Captain Chinyere Kalu is the first Nigerian female pilot. and currently the Rector and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria. She spoke with ABDULLAHI GULLOMA on her challenges in the male-dominated aviation industry, among other issues
What motivated you to go into this male-dominated profession?
It was a long time ago, about 33 years ago. The motivating factor is just an adventurous spirit, to venture out to see what is out there. I felt flying will be challenging and I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing at the time, I wanted something unique, something special, something challenging, something that I feel will be fulfilling. So that is what led me into flying. I also thought it will be a good opportunity to travel all over the world and being paid for it. Can u imagine that? So those are the motivating factors.
Was there any opposition from your parents when you decided to fly?
No opposition surprisingly. My aunt, who was my mentor, was the first person to travel to the United Kingdom from my village. So, she was a kind of a celebrity of her time. When I mentioned the idea of flying, she welcomed the idea having been the first person in my village to go to UK. She did nursing; she was a trail blazer so to speak. And having been that exposed she just felt, this is your opportunity don’t even look back, just make the most of it, grab it.
So, she was quiet instrumental and quiet encouraging and motivating. And because she is my mother’s elder sister, and she was more or less the head of the family, she had a lot of influence, so once she had given her blessing, my mother just shrouded and said, okay that is fine if I have the blessing of my aunt. So, that is what happened.
What about your father?
Well! I didn’t grow up with my father. I had a lot of female influence around me when I was growing up. My mum had separated from my father long ago and I didn’t grow up under his influence.
How has the journey been so far since you became a pilot?
I want to thank God in every sense of it. It has not been easy for a number of reasons. If you are not from the right part of the country, if you don’t speak the right language you won’t get all the support and all the encouragement in the world. And I have suffered a lot of that, in fact I have been a threat to a number of people, chief executives prior to my time.
They felt so threatened to the point that they felt if they leave me to excel, that probably I was going to take their job from them. So, there was a lot of victimisation, but the bottom line is that God, Who brought me from the dung hill, has made it possible for me to be on this seat at this time and I just thank Him. That is the conclusion of it all.
It has not been easy. There was a time in my life that I was sent packing for 14 months no salary, nothing! And that was not the first time nor was it the second, but God has been faithful and that is the bottom line. It has not been easy because I didn’t have a lot of support, I didn’t have a lot of godfathers and I was there suffering but God has been faithful.
Do you sometimes regret that you were in the wrong profession?
I don’t think that has ever crossed my mind, but what I know did happen was that it kind of discouraged my children and my family members of going into flying from the onset, especially my daughters, who are in the United States now; one is doing her Ph.D and the other is doing her masters.
Until I became Rector of this place, none of them ever thought of going into aviation or into flying again because it has been rough. So, God has been good and gracious.
In fact at a point, I was retrenched because I was expecting my first baby. They said as a pilot you cannot fly but we went over that and so many other gory experiences. But, I thank God I am still here after 33 years, that is the bottom line.
Nigerians will be surprised to hear you face intimidation in this sector because you are a heroine, somebody celebrated in this country. What will be your advice to parents who have daughters now, should they allow them to tow this line?
In fact, once you allow your daughter to tow this line she will become a heroine. Yes, nobody is going to victimise her, she will be greatly encouraged. I am a trail blazer and I have taken all the rubbish, all the beating and bashing and all that. So, no other woman flight instructor will go through that. So, your daughters, your children are more than welcome.
Only recently, I went to Abuja for a programme by the University of Science and Engineering. I was invited to give motivational talks to young girls and I was just encouraging them. I am ageing and I need replacement. I need younger people to come and replace me. They should come because I think women make better flight instructors. They are patient, they will teach, advice, encourage, they will believe in the student and with gentle voice, caring and understanding instruction, they are able to help the younger ones. So I believe women have a greater role to play in the area of flight instructions.
How have you been able to combine motherhood and your career?
Well! When I was bringing up my children, my work wasn’t this busy and so I had time to bring up the children. And I have a wonderful husband; he is very supportive as you can see I am still in the office at this time (8:00pm). The much he could do is just call and ask ‘hello Chi are you okay, are you fine?’ Sometimes he will ask, ‘when are you coming home?’ And I will say not so soon or I am coming right back. He is very understanding and doesn’t mind if I don’t cook his meals, if I don’t come home early.
But, he is a workaholic as well. So, even if I get home at 12 midnight he is still very much awake and I will end up going to bed before him. He works late but the truth of the matter is that he is very loving, very understanding and very supportive. If he had not been so supportive of me through it all, I don’t know how I would have managed. I just thank God and bless God for him.
