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Society

Happy Valley love affair that led to the birth of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport

An aerial view of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (above), which was previously  known  as Nairobi West Aerodrome.  ( Right,  top)  Some of the new companies that took over the space after Wilson Airways closed. File
An aerial view of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (above), which was previously known as Nairobi West Aerodrome. ( Right, top) Some of the new companies that took over the space after Wilson Airways closed. File 

The story of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport cannot be told without looking at the short love affair that blossomed between millionaire farmer Florence Kerr Wilson —whose husband had died — and a handsome twenty-something British pilot, Captain Thomas Campbell Black.

Mrs Wilson had inherited a fortune from her husband and also came from a wealthy family of ship owners in London.

Unknown to many, the story of Kenya’s aviation industry did not start in Nairobi —but in Rumuruti where a rancher had imported country’s first aeroplane nicknamed Miss Kenya. This plane was piloted by Campbell, which now explains his dalliance with all the pretty English girls in Nairobi.

Owned by John Carberry, Miss Kenya was registered on September 10, 1928 (This particular plane is currently on display in a British aircraft museum.)

Seeing the great potential there was in flying the wealthy around, Carberry registered a new company, Kenya Aircraft Company Ltd, and bought a second aircraft, which he christened Miss Africa.

It was aboard Miss Africa, a Fokker Universal, that Campbell and Mrs Wilson met on a four-day journey from London to Nanyuki.

Campbell was known to thrill women with the Fokker Universal — and was always willing to train them how to fly. A few months after this flight from London, he resigned from Carberry’s company and went to start an aircraft company with Mrs Wilson who had injected 50,000 pounds into the new start-up, a colossal amount at the time.

At the Junction of Ngong Road and Naivasha Road, near what is now The Junction Shopping Mall, Mrs Wilson opened her Wilson Airways office. The land was plain and had a grazing field. It was in this field that her first plane, a single-engine De Havilland –- known as The Moth— landed. It also had a nickname —Knight of the Mist.

Campbell was the chief pilot and the managing director of the new company. It was both out of his love for Mrs Wilson and the thrill of flying. He delivered mail all over East Africa, and at times watched over his brother’s farm in Rongai, which the duo had started after Campbell abandoned law studies in the UK.

Wilson Airways grew big. And in the meantime, Campbell fell in love with another Nairobi socialite known as Beryl Markham. He not only taught Beryl how to fly, but the two would become the talk of Nairobi. Beryl would later write her experiences in the book, West with the Night, which critics always claimed was ghost written for her.

Whether it was as a result of this romance that Campbell left Wilson Airways is not clear. What is known is that in 1933 he left Nairobi and ended the romantic relationship with Beryl to become the personal pilot for a UK horse breeder, Lord Marmaduke Furness.
Having been left with an airline which she had no idea to run, Mrs Wilson started struggling to maintain it. Meanwhile, Campbell became a big name and participated in various international air races and ended up marrying a famous English actress, Florence Desmond, in 1936. A year later, Campbell died in an air race crash.

Back in Nairobi, Wilson Airways was struggling — though still returning profits. By this time, it had shifted to what would become Nairobi West Aerodrome as a pioneer. The fleet had grown to 17 aircraft, the first air ambulance and a training school. Her clientele included wealthy personalities such as William Kissam Vanderbilt, a New York railroad millionaire, and the British Royal family. Then the World War II started and the government confiscated all her