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The untold story of Amphibian aircraft that used to fly and land in Lake Victoria

By Kepher Otieno | August 16th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Kisumu warehouse near the old Amphibian Apron built in 1914. It currently, houses some Kenya Airports Authority Police (Kapu). [Kepher Otieno/Standard]

In 1914, Lake Victoria began to provide a convenient landing point for amphibious aircraft, which could take off and land both on water and land.

The floatplanes no longer exist, but it is possible to visit the site where they were parked at the old Kisumu Airport. Even what used to be a hangar for the light aircraft is still in good shape, albeit rusty and dusty.

A visit to the area revealed a concrete ramp and bushes on the once busy runaway. This is where the planes used to refuel and from where passengers would board the aircraft.

“We are happy that the amphibian apron is still in good shape to date. Although we have not put it to use, we have preserved it as a national monument. It is a great historic site,” said acting Kisumu Airport Manager Charles Chetalam.

Mr Chetalam said the hangars were built of metal, wood, or concrete and were used to protect the planes from the harsh weather. They were also used for repairs and to carry out regular maintenance.

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A large number of floatplanes, he added, were introduced in the county during the first and second world wars. “They were used for marine exploration and military duties including search and rescue, artillery spotting and anti-submarine patrols in Lake Victoria.”

Chetalam said between 1914-1918 - during World War I - the British army used to fly to Kisumu using the floatplanes.

“They are the ones who built the apron to international standards. To date, the ramp is still in good condition.”

John Luke, an aeronautical engineer, said floating planes were reintroduced in the 1960s by British military personnel, colonial administrators, the Navy and, later, Asian business elites.

The aircraft were particularly useful as bush planes and engaged in light transport in remote areas where they were required to operate not only from airstrips but also from lakes.

With the revival of the port of Kisumu and the metre-gauge railway line, as well as the establishment of the Kisumu International Airport, some Britons have shown interest in bringing back the sea planes.

Tourism excursions

Sources disclosed that the investors have reached out to the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) to revive the amphibious trips for tourism excursions.

KAA officials said new investments are welcome, and that the door is open to potential investors in both the airline and cargo sector services.

“We have the old terminal warehouse near the old Kisumu Airport that we are seeking to convert into a cargo warehouse and lease out,” said the manager.

Beatrice Ongoro, a KAA engineer, toured the site last week to find out whether it should be preserved or repurposed into a storage facility.

The Kenya Airports Police Unit is situated near the warehouse that sits on a five-acre piece of land.

KAA officials said with more new and modern airstrips and airports, fewer amphibian aircraft are being built.

“Maybe with the opening up of investments in ports and airports in the blue economy, global aviation investors are seeing new business havens and they are welcome to explore,” said Chetalam.

Wilson Airport Manager Joseph Okumu said the amphibious aircraft used to take off from the airport, adding that they would attract huge crowds when they landed in Lake Victoria.

“The technology and how the planes would land and easily float on the surface of the water near the shore was amazing and attractive,” said Okumu.

There still exists an observation lounge at the old Kisumu Airport where visitors can watch planes take off and land. Residents in the nearby Kogony village also recalled that the sea planes were a highlight of the old days.

Okumu said the aircraft were equipped with retractable wheels and were designed to land on water and land.

“Records show that the planes were fitted with reinforced keels that acted as skis, allowing them to land on water. This is why the British army and administrators liked them.”

Old military airfields were operated by the British army who sometimes shared space with civilian aircraft.

According to airport authorities, the army built the amphibian taxiway and apron during World War II. Germans in neighbouring Tanzania also used seaplanes during visits to Kenya before both East African countries gained independence.

According to Okumu, the sea planes were later commercialised. “In the 1940s, Kisumu Airport become the second to be established by the British in Africa. The first was in South Africa.”

In the 1970s when the sea planes ceased operations, aviation experts helped develop a modern airport that was transformed into the current Kisumu International Airport.

“Airports today are getting bigger. As more people choose air transport as a convenient way of travelling, new terminals and other facilities must be built,” said Okumu.

At the Kisumu Yatch Club, the amphibious planes were used for water skiing. Perhaps the most famous person to take up the water sport was Queen Elizabeth.

Jacktone Odhiambo, a resident, said the club was a famous destination for the royalty and political class.

Lake Victoria Sea Planes old Kisumu Airport
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