter if you can manage it and bring it down, but then you shouldn’t risk it in the process of managing it; you don’t want to crash and kill yourself; you still want to come out alive.
So, I started coming back to the field and I was able to make it to the field. That was an incident some years back and when we landed, we realised that water had entered the engine. We drained and saw half bottle of water from the engine; so it was the water that entered the engine that was making the aircraft to rough run and not to perform well. There was one too that I had and we headed back to the air field; it was just as we landed that the engine stopped and when we checked, we saw that the hose supplying fuel to the engine had pulled off; so God just helped us to make it. So, at that time the problem started, I said okay let’s head back to the field. We were heading back to the field when I realised that at the rate we were losing height, vis-à-vis the distance to the field, I will not make it. So, I had to make alternative decision, which is to land on the field. There was a road they were constructing and I decided that I would try and land on the road. But as we were coming in to land on the road, we were quiet low and because of the way the road was positioned, I had not positioned myself to land comfortably on the road. When I was approaching the road, I discovered there was a house on the right and I said to myself, if I begin to turn in order to land on the road and I was quiet low, chances are that my wings may hit the house and if my wings hit the house, I will lose control and the aircraft was going to crashland and we may sustain injuries.
So, at that point I saw that besides the house, there seemed to be guinea cornfield and I decided to land there. When you have emergency, you keep changing your decision based on how you study your situation. Your situation will determine whether you will carry on with your first decision or you have to revaluate and make other decision. So, that was what happened. Initially, I planned to come back to Zaria to land. I saw that I was too far away and, therefore, would not make it; then I planned to land on the road, but on my approaching the road and at the last minute I realised if I turned my wings, I might hit that house and I may lose control; so the last decision was for me to land on the guinea corn field and that was where we landed. We landed very well and I thank God, but on the landing rule, I didn’t know there was a hump; it was as we went over that hump that the aircraft sustained some damages, but none of us came out with a scratch; we didn’t even take Panadol. So, God did that miracle for me and I thank Him.
When that was happening, the twin sisters asked, ‘Ma does it mean this is it?’ I said well it could be, but pray, call on your God. And the faithful God remained faithful to us and nothing happened. When we landed, I told them to rush out immediately; we all rushed out because with that impact there could be fire. When this was happening I had called the tower to give them our situation report and what was happening per time; so the tower was busy calling us, but we had rushed out for safety. When we waited for a while and noticed there was no fire, we came back to answer the tower and told them our exact location; eventually they came for us. And of course, I have had experience of ferrying out some of our aircraft from France to Zaria here; it was a wonderful experience flying along the West Coast of Africa; we landed in Senegal, then Abuja and then eventually landed in Zaria. It was a beautiful experience. So, a lot of beautiful experience.
In view of your achievements, Nigerians will be surprised to hear you faced intimidation in this sector because you are a heroine, somebody celebrated in this country. So, what will be your advice to women? Should they toe this line?
Well, looking at your face, I could conclude that, in fact, once you allow your daughter to toe this line, she will become a heroine. Yes, nobody is going to victimise her; she will be greatly encouraged. I am a trailblazer and I have taken all the rubbish, all the beating and bashing and all that no other woman flight instructor will go through. In fact, at a point, I was sacked because I was expecting my first baby. They said as a pilot, you cannot fly but we went over that and so many other gory experiences. But I thank God I am still here after 33 years, that is the bottom line.
So, your daughters, your children are more than welcome. Only recently, I went to Abuja for a programme by the University of Science and Engineering in Abuja. I was invited to give motivational talks to young girls and I was just encouraging them. I am ageing and I need replacement. I need younger people to come and replace me. They should come because I think women make better flight instructors. They are patient; they will teach, advise, encourage; they will believe in the students and with gentle voice, caring and understanding instruction, they are able to help the younger ones. So, I believe women have a greater role to play in the area of flight instructions.
How many students do you have?
