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With a joystick, 21-year-old Christina Mati is at home above the clouds

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By David Ohito | July 26th 2015
21-year-old Christina Mati is a pilot's instructor and is aiming for fresh milestones in the aviation industry. (Photo:David Ohito/Standard)

Christina Mati is not your ordinary 21-year old.

She is the face of an emerging Kenya, or Africa, in an age when well-meaning world leaders are not only investing in the youth, but coming up with initiatives that can empower them.

If there is a time her story can inspire, it is now when Kenya is hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit which should work to benefit the youth.

While the world focuses on Kenya, and the youth, and what the country has to offer, Christina is proof that Kenya can export knowledge as well.

Christina, whose grandfather Prof Japheth Mati was the first indigenous Kenyan professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, has carved her niche as an instructor in the aviation industry, a sector that still has very few women even in the 21st century.

She is a pilot and an instructor at 43 Air School in Port Alfred, Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.

“I fell in love with flying from one of the many passenger seats of a Boeing,” she says, with a smile as I figure out her story. “The view of the world from 30,000 feet is one I would gladly look at every day till I retire.”

Christina takes to the skies daily with students to give them lessons and help them hone their skills as they clock their flight hours.

“I was allowed a sneak peak into the cockpit once when I was younger, and I looked at the pilots in their uniform with respect,” she explains. “I just thought these people have the coolest jobs ever.”

She is one of the globe’s 4,000 female pilots out of a total 130,000.

That means only three per cent of the pilots in the world are women.

“I am turning 22 later this year and I have taught people aged between 19 to 40,” she says.

“It can be very intimidating teaching people who are older than you, but it is key to remember that they are new to this career and are relying on you to show them the way.”

Happy in the air

On her first flight as a student, her instructor told her how one reacts when he or she first handles an aircraft is how the person can know whether he or she was born to fly.

“Many pilots I meet have a fear of heights and yet they are all accomplished license holders,” she says.

She narrates her experiences as I keenly listen to understand the nuts and bolts of a profession I know little about.

“Many do not react well to the feeling of being in a small plane and others get air sick or the manoeuvres we fly are too much for them.

“I have had my fair share of terrifying moments, like going solo for the first time. Or when you have an event — something has gone wrong with the aircraft. But aviation is still the safest way to travel and my dream.

“I am so happy in the air that this usually settles any fears I have. I also remember that I have been trained well to handle these situations.”

Christina says being calm, structured and prepared are the best ways to conquer those flying fears.

“I look up to the pilots who have taken themselves from square one and pushed themselves to the top either as captains, instructors or first officers. I respect them all.”

I ask Christina about the safety of planes. I want to know what goes on in her mind when she hears of the Malaysian Airlines plane that disappeared, and has not been found todate.

“Safety tips...I have so many, you would just have to come to 43 Air School to learn about them all.”

She says human error is the single biggest cause of aircraft accidents. She adds that as professionals, they wait for investigations and do not speculate.

“The high number of planes being ordered at the moment suggest a boom in the aviation industry. It means airliners will be looking for crews for the planes and that is definitely a good thing for those who are currently in training . . . there is a higher chance to get hired.” Christina believes  many African girls are unable to venture into piloting careers because of the high training costs and cultural biases that this is a career for men and that women should only be part of the cabin crew.

The 43 Air School charges between Sh7.5 million and Sh10 million for a course. The school has trained several Kenya Airways pilots.

“As many parents will tell you, they want to give their children their best, and this is  exactly what my parents strived for when they offered to send me to 43 Air School,” she says.

“It is definitely an expensive career choice and I will always be grateful that my parents supported me through it.”

Christina, who is the daughter of Kenya’s anti-corruption crusader Mwalimu Mati and Jayne Mati, argues that even though it is costly, it is a rewarding career.

“Unfortunately there are not enough ways through which younger and less-fortunate people can get in to this field.”

Kenya Airways has a cadet programme whereby cadets sign bonds or contracts with the airline then it funds their training with the offer of a job if one passes.

“I know many people who have moved on to Kenya Airways and become First Officers,” she says.

She joined 43 Air School in 2011 when she was just turning 18, and she says it was quite an experience.

“You have to be the disciplined type since they are no prefects or parents or prep time.

Build flight hours

“No bells to tell you that you are late, It is a university environment and good behaviour was expected from all of us. You had to be early for your lessons, ready mentally and well-dressed. The pass mark for examinations is 75 per cent in all subjects.”

She says 43 Air School has many students from Africa and elsewhere . . .  it is  easy to make friends at the school because students have a common interest and goal.

“Pilots mostly have what is known as a Type A personality. They are very competitive and we all keep each other going, pushing one another to achieve more.”

After passing her Airline Transport license examinations, she says, her flying training progressed  quickly and she was done even before she knew it.

“I was to sit my Commercial License Test and I was stressed,” she says. “The 14 months worth of blood, sweat and tears ended in a three-hour test but I was exhilarated. I had my license, my instructor shook my hand and welcomed me to the world of unemployment.

After finishing, she decided to try the Instructor Course that 43 Air School offered.

“Mostly pilots enrol for this course to build their flight hours and I did not think I would be a very good instructor because of my lack of patience.”

She was pleasantly surprised to discover that she enjoyed and loved it.

“It was a welcome challenge as I was to be teaching people a skill,” she says. “I am currently a Grade II instructor and gradually and hopefully, making my way up to be a Designated Flight Examiner and definitely a captain one day.”

For young women who want to join aviation, Christina, who attended Pembroke and Peponi schools in Kenya, has a message: What holds us back is ourselves since you can anything you want to be. As Lupita Nyong’o said, our dreams are valid no matter where we come from.

“You have to push to get what you want since nothing, not even your Commercial License will be handed to you.

“You will have to work hard academically, you have to persevere and you have to be strong mentally because many people will try to make you fail, many people will tell you that you can not, but the decision to continue is all yours.”

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