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Day villagers mistook fighter pilot for black Jesus

By Tamarah Leah Chemutai | November 26th 2019
Col (Rtd) Seth Shava at his residence in Nairobi, yesterday. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

“He is the One!” The cry burst unprompted from one of the people milling around Lieutenant Seth Shava. Several of his fellow villagers were already on their knees in supplication to the Air Force fighter pilot who had just ejected from his doomed plane. Others, however, stood a safe distance away, doubt etched on their faces.

As the debate raged on the afternoon of November 26, 1982, Shava was busy packing up his parachute that had saved his life moments earlier, setting him down unharmed in a villager’s garden.

The people were speaking Gikuyu, a language the young military man understood well. It was not that the doubting Thomases were of wavering faith. Their disbelief had only increased after Shava dug into a pocket on the sleeve of his bomber jacket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. He calmly lit up and inhaled deeply, calming his frayed nerves after the scary experience.

One of the locals, who introduced himself as the headmaster of a primary school, had the presence of mind to approach Shava, who asked for directions to the nearest police station. The man of the chalk drove the man from the sky to the station, where a report was written and immediately relayed to Nanyuki Police Station.

The information was then forwarded to Laikipia Air Base and a search and rescue team swiftly scrambled to go and fetch their pilot.

It was much later that Shava would learn that the “One” being referred to was Jesus Christ. The helpful Akorino people in the Kinangop village, where he landed, had been in a prayer and fasting period when they heard the bang of his crashing plane. The next thing they saw was a man hanging from a brightly coloured parachute up in the skies before sinking gently to the earth.

Son of god

Many were convinced that the promised second coming of the son of God was happening right before their eyes.

The crash was the culmination of a high-octane three-day odyssey for a four-man formation squad tasked with the duty of providing an honours escort to a Kenya Airways plane carrying President Daniel arap Moi from Tripoli, Libya.

The mission had started three days earlier when Shava and his three colleagues from the 82 Air Force were picked for the prestigious duty of escorting their Commander-In-Chief into the country.

The team leader was Michael Gichangi (who last served the public as a chief spy at the National Intelligence Service). There was also Geoffrey Okang’a, who would later serve as Kenya’s High Commissioner to Uganda, and Christopher Kariuki.

Writing about the event in the Nation newspaper 10 years ago, veteran journalist Roy Gachuhi said President Moi had picked up the habit of being escorted by fighter jets after a visit to Israel.

Entering the Jewish state’s airspace, the plane carrying Moi was joined by fighter jets from the Israeli air force and given an escort until it landed at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. At the end of the visit, a similar formation escorted the home-bound Moi until his plane reached the borders of Israel. A similar tradition was soon established in Kenya.

“Early in President Moi’s reign, the military assumed a very high public profile. When travelling to and returning from state visits abroad, there was always a full guard of honour for him. He used to be escorted by Air Force fighter jets and then the same jets would give him a fly-by when he finished inspecting the guard of honour. He opened many agricultural shows around the country and the story was the same: guard of honour, Air Force fly-by. He was very different from Kenyatta who seemed to have little time for the armed forces,” a former military officer was quoted as saying in the article.

This was the reason the four-man team readied their F-5 fighter planes for a mission that was supposed to take place on a Monday.

However, it was not to be, as the president’s trip to Tripoli seemed to drag on forever.

Moi’s return

Unbeknownst to the pilots, Moi’s return was being delayed by high stakes political machinations that took centre stage at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – which has since morphed into the African Union (AU) – Heads of State summit in Libya.

A dispatch from the defunct United Press International said: “The future of the Organisation of African Unity was thrown into doubt today by the collapse of its 19th summit over deep divisions that prevented Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy (better known as Muammar Gaddafi) from becoming the OAU’s chairman.

“The summit broke up Thursday after 15 of the organisation’s 51 nations withdrew in protest because of Libya’s refusal to seat a pro-Western delegation from Chad.”

This was the stalemate that delayed Moi’s return. Moi’s term as OAU chair was also extended by one year. The leadership of the organisation was on a rotational one-year basis and because Gaddafi did not take over, the chairmanship returned to Nairobi.