We have quiet a number. We have a set of students in Minna; we have a campus there. The Niger State government graciously collaborated with us to open up a campus there to conduct ground instructions for flight training. So, we have 28 (SP 28). In SP26, we have about 17 students. In SP27, we have about 20 students and then we have some students in SP25 and by January, we will take in another set of students. So, you can say we have about 70 flying students.
What is the duration of the training?
In the past, there was a time the duration was as much as six or seven years, but the average duration is about three years. But my goal and desire is to do it in one year.
What about the cost?
Cost is N7.5 million for the whole period and that is inclusive of feeding and accommodation and in reality, that is below the cost price because when you talk of International College of Aviation in Ilorin, they charge N10 million, excluding feeding and accommodation and then the fuel they use is produced locally, compared to ours that we buy from outside the country and we pay about N125, 000 per drum of fuel.
One of your students (Governor Suntai of Taraba State) recently was involved in a crash?
(Cuts in) I wouldn’t want to answer that. I will want to say that we have had students like Capt. Adoka Rein; he was my own personal student and he is flying and is still flying. He was MD, NAMA and now he is flying with Arik Air and a host of them. Yes, we train students. It’s the same standard we are maintaining, but anything can happen any time. It’s not because of the school. We maintain our standard. NCAA is a regulatory body that checks our standard; so we maintain very high standard and Nigerian pilots trained in this college are among the best in the world. We have very high standard.
Do you have foreigners coming here to train?
Not again, but there was a time we were having quite a reasonable number of students coming from Nyame and they were training basically as air traffic controllers. English is aviation language, so they will send them to improve on their proficiency of English and we test them and give them Category 4 because ICAO stipulates that you must have proficiency level of Category 4 before you can be a controller. But because of the insecurity in the country, they have been slow in coming, but we are trying to encourage them and we are thinking of how we can offer them something better, assure them that they can still come to Nigeria to do their training. We have thought about taking them to Abuja and Lagos because those places are a bit safe, but we are looking at the logistics or the financial involvement. Because if they are here, we have our structures; we don’t need to put them in a hotel; but in Lagos or Abuja, we need to lodge them in a hotel, which makes it very expensive. And of course, our equipment are here, not in Lagos or Abuja. So, we are thinking about it and trying to find a solution to that. But we have had foreigners in the past and I think we have trained over 20 different nationalities at one time or the other.
What is your typical day like while running this college?
Well, I come in early in the morning and I pray and ask God to lead and guide me. On Mondays, we have management meeting and so if I come in and there are pressing issues, I deal with them and then get set for the meeting. Our meetings are pretty long; the earliest time we finish maybe 12 and sometimes it drags till 2pm or even 4pm depending on the issues we need to trash. In the meeting, the heads of school give me reports on how they are doing with respect to the training alongside other issues going on in the school. I also brief them on the meetings I have had with the minister or on the trips I have made.
I also receive my staff after the meeting to deal with one issue or the other. I follow up procurement, receive reports of flying situation; know how many aircraft are serviceable and the challenges. Presently, I have told them that at every given day I want 75 per cent of our aircraft to be serviceable because if we don’t have sufficient aircraft, there is no way we are going to meet the one year target; so I follow that up diligently every day. I treat files and I have days of receiving visitors (Tuesdays and Thursdays), but aside those days, there might be important visitors sent for one thing or the other, I make room to see them also.
How often do you fly?
Well, in the past, it wasn’t as often, but now much more regularly. As I go to Abuja for one programme or the other, I seize the opportunity to fly, so that I remain current.
So, you don’t go by road to Abuja?
I do sometimes but when I am pressed for time or I have a lot to do, I fly.
What is your relationship with the Ministry of Aviation?
The Minister of Aviation has been very supportive. The operation and the way she has been gingering us and encouraging us to give our very best, setting targets and objective for us, telling us we must key into Mr. President’s transformation agenda have had immense impact on our operations as well.