Mothers are managers. Even high-altitude achievers which, is why it's perfectly in order to talk about a famous pilot on Mother's Day.
Many know Captain Ruth Karauri for her crosswind-landing on February 18 at London’s Heathrow Airport during Storm Eunice. It was at 4.01 pm.
“As skilful as people said it looked, it was a normal landing to me. The technique I used is one I apply daily but to varying degrees depending on the strength of the wind,” she says of the video that went viral.
With the winds up to 60 knots on that day, the landing technique came in handy.
“Wind speed is measured in Knots. On a typical day, the most one would encounter is about 20 knots or 25 knots if it’s really bad.”
On this day she went viral, the winds were at 45 knots gusting to 60 knots, a wind magnitude you don’t experience every day. This is where the skill really comes out.
To explain the landing technique she used, Ruth first explains the concept of winds. Each aeroplane has its own crosswind limitation, which is the maximum wind speed you can land with – that is dependent on the weather conditions.
“For the (Boeing) 787 which I fly, the crosswind limitation is 33 knots on a dry run (when the runway is dry), which is the limitation she was working on that day. Beyond that crosswind, you cannot attempt to land.”
“The crosswind doesn’t have much effect during cruise – while in the air. But when it comes to landing, a crosswind tends to push you off course. Therefore, for a proper landing, you put the nose into the wind, allowing the wind to push you off course, while in essence pushing you into the runway,” she explains.
Besides, the crosswind, there’s a headwind which is when the wind comes towards the nose of the plane, which is what you want when landing and during takeoff.
“When landing headwinds slow you down so you use a shorter landing distance while during takeoff, headwinds slow you down so you are using less runway to accelerate. This keeps you on the runway longer allowing you to get to the rotation speed you need for takeoff,” she demonstrates adding that a tailwind is a detriment during takeoff as it pushes you forward allowing you to get to the end of the runway having not achieved the speed to lift off.
“A tailwind, which comes from behind the plane, is what you need during a cruise to push you forward so you get to your destination faster saving on both fuel and time,” she concludes, making me think I would she would make a good teacher given her excellent explanations
She however reasons that the popularity of the video was because “people wrongly assume that the plane lands straight. Due to crosswind, you have to fly sideways and straighten the plane out on touchdown. And seeing this technique applied up close – on video – and the fact that there was a storm, made the difference,” she says while demonstrating with the help of her model plane.
That, plus, “on the day I went viral for simply doing my job, the alternate airports where I could have landed, including Manchester, Paris and Amsterdam had called that morning saying they were not available for diversions seeing that the storm was affecting most of northern Europe.”
For this reason, she was more vigilant in her flying and had made considerations to have more fuel in the event that she was unable to land in London allowing her wait in the air until the wind died down.
This waiting in the air to see is called a go-around and could be caused by a number of issues but commonly by weather. In her 20 years of flying, she has experienced two go-arounds.
“The first time was due to low clouds. There’s a certain height at which you should be able to see the runway since you manually land the plane, otherwise you go around. You then make a decision to wait until the fog clears or you divert. I opted to divert the Nairobi landing to Mombasa”
“In my second go-around, there was an aircraft on the runway.”
Other more interesting go-arounds experienced by her colleagues include birds, and dogs crossing the runway which is common in West Africa. She recalls a story of a man cycling across the runway prompting a go-around.
Her interest in flying started when in class two when she saw a Kenya Airways (KQ) advert on TV. “What caught my attention was the pilot’s uniform. I wanted to wear that uniform, especially the hat. At the time, I didn’t even know pilots flew planes.”
In high school, having conceptualised what flying was all about, she discovered that flying wasn’t quite affordable. But that didn’t stop her from dreaming. After completing high school (Alliance High School) and scoring an A, she was called to Moi University to pursue a course in Electrical Engineering.
In the two-year gap prior to joining the university, KQ advertised positions for ab initio pilots.
“I applied and qualified to be among the 15 from over 3,000 applicants, after three rounds of interviews. We were then flown to Addis Ababa for the 20-month training,” she says wondering where she’d be had she gone to Moi University.
For one, not with her husband
“I met my husband in flying school. The first time I saw him, he was wearing cream trousers and a blue shirt,” she remembers fondly.
Ronald Karauri is running for the Kasarani Constituency parliamentary seat.
“My first impression of him was that he was a gentleman. He was walking ahead of me and when he got to the door he held the door open until I got there. That has stuck with me to date,” she says unsure whether this gentlemanly act meant she had never met a gentleman before, “but at 19, straight from high school, I don’t think it would have taken much to impress me.”
“As he stood holding the door ajar, I wondered what he was waiting for,” she says of the only thing she recalls from their initial encounters.
His decision to run for MP was also discussed between them, as it would change the family dynamics if elected into office.
“We felt that it was time to stop sitting on the sidelines and blame everyone else when things go wrong. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, Be the change you want to see in the world.”
As a matter of firsts, the 737 was the first jet aircraft, she ever flew as a first officer. Her first day was September 1, 2004.
“I flew the 737 for a year, then flew the 767 for two years, the 777 for three years before I became a captain in the 737. Before flying a different kind of aircraft, you have to undergo a six-week conversion training to acclimatize yourself with the particular aircraft system,” she says.
What are her most memorable flights? “My first flight as a passenger, the flight to Addis Ababa for the training, my first flight in flying school and my first flight at KQ come to mind, my first solo flight (without the instructor). I especially cherish these memories because they make me more appreciative and sensitive to first-time passengers who remind me that I was there at one point.”
“My first flight as a captain was so surreal. I was constantly looking at the instrumentation and the fuel and the weather. Usually, as a first officer, you rest knowing that if anything goes wrong you can look to your left where the captain sits. As a captain, when you look to the left it’s a window giving you a reflection of yourself. When we landed, it felt like I had been carrying the plane on my back, and only then did I relax,” she says of that night flight to Accra.
Thriving in a male-dominated industry
First time flying into Cotonou, Benin, was notable. “They could not wrap their minds around seeing a female pilot. And seeing that female pilots make up less than 10 per cent, I understand their shock.”
“But that should not stop any girl from believing that she can be whatever she sets her mind to,” she advises girls keen on joining the aviation industry.
Once you have believed you can do it, she recommends that you go for it. Going for it starts with letting your dream be known and asking questions.
“If I hadn’t let my parents know that I wanted to fly, I’d probably have ended up an electrical engineer. It was my father who showed me the ab initio pilot advert. I don’t know if he was on the lookout, actively trying to get me into flying school, but I wasn’t looking to push him to pay the hefty flying school fees seeing that there were others to be taken care of,” says Ruth who is the second of five siblings.
“I also appreciate the many questions I get from young people about getting into this industry, like which subjects would one should take in school to become a pilot or which flying school to attend – because just like any other schools there are good and bad flying schools –, and financial help questions,” she says especially for women who need to go the extra mile.
With flying taking her away from home, I inquire how she balances between family and work. “There’s no balance.” she gives as the short answer. “In my experience, if you try to balance, you have mediocrity on both ends. One thing has to suffer,” she says. In her case, her work suffers, at least for now. If by suffering she means clocking 9,000 flying hours as opposed to 12,000 which the career-oriented pilots that she was within the ab initio programme have managed, I too wouldn’t mind that kind of suffering. Flying hours is the measure of experience of a pilot.
The flying hours she has seemingly lost are a result of prioritizing family. For instance, she will not work on her days off which could have added to her flying hours or give herself to other bigger roles that would require more of her time. “My decision to start a family cost me an average of 1,000 flying hours per child,” says the mum of three: Nathan, 9; Natalie, 9 and Nia, 2
As she gets into her 40s, she can’t wait to see her children come into themselves. “Nathan is talented in music. He plays the piano and the saxophone and wants to learn the violin. Natalie is full of life and the girliest girl who absolutely loves pink, a colour I cannot stand. She plays the flute. We are yet to figure out Nia’s personality.”
As no situation is permanent, she hopes that when her children are grown up, as she approaches her 50s, she will give more time to advancing her career.
On advice to first time mums, “before you even become a mum, ensure that the person you get pregnant with will wake up with you at night. Cut yourself some slack as there’s no manual for these things.”
As a first time mum herself, she remembers her late mum calling on her son’s kidney issue even before it was discovered. “She pointed out how skinny he was, saying the help was not feeding him properly.” As would be with most first time mums, she disregarded the advice, thinking her mum was trying to meddle in her household.