He absentmindedly traces a long finger along a scar on his face. He has an easy charm about himself and were it not for the intense look in his eyes, he could just be your typical 27 year-old.
But Paul Nyamweya is a man battling a sad experience in his young life. Memories of a young man called Charles keep replaying in his mind.
Let’s backtrack. In what seems like a different lifetime to Paul, he was a Chief Flight Instructor based at Wilson Airport. His roles were among others, supervising all other flight instructors, flying with difficult students or those having difficulties, examining and hiring other instructors. He had been at it for four years, and had clocked 650 hours of flying. He loved the skies.
And that day in September was just like any other. He arrived at work, probably having drank his coffee and made plans with the ‘boys’ and drove to work probably listening to some rock music. Or maybe some RNB. And at work, he found an excited Charles, a student getting ready to go out on his first flight. But there was one problem. Charles had no instructor, and being a take-charge guy, Paul made the decision to fly with him.
“There was nothing out of the ordinary about that morning. We did all the pre-flight checks: weather, airplane, fuel, engine and everything seemed okay for take-off,” he says, still looking mystified at the following turn of events.
Do or die
“About 200 feet off the ground the airplane began stalling. There was no power and the plane wasn’t climbing any more. As soon as I felt that, I levelled out the plane to figure out what was happening. I realised that the engine was failing and the plane was going down. I checked the airspeed and started looking for the best possible place that I could land.”
By this time, they were over the Nairobi National Park. And the control tower was prompting him for a progress report.
“I couldn’t respond to them. I was trying to get us out of the mess alive. Charles wasn’t aware of how serious the situation was and I didn’t want him to panic,” he says solemnly.
Is it anything like you see in the movies? I prod, and for the first time he smiles. A slow reluctant smile.
“No, that’s all fiction. The cockpit doesn’t come alive with flashing lights and beeping noises. It was eerily silent.”
Racing against the clock, Paul identified a patch on the ground in the park that seemed level enough to land on and went for it.
“At first we were fine and the plane was rolling well as I applied the brakes but then I saw a trench ahead of us that I hadn’t seen from the air. That is when I knew that we wouldn’t make it in time. I couldn’t dodge it. There were so many trees and shrubbery on either side of the ground. It was impossible,” he says in a small voice, and closes his eyes, as though reliving that moment.
“It hit the trench so hard and the plane was hurled upwards, about 20 metres high. Then slammed back down nose first onto the ground. I can’t tell what happened next. I must have blacked out, but some tourists, out on a game drive, witnessed the crash and rushed to the scene. They say they found me trying to apply pressure to Charles’ head injury while shouting for help before falling back unconscious.”
What ran through his mind, that moment of impending death?
“There was no time to think about that. It all happened in a split second. I really didn’t think about it.
Where is Charles?
While both of them broke their legs and sustained head injuries, Charles bore the brunt of the impact. His skull was bashed in and was unconscious. They were rushed to Nairobi Hospital and straight into surgery. Charles succumbed to his injuries three days later.
“I woke up five days later at the Nairobi hospital in excruciating pain. I wanted to know how Charles was. At first they withheld his status from me and when they did, I sunk into depression.”
Although he maintains his composure throughout the interview, a shroud of sadness seems to envelop him when he speaks about Charles.
“Charles was such a bubbly character. He was extremely intelligent. He was that guy who always had a smile on his face whenever you met him. He had a fun personality, and everyone liked being around him.”
Does he feel responsible?
“I did. For a very long time. I wonder if I could have found another landing spot. I probably always will. I relive the helplessness I felt on spotting the ditch. I have asked myself so many questions. Therapy has helped a lot. It took me quite a while to get to the point I am now,” he admits.
Flight crash investigations ruled the cause of crash as mechanical due to engine failure.
The metal in my body
“Some of the things I deal with to date is the fact that regular painkillers don’t work on me because I’ve been so heavily sedated that my body is immune now,” Paul says with a soft laugh.
“I also get migraines from the head injury. My body was almost entirely reconstructed so there is metal in my arms, legs and face. When it gets cold, the metal contracts and I can feel it. It’s agonising, but I sit there and take it because the fact that I am even speaking to you right now is a miracle.”
Beside the broken limbs he suffered, his entire jaw needed reconstruction. The first surgery involved putting in metal plates in his broken leg bones.
“I’m told that the surgery was okay but that while I was unconscious I was thrashing around so much, affecting the inserted plates and basically re-fractured the bones. I had to have a second surgery done.”
He later flew to India for further treatment where he had four more surgeries. He also had new sets of teeth, having lost all of them in the crash.
Today, he can walk and talk and though the healing process was painful, he counts himself lucky to be alive.
“I believe everything happened for a reason and things have a way of realigning themselves. The accident opened up a much needed avenue for more reforms at the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority for other pilots and flight schools in general on terms of paperwork, protocols and even insurance. (Neither Paul nor Charles were covered by their company’s insurance for the medical costs).
“Am I going back to flying? Truthfully, that was my first love and my dream. I am good at it, and I would want to go back eventually, but my mum would probably not let me! Although nothing prevents me from going back, I would only do it at a point when we (the family) are all ready and the situation feels right.”
In the meantime, Paul has been studying communication and is in his second year at Daystar University.