It is 37 years later and I am seated in a restaurant at Kasuku Centre in Kileleshwa with Shava (now a retired colonel), who remembers the day’s events like they happened yesterday.

When confirmation finally came through that Moi was on his way back, the escort team embarked on their mission.

“Normally, formation jets take off in twos, but because it was raining heavily on that day, it was decided that we take off one by one,” says Shava.

Unfortunately, Okang’a’s jet developed problems and he returned to base, leaving his three colleagues to complete the task.

The plan was that the fighter jets would rendezvous with the Kenya Airways plane as it entered Kenyan airspace somewhere near Lodwar. But there was a small hitch. Apparently, the Air Force top brass had failed to notify Kenya Airways of the escort plan and Captain Francis Mwangi, the pilot, would not allow them anywhere near his Boeing 707.

“Our team leader Gichangi passed the information to our superiors, who then contacted the Department of Defence, who in turn contacted Kenya Airways,” Shava recalls.

All this time, they were following the 707 from a careful distance – not too near to upset Captain Mwangi, and not too far away to lose the sight of the plane with its VIP passenger. This was done in deference to Captain Mwangi, but they still had to keep a distance that made it possible for Mwangi’s passengers to see the fighter jets.

Shava says at 39,000 feet above sea level, while over Nakuru, the 707 began its descent to Nairobi. The three F-5s promptly did the same. But now they entered dense cloud; nobody could see the other. However, by using radar, the F-5s could track the blip on their screens that was the 707.

The descending airliner made a gentle turn and immediately after this, Captain Mwangi radioed the fighters to tell them he had been cleared to let them fly in formation with him.

As fate would have it, Shava realised he had to manouver his plane to clear a path for his colleagues, more so Gichangi. He pointed the jet’s nose up and gained altitude only to realise he was losing power.

“Things were moving too fast. I could hear Gichangi and Kariuki talking over the radio asking where I was, but I could not answer them because I was fighting with the controls to steady the plane. Realising that I was fighting a losing battle, I decided to engage the eject system and promptly ejected,” he says.

Shava explains that the whole system of ejection and the parachute opening is timed in milli-seconds. Once activated, the canopy opens and two rockets underneath the seat fire the pilot out of the doomed plane.

Two things, he noticed, stand out at this point. In that dreadful moment of the battle between man and machine, moments are frozen in slow motion. You get to see everything to the minute detail, although in real sense things are moving at a terrific speed.

“Then I saw a flash and my entire life from my childhood through school to employment up to that particular moment was played. I saw all the things I had ever done and the people I ever met,” he says.


Parachute opened

As he was flung out, and before the parachute opened, Shava was not sure whether he was moving up or down. After the chute deployed, he toyed with the idea of cutting some cords attached to the parachute to speed up his fall. “This comes with the disadvantage that you are likely to drop abruptly,” he says.

Luckily, Shava landed safely. “I did a quick check of my body and saw that there was no injury. It was when I was packing my parachute that the whole prayer drama started.”

The rescue chopper was held up by heavy rain and it was only later that he was picked up and taken to Moi Air Base in Nairobi. He spent the night under the watch of a military medical team and was discharged the next day.

A board of inquiry cleared Shava of any culpability in the accident. But three months later, the story would take a strange turn when a medical report from the Government Chemist came out.

“My commander called me and said he had bad news. The report said that I had more than 98 per cent alcohol in my system on the day of the accident. In normal circumstances this meant that I was not in a position to walk, leave alone fly,” he says.

Shava faced the grim reality that his beloved flying career was about to come to a crashing end.

“Even my team leader, Gichangi, could not understand how this came to be, seeing that we were housemates at the base and for the three days we were on standby waiting for the mission we were off alcohol.”

Shava was convinced of his innocence and he sought the opinion of a non-military doctor friend. The doctor advised Shava to return to the military clinic and ask about the procedure used to draw his blood.

The nurse wrote that he had used the normal procedure of rubbing alcohol on the skin before pricking the skin. Somehow, the alcohol had contaminated his blood.

“I was cleared and the good thing from this is that the protocols of drawing blood were reviewed and alcohol was banned from the process,” says Shava.

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