When I completed my studies at the University of Nairobi, like the rest of the graduates I was given the power to read.
However, no one followed up to ensure that I did. As a consequence, there’s no way for the average patient to tell whether one’s doctor is a walking encyclopaedia, or whether he has slightly more knowledge than a third year medical student.
The same situation applies to most professionals in Kenya today. In an effort to correct this, the medical board as well as other professional bodies are trying to institute a system of continuous professional development.
This means that when you go to a doctor, hire a lawyer or an architect, at the very least you are sure that he had to endure a couple of lectures and enjoy a five course meal at a swanky hotel over the course of the previous year to stay registered.
The Holy Grail of continuous professional development has to be airline flying. The system is more thorough because it combines one very simple aspect that’s missing from the other programmes, testing.
Every six months, an airline pilot is required to undergo testing in the common failures and demonstrate a minimum level of competence to continue exercising the privileges of their licence. One test is an internal operator check, while the other, an instrument rating renewal, is a regulatory requirement by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority.
Unlike general aviation flying, our checks are conducted in a simulator since it would be too costly and too dangerous to conduct similar training on an actual plane. These simulators include a complete mock up of a cockpit, with fully functioning switches, displays and instruments.
Last week it was time for my instrument check.
My colleague, a first officer and I sat at the front, while the instructor who was playing the part of the engineer, flight purser, air traffic controller as well as controlling the simulator sat at the back.
We got into the simulator and set it up. Some of the switches which in normal line flying are left in default positions but are nevertheless expected to be checked before every flight had been changed. This was to check our normal procedures.
We were able to catch most of them. My colleague who was playing the captain had a couple of routine abnormal engine start conditions which he handled easily.
We took off in marginal conditions and after takeoff avoided a virtual plane that was on a collision course with us, flew routine clearances and handled some failures.
However, on the descent to Nairobi, I asked the captain to obtain the city’s weather and got no response. This was not a problem, as subtle pilot incapacitation where one of the pilots is suddenly unable to fly is among the items that we are trained to handle. I disregarded him, took over his duties and continued flying. I got a clearance for an approach to Nairobi.
Then the captain started kicking the rudder pedals, the autopilot gave up and gave control back to me. I struggled to regain control of the plane and re-engaged the autopilot. By this time I was over the beacon at Athi River. I was behind the plane and tasks were starting to pile up.
Breaking character for a moment I asked him to stop as I was getting overwhelmed. Instead he slumped over the controls, the autopilot not built to handle the weight of a grown man, gave up for the second time.
Finally to end my misery, the instructor stepped in as the flight purser and asked what was wrong. I then realised that I had forgotten to secure the incapacitated pilot to prevent him from reaching the controls.
Once secured, I was able to continue flying uneventfully. This may seem a bit theatrical but the consequences of failing are very real and therefore, pilots take their checks very seriously, studying for weeks before each check.
Now next time when you’re on a flight, you are sure that the pilot had to endure engine fires, marginal weather and may be a death and of course a five-course meal at a swanky hotel the previous year to retain one’s licence.
Dr Ondieki is pilot with an international airline. He was a Top 40 under 40 nominee.