Can you share some of those memorable moments you had flying?
One of the memorable moments of my life in flying was when I went on my first solo. First solo is the first time a student pilot will take off with the aircraft and land all by himself or herself without instructions or the presence of a flight instructor. That I did on the 6th of June, 1978. I can remember it clearly.
At that time the set of instructors that we had were semi-military and they could be so harsh and unfriendly. So, my instructor said to me, ‘well you go, if you like kill yourself.’ For me as a pilot and as an instructor I will never tell that to my students. I will say I believe in you, all you need to do is to show me that you can go up and come down on your own. Go ahead I am praying for you and I know you will succeed. But, he told me, ‘well you can go if you like kill yourself.’ That was very negative.
Well! I did go up and when I went up instead of being afraid, rigid and timid, I felt so relaxed. I could remember I was singing onboard, just praising God and thanking God. I was not frigid, I was just there doing my own thing, knowing that this man, I hope he doesn’t get to read this because he is still alive and still very much in the industry, that said ‘well you can go if you like kill yourself,’ was no longer there. I could do what I want, fly the way I want to fly. Of course, you have to follow rules and regulations. And I went up and came down. We are supposed to do three circuits, that is to land three times and I did that. I was so happy and thankful to God that He made it happen.
Another day was when I was flying, I had gone on a cross country and before you can qualify as a commercial pilot you have to do a lot of navigations and at that time we used to do solo navigations, now we have dual where you have two student pilots going to fly. One will be in command while the other one will be a co-pilot. But at our own time it was just one person flying.
I had flown to Katsina and for one reason or the other I couldn’t locate Katsina and Katsina is close to the borders. So, I was afraid and I said well, I hope I don’t fly into Niger and they will shoot me down or something like that. I was so concerned and worried. Of course, I panicked a bit and instead of doing what I have been taught to do rigidly, I was now just flying all over the place and not maintaining a constant heading and all that. I was really putting myself into trouble, but the truth of it is that God helped me to locate Katsina and from there I was able to get my bearing to the college and nobody knew what had happened.
Have you had accidents?
Well there are quite a number of them. I had a plane crash on 6th of October, 2006. We had gone up with some two girls, twin sisters with another boy on a flight. I think the exercise they were to do at that time was climbing. It hasn’t been long they started flying when it happened. So, we did the normal checks, all the parameters were okay, everything was working fine and then we took off.
Because I had taught them some of the exercises so they were doing it themselves. It got to a point where one of the students said ‘Ma, it seems as if our aircraft is losing power.’ So, I checked and looked at the parameters and they were okay but from the sound of the engine and the engine indicator (thermometer RPM indicator), I could see that actually we were losing power.
So, I thought about it. I have practiced that over and over, not with this set of students but as a pilot before you graduate you will do a lot of false landing, engine failure and precautionary landing. We did a lot of that over and over. It wasn’t something new; only that this was real, it was no longer stimulated. When that happened I took over control from her. Obviously I should take over because I was the pilot in command, and I did all the other checks to see if we didn’t do something right or maybe we put something wrongly. I did all that and the power was not being sustained.
I realised that it was for real. So, I was composed, I was calmed and decided that we should head towards the air field; that is coming back to our airport here. We were heading back to the air field when I realised that at the rate we were losing height viz-a-viz the distance to the field I will not be able to make it. So, I had to make alternative decision which is to land on a field. There was a road they were constructing and I decided that I will try and land on the road. But, as we were coming to land on the road we were quiet low and because of the way the road was positioned I had not positioned myself to land comfortably on the road. When I was approaching the road, I discovered there was a house on the right and I said to myself if I begin to turn in order to land on the road and I was quiet low, chances are that my wings may hit the house and if my wings hit the house, I will lose control and the aircraft is going to crash land and we may sustain injuries.
At that point, I saw that besides the house there seem to be guinea corn field and I decided to land there. That was the last decision because when you have emergency you keep changing your decision based on how you study your situation. Your situation will determine whether you will carry on with your first decision or you have to re-evaluate and make other decision.
So, that was what happened. Initially, I planned to come back to Zaria to land, I saw that I was too far away and could not make it. Then I planned to land on the road but on my approaching the road and at the last minute I realised if I turned my wings I might hit that house and may lose control. The last decision was for me to land on the guinea corn field and that was where we landed. We landed very well and I thank God. On landing, I didn’t know there was a hump, it was as we went over that hump that the aircraft sustained some damages. But, none of us came out with a scratch, we didn’t even take Panadol. So, God did that miracle for me and I thank him.
When that was happening, the twin sisters asked, ‘Ma does it mean this is it?’ I said ‘well it could be, but pray, call on your God. And the faithful God remain faithful to us and nothing happened. When we landed I told them to rush out immediately, we all rushed out because with that impact there could be fire. I had called the tower to give them our situation report. So, tower was busy calling us but we had rushed out for safety. When we waited for a while and noticed there was no fire, we came back to answer tower and told them our exact location, eventually they came for us.
Again, I have had similar occasions. There was an instance I had gone to fly and somehow the engine began coughing. So, I decided that instead of looking for air field to crash land because if you crash land there is a lot of publicity to it, you have to come and explain, NCAA will come in, your license will be suspended and investigation will take place and all that. Is quieter if you can manage it and bring it down but then you shouldn’t risk it in the process of managing it, you don’t want to crash and kill yourself, you still want to come out alive. I started coming back to the air field and I was able to make it to the field. That was an incident some years back and when we landed we realised that water had entered the engine. We drained and saw half bottle of water from the engine. It was the water that entered the engine that was making the aircraft to rough run and not to perform well.
There was one too that I had, and we headed back to the air field it was just as we landed that the engine stopped and when we checked we saw that the host was not supplying fuel to the engine. The pipe had pulled off. God just helped us to make it. So at that time when the problem started I said okay let’s ahead back to the field.
I have also had experience of ferrying out some of our aircrafts from France to Zaria here. It was a wonderful experience flying along the West Coast of Africa. We landed in Senegal, then Abuja and then eventually landed in Zaria. It was a beautiful experience.
How many students do you have in the college now?
We have a set of students in Minna, we have a campus there that the Niger state government graciously collaborated with us to open for the conduct of ground instructions for flight training. We have 28 students in SP 28. In SP26 we have about 17 students, in SP27 we have about 20 students and then we have some students in SP25. By January, we will take in another set of students. So you can say we have about 70 flying students.
How many of them are female?
I know in Minna we have about three female students and others in the class. Maybe we have a total of 10 or there about.
What is the duration of the training?
Tthere was a time the duration was as much as six or seven years. The average duration is about three years. But my goal and desire is to be able to do it in one year.
What about the cost?
It is N7.5 million for the whole period and that is inclusive of feeding and accommodation. That is below the cost price because when you talk of International College of Aviation, they charge N10 million excluding feeding and accommodation. The aviation fuel they use are produced locally compared to ours that we buy our fuel from outside the country. We pay about N125,000 per drum of fuel.
One of your students, a serving governor, was recently involved in a fatal crash…
(Cuts in) I wouldn’t want to answer that. I will want to say that we have had students like Captain Adoka Rein. He was my own personal student and he is still flying. He was MD of NAMA and now he is flying with Arik Air and a host of them. Yes, we train students. It is the same standards we are maintaining but anything can happen any time is not because of the school. We maintain very high standards and Nigerian pilots trained in this college are one of the best in the world. We have a very high standard. NCAA is a regulatory body that checks our standards.
Do you have foreigners coming here to train?
Not again, but there was a time we were having quite a reasonable number of students coming from Nyame and they were being trained basically on air traffic controllers. English is aviation language so they will send them to improve on their proficiency of English and we test them and give them Category 4 because ICAO stipulates that you must have proficiency level of Category 4 before you can be a controller.
But because of all the insecurity in the country, they have been slow in coming. We are trying to encourage them and we are thinking of how we can offer them something better. We have thought about taking them to Abuja, Lagos because those places are a bit safer, but we are looking at the logistics or the financial involvement. If they are here, we have our structures. We don’t need to put them in a hotel, but in Lagos or Abuja we need to lodge them in a hotel which makes it very expensive. Of course our equipment are here not in Lagos or Abuja. So, we are thinking about it and trying to find a solution to it.
How often do you fly now?
It wasn’t often in the past, but now much more regularly. As I go to Abuja for one programme or the other, I seize the opportunity to fly so that I remain current.
So, you don’t go by road to Abuja?
I do sometimes but when I am pressed for time or I have a lot to do, I fly.
What is your relationship with the Ministry of Aviation?
The Minister of Aviation has been very supportive. The way she has been gingering us and encouraging us to give our very best, setting targets for us and telling us we must key into Mr. President’s transformation agenda has had immense impact on our operations.