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Kenya’s unlikely aircraft owners

By Dominic Omondi | February 7th 2017

At Flight Training Centre (FTC) Ltd, more than half the 47 students currently in session are training to fly their own helicopters.

They include a doctor who receives urgent calls from patients in the furthest corners of the country, a farmer who wants aerial views of his 50-acre ranch, and a pastor who spreads the word across the country.

This group also includes bankers, road engineers, hoteliers and other professionals whose jobs require them to be in different parts of the country or continent at short notice.

And then there are those whose deep pockets permit them to own and fly an aircraft just for leisure.

String of businesses

“There are a big number of these single-engine small aircraft that are owned by these kinds of people,” said Godwin Wachira, the founder of FTC.

For these individuals, training to fly is like training to drive for the rest of us. The cheapest of these aircraft, which can carry a maximum of two people, costs Sh8 million.

And as the list of high-net-worth individuals with a string of businesses across the country and continent grows, piloting is likely to be adopted even more by the public.

“People want to get to where they are going very fast. They don’t want to sit in traffic,” said FTC Accountable Manager Catherine Wachira, who oversees the centre’s functions that are subject to regulation.

“In this country alone, many destinations have been opened up through landing strips,” she added, saying these include Maasai Mara National Park, Kitale, Lodwar, Amboseli and Lamu.

And with many more places accessible by aircraft, FTC has noticed another trend: parents asking them to fly their children to school.

“I don’t know why they do it, perhaps it is just to show off,” Mr Wachira said.

For the current class of students, in four to six months, they will have earned their Private Pilot Licence (PPL).

With a PPL, they will not get a job at an airline; in fact, they will never get paid to fly – they will need a different licence for this.

But it is OK for those who have been paying a pilot to fly them to various destinations. At the successful completion of their class, they will not need to do this anymore.

Local aviation schools like FTC are becoming more critical for business people keen on flying their own aircraft. This has meant that business has been good for the Wachiras, but they are worried that not enough people are choosing local flying schools over international ones.

Aviation courses

A good number of students are instead opting to cross into South Africa where a PPL costs about Sh7.3 million, yet at FTC, a PPL costs about Sh4.2 million. Other popular international destinations are Australia, Canada and Britain.

“But they still have to convert when they come back to Kenya to get a Kenyan licence,” said Mrs Wachira, noting that conversion costs about Sh500,000.

Conversion is the main reason Wachira set up FTC in 2008. Back then, he had one aircraft and was the only instructor.

“There was a gap in conversion. There were only two schools in the country, and they mostly concentrated on other licences,” he said.

Today, FTC has nine instructors, 15 aircraft and a full motion simulator. It also flies to four bases, up from just one in the beginning, from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport: Kilifi, Nyaribo, Nyeri and Entebbe in Uganda.

Besides taking students through a PPL, FTC also offers training for a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL), which enables them to get paid for flying. An Air Transport Pilot License (ATPL) allows students to fly for an airline, such as Kenya Airways.

Since FTC opened its doors, it has trained more than 400 students. It has also partnered with schools that offer aviation courses to Form Three and Form Four students keen on getting started on a piloting career. The minimum age for one to qualify for a Student Pilot Licence is 17.

And while the minimum requirement for one to get into a flying school is a Form Four certificate, the prohibitive costs associated with getting licensed have locked out many. Wachira notes that the only route for a poor man to get into flying is through recruitment into the Kenya Air Force.

“[Flying] is very costly, and not a privilege available to the poor,” he said, adding that the overhead costs for a training centre are also high.

To operate a flying school, you have to own or lease aircraft. Further, FTC’s flight simulator cost the school more than an aircraft did.

According to the Wachiras, to make aviation more accessible to the masses, the Government needs to subsidise landing and parking fees, as well as fuel for flight schools.

Students are billed per hour, with FTC charging Sh15,000 per 60-minute session.

“In training, fuel takes up more than 50 per cent of this cost,” Wachira said, adding that the school’s efforts to lobby for subsidies have not been successful.

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