Royal trip: Why Prince William picked a Kenyan to fly him in Laikipia

Jamie Roberts makes friends during one of his field flights. [Photo, courtesy]

Crown Prince William’s visit to Nanyuki in September was all royal protocol, mostly involving the British military.

But when it came to flying near Africa’s second highest mountain, Prince William - a Royal Air Force pilot, chose a veteran Kenyan search and rescue pilot, Jamie Roberts.

Roberts, the managing director and founder of Tropic Air Kenya, is discreet about the flights to Sossian, where Prince William donated sports materials.

“Our company policy does not allow me to talk about our clients but all can I say is that it was a great honour,” he said.

But it is not very difficult to understand why the prince chose his royal blue helicopter and its bearded pilot with a wry sense of humour.

Rescue team

After founding Tropic Air in 1990, Roberts helped put together one of the finest mountain search and rescue teams in the country.

For the past 25 years, Roberts and a team of 11 pilots have conducted some of the most daring search and rescue missions on Mt Kenya.

One such mission was in August 2012, when the team searched for three Ugandan attack helicopters that crashed on the mountain on their way to Somalia’s battlefields.

In a three-day operation plagued by bad weather, Roberts and his team managed to rescue eight soldiers and retrieve two bodies.

The company has also been at the centre of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rescue missions and field operations in the expansive northern Kenya.

Besides mountain rescues, the helicopters have conducted extensive medical evacuations in Laikipia, Samburu and Isiolo counties.

They have also spearheaded anti-poaching missions including darting, collaring and helping translocate rhinos and elephants.

But mountain search and rescue is the forte of Roberts and his team. Many adventurous souls have ventured up Mt Kenya and ended up in trouble, or worse.

Whenever this happens, Roberts and his team are always on standby.

“We work closely with KWS to evacuate sick and fallen climbers from as high as 16,000 feet. It is more fulfilling when we rescue sick mountaineers or plane crash survivors who make it back to good health,” said Roberts.

The most recent mountain recovery mission was in December last year when, in a well-coordinated operation, Robert and his team recovered the body of Chinese climber Fang Wenchao from near the mountain’s highest peak, Batian.

The Chinese plunged to his death on his way down after a successful climb. 

In a daring and delicate evacuation, one of the team’s seasoned pilots, Ben Simpson, pushed the helicopter to its limits at an altitude of 16,800 to drop a stretcher to another search and rescue team on the ground.

The mountaineer’s body was then secured and airlifted using a hover line.

Mountain terrain

“We give our best when it comes to search and rescues missions. They can be dangerous, requiring skills, courage and confidence,” says Roberts.

He attributed successful search and rescue missions to the pilot’s mastery of the terrain and routes and the helicopter models - some are ideal for remote and inaccessible areas.

Roberts’ air hub has been in East African airspace for more than 25 years. Over the years, it has become the first port of call for KWS to assist in a wide range of tasks.

According to KWS Assistant Director Simon Gitau, Roberts’ search and rescue team is effective and reliable.

“They are remarkable. Once we call them they can get to any site on Mount Kenya in 15 minutes,” said Gitau.

He described the recovery of the Chinese climber’s body as the team’s most daring mission on the mountain. 

“They evacuated the body from a knife edge, just a few pitches from the highest peak, with the helicopter hovering at nearly 17,000 feet. That was phenomenal and daring,” said Gitau.

The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority has licensed Tropic Air to operate a modern hangar facility at the Nanyuki airstrip. This way, their fleet of aircraft remains in tip-top condition, ready for the next mission... or a prince.

“Maintenance on-site allows us to service our planes and those of clients easily and conveniently,” said Roberts.