Society & Success

Two ways to become a high-flying pilot in Kenya

Pilots at work. Many students limit their choices to a few popular professions while there are many other challenging careers in the aviation industry. Photo/FILE
Pilots at work. Many students limit their choices to a few popular professions while there are many other challenging careers in the aviation industry. Photo/FILE AFP

Every year when the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam results are announced we go through a ritual where the media interviews top students and ask them what careers they would like to pursue.

The eager young scholars usually flanked by their parents or teachers generally would like to be doctors, usually neurosurgeons.

I’ll be the first to admit that medicine is indeed the noble profession, mentally challenging, commanding respect and as such a solid choice for any candidate.

However, a general lack of information means that many graduates choose medicine when there are plenty of challenging careers out there.

Generally, the path to any career that involves going through university is fairly straightforward. To become a pilot in Kenya is slightly more complex.

Traditionally, there has always been three ways to become a pilot in the world and in Kenya. You could join the military as an officer cadet. You could join an ab initio programme run by an airline or you could simply pay for your flying. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.

The first two involve institutions paying for your training and therefore, usually have a high number of applicants. You will have to beat the other candidates initially on the strength of your grades.

As a bare minimum, an applicant should need to have scored a grade of B+ in KCSE, usually better is an added advantage. Both the military and an airline puts one through specific psychometric tests, mostly designed to examine your spatial reasoning, ability to learn, adaptability to new information.

And of course there is the medical which tests for depth and colour perception. Being short sighted does not rule you out, but it must be corrected at the time of the medical test.

The institution paying your fees needs to be sure you’ll be healthy for a long time before investing any money in you. Of course the military takes you through physical exercises, tests your mental resolve and instil military values in their cadets.

In exchange for paying for your flying, expect to be bonded to work for a period of time usually about four years for the airline and nine years for the military.

The advantage is that once you make it through the selection process you are essentially guaranteed employment. This is more important than it might seem.

Private sponsorship is a lot easier, you just simply need to find a school and enrol. There are various schools to choose from, some in Kenya, others abroad with South Africa and the US being relatively popular choices.

Training in local colleges takes longer, about 18 months, while abroad it takes anywhere from six months in the US to 14 months in South Africa. However, to complete training on time requires diligence and adequate cash for fees.

The disadvantage of cause is that you don’t have a job once you have completed your course and are down Sh5 million. If you did your training outside the country, you still have to obtain a Kenyan licence, a process that might consume another Sh1 million. Then you have to add an additional million to get a useful rating, usually a Cessna caravan.

Once you’ve trained to fly this plane, no one will trust you with their plane unless you have some experience. This might entail flying for food for a while to gain experience before you can try out a general aviation company at Wilson Airport in Nairobi.

After some time in the trenches in the general aviation market, you may get a job at an airline. If it sounds depressing, it is because it actually is quite difficult and requires motivation and financial resources to succeed.

Whichever route you take, flying, especially in an established airline is a very fulfilling career with tonnes of benefits. Here’s to hoping that the next child prodigy will proclaim that he would like to be a pilot.

Mr Ondieki is a pilot with Kenya Airways.