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The ultimate sky team

 

FAMILY OF PILOTS Captain Godwin Wachira (3rd left) his wife Catherine Wachira (3rd right) their daughters Captain Leah Kihara (from left) Pilot Ester Karungari,Captain Peter Wachira and his wife Pilot Sophia Gichuhi at the Flight Training Centre. PHOTO/ELVIS OGINA

Imagine what it is like to have dinner conversations centred on spoilers, stick and rudder, mach numbers, the latest plane models among other aircraft mumbo jumbo. That is the reality in the Wachira household where everyone is an aviator. The Wachiras have inadvertently created an aviation dynasty. Everyone in the nuclear family except the mother is a pilot. The two eldest children, Leah and Peter, are pilots and so are their spouses. Leah's father-in-law is also a pilot. Their mother, Catherine, runs the family's aviation school –Flight Training Centre – located at the Wilson airport, where we are conducting the interview.

Getting the large group together is a hurdle given the varied work schedules they all have. We have to wait for the youngest of the children, 20-year-old Esther Wachira, to land her aircraft so that we can begin the interview.

She finally arrives winded but with a happy smile on her face. Leah, in her early 30's is the eldest of the children. She has clocked 4,000 hours of flight already. She looks out the window and marvels at the incredible length of runway that one of the planes is taking up. There is a lot of chatter and laughter in the room, evidence of a family that enjoys each other's company.

Godwin Wachira, the patriarch and pioneer pilot of the family is obviously proud of his brood as he sweeps a proud look over them as they chat away. Curiously, even when not in official function, they all refer to him as 'captain'.

"A captain is a rank that you get once you are able to command an aircraft and fly on your own," explains Godwin. Leah, Peter and Sophia are all captains as well. That is why they're wearing four bars on their shirts," he says, pointing at the grey vertical bars on his blue shoulder pads. "Esther wears two because she is a student pilot. Someone wearing three bars is a first officer (co-pilot)."

Godwin had dreamt of being a pilot since he was young and remembers it being very difficult to achieve his dream because of finances. He never imagined that not only would he succeed at becoming one, but actually create a generation of pilots.

"In my early stages of my career, I would fly a lot with the children. They were really young then. That is where they picked up the interest to fly," he says.

Leah was fascinated by the idea of flying right from childhood, "I was sure about it in Class Four," she says. Peter and Esther were interested in flying as much as other careers.

"I wanted to be a musician," says Peter. His wife Sophia, a calm light- skinned beautiful woman seated by his side quips that he still tries to be a musician at home. That dream however ebbed away after listening to the enthusiastically told flight stories by his father and big sister Leah.

Esther on the other hand, wanted to be a veterinarian. That was until her dog died.

Pilot Ester Karungari in one of the aircrafts at the Wilson Airport. PHOTO/ELVIS OGINA

"I never imagined all my children would be pilots," says Catherine, the matriarch of the family. "I especially thought Esther would be with me and we would be farmers together and as a vet, she would take care of our cows. She betrayed me in 2015 and switched sides."

As a mother, she worries about their safety.

"It is especially scary when they do their first solo flights, but other than that, I am perfectly fine with their career choice."

Their four grandchildren are already gearing up to join the family trend as they refer to themselves as captains. Their parents are however insistent that they will follow their true passions. "My firstborn really loves music, so I hope he can focus on that," says Leah.

Captain Godwin Wachira (left) his wife Catherine Wachira at the Flight Training Centre,Wilson,Nairobi.

With both Leah and Peter also married pilots, they agree that they couldn't have made better choices. "Marrying a pilot like me works beautifully. We talk the same language. It would be very boring for me, if I married, say an accountant," says Leah naughtily.

How do they manage parenting with both parents away a lot? I ask.

"We have a very good nanny who has been with our children since birth, so I am comfortable when we both have to be away at the same time, but that is rare now that I am here," says Leah, whose husband is a pilot at Kenya Airways and has to be away for days at a time. "Before joining the family business, we did not have children, so it did work out."

Peter and Sophia met in flying school. Sophia always thought that she would marry a doctor and did not want someone in the same career.

"Then we gazed into each other's eyes," interjects Peter, "and her dreams repurposed," he laughs.

He says that the advantage to being in a pilot family is that the other person always knows exactly what one is talking about. However, contrary to what most people assume, aviation is not the only thing that they discuss.

"The minute we leave here, that topic is over unless an incident just happened," says Catherine.

Leah recalls an incident when she narrowly escaped death and saved other lives on her flight. She was a pilot with ECHO Flight, a humanitarian air service operated by the European Commission.

"I was based in Somalia. There was a time we went to land in South Somalia and I was not alerted that the Al Shabaab were there. When we got there, they were shooting at us and the people on the ground tried to alert me then," says Leah.

"The radio calls were filled with static but when I heard the gunshots I just turned left very fast and I did not care whether I was flying over the town. We went back to my base in Northern Somalia. It was so bad. That really shook us - me and the first officer (co-pilot). We would have been caught in that crossfire because they were waiting for us as they knew we were bringing in people from United Nations."

That incident prompted her to think about other options. "After such an incident you start thinking twice and you ask yourself whether it is all worth." So when her parents started the aviation school, they asked her to consider working as an instructor so that she could be around. She gladly accepted.

Started in 2008, the school now has 14 planes (Cessna 152, Cessna 172, Seneca PA34, Duchess 76, Baron 55)

"When we started the Flight Training Centre, there was a need because there were many students coming from schools abroad who wanted to convert their foreign licenses into Kenyan ones," says Godwin. "The flying schools that were there then could not handle all the students who coming in. I decided to step in and help with the conversion courses until it reached a stage where there were many students who also wanted to do the initial basic training.

It was Catherine's idea that they start that basic training, which was when it became a fully-fledged flying training school. "The biggest problem in aviation is usually human resource, but that was our biggest advantage," she says. "Things run very smoothly when Leah is around."

Sophia, who a licensed commercial pilot is currently doing her instructor's course and her husband Peter is the chief pilot at a local charter company.

Godwin is really proud of his family, "Seeing that my children followed my career is something that I am happy about because it shows that I was probably a good example to them. If it had not been pleasing to them they would have chosen something else."

 

 

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