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Fighting stereotypes to conquer the skies

Achieving Woman
  From left seated Pilot Peniel Nkirote,Pilot Sharon Mbeke and  Pilot Winnie Wambui  From left standing  Pilot Cynthia Owuor,Vanessa Mbetsa and Pilot Marine Ramadhan (Photo: David Gichuru/ Standard)

Caption: From left seated Pilot Peniel Nkirote,Pilot Sharon Mbeke and  Pilot Winnie Wambui  From left standing  Pilot Cynthia Owuor,Vanessa Mbetsa and Pilot Marine Ramadhan

Vanessa Ambetsa has not forgotten the date: November 28, 2023. She was seated in the flight deck of a Cessna Caravan 208 at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Her eyes revolved around the flashing dials, the buzzing propeller in front of the plane and general traffic around the airport.

Behind her, about a dozen passengers were settling in and adjusting their seat belts, ready for take-off for a few days’ adventure in the wildlife-rich Masai Mara.

For 24-year-old Vanessa, a former student at Makini School and later Juja Preparatory School, this was her first flight as a First Officer in a plane full of passengers.

She could hear every heartbeat. “I was nervous, but also excited,” she says as we settle down for some interviews with her female colleagues at Safarilink, a local airline where 16 out of 60 pilots are female.

Under normal circumstances, one pilot, regardless of rank, flies a particular leg of a flight while the other monitors the flight parameters, including communication with air traffic controllers or other ground staff. For the return leg out of Mara’s Kichwa Tembo airstrip, Vanessa was in control.

“It was a surreal moment. For the first time, I was controlling a passenger flight into Nairobi. A heavy responsibility, but one that every pilot is trained for,” says Vanessa who had done her solo flight as a student with no passengers that lasted not more than 12 minutes in 2019.

For female pilots like Vanessa, getting into this field had many challenges. 

“There are those who doubt if a female pilot can control a plane, but will trust a man with a similar assignment. Even some of my friends have questioned if I could fly. I think I have proved myself,” says Vanessa.

Winnie Wambui, a Captain at the airline, was riveted by the physics of flying, how a heavier-than-air machine can get off the ground and fly for hours.

Her mother noticed her musings and encouraged her to train as a pilot, an undertaking she accomplished both in Kenya and Australia. “It looked like a far-fetched idea, but later became a reality,” she says.


Winnie who has been flying for over two decades with different airlines says being a woman pilot is not for the fainthearted.

There are times, she says, when one has to choose between the job and raising a family, especially if one is working for a company based out “in the bush”, or Kenya’s vast wild lands.

“I once worked for a company based out of Nairobi and it was a challenge for a woman looking after a family. A man can take a whole month out of the house, but for a woman, even a week away from her children is too much,” says the mother of two.

While mothers have nurturing instincts, balancing such feelings and being able to handle the aircraft calls for strict discipline and balance.

The safety of everyone on board an aircraft depends on precise and well-thought-out decisions by the captain, the person with the final say on any matter during the flight.

In addition, no human, female pilots included, is exempt from personal challenges including sickness within the family, or even the loss of loved ones.

Handling such setbacks, especially in a demanding assignment calls for mental stability.

In her line of duty, Winnie has had such anxious moments. And not once. One day in 2022, she left for Kisumu and unbeknownst to her, her family was in turmoil.

“My husband and workmates had tried calling me, but my phone was on silent mode,” she says.

“I could sense something was not right, but I needed to fly back to Nairobi. I was the pilot flying and I think I was overly cautious that day. Regardless of the situation on the ground, a pilot must be in a good state of mind.”

Upon landing, Winnie was informed that her brother had just died. Her father had passed away three months earlier.

“It is good they chose to inform me once we landed, especially since they could not get me before the flight.”

For Winnie and other female colleagues who have families, keeping their spirits on the job high depends on the family support they receive.

It calls for understanding for a husband to trust a wife who may sometimes spend nights away from home.

“There are times when a pilot has to make a night stop away from home due to flying hours regulations. That means a night away from your loved ones. My husband is supportive and will never mind staying home with the children. He is fascinated by the work I do,” she says.

For Peniel Nkirote, a First Officer with the airline, her social life was affected as she chose to work outside Kenya early on in her career.

After completing her training in 2019, Peniel flew for non-governmental organisations involved in social work within Sudan, Cameroon, and Chad.

The ever-smiling Peniel hopes to settle down in a family soon, something that she could not think of earlier as her career meant she was only in Kenya for about three months of the year.

For her, it is the love of flying that has allowed her to keep her wings (and sanity) while flying in some of the most dangerous countries on the continent.

“This is a tough zone since all these were countries in different phases of civil war. You can’t do it if you don’t love what you do,” she says.

Her scariest moment? “Landing to the sound of gunshots in Northern Cameroon.” 

While many young girls harbour the desire to fly, exorbitant fees keep them off the radar.

A two-year course of theoretical learning and at least 200 hours of flying before getting a licence cost between Sh25,000 and Sh30,000 an hour. That is a whopping six million shillings.

“You are still not employable after all that time and money spent,” says Sharon Mbeke, a First Officer since May 2023 who also had a stint as a flying instructor.

“It is hard to get into the sector and harder for women. With my small body frame, I was teased by friends that I could not get a plane off into the air. Then few companies would even dare employ a young girl for commercial flying right after coming out of school.”

Yet, these women aviators have persisted, defying stereotypes to hold their own in a crowded field and setting the stage for more women to get their commercial pilot licences and soar above the clouds.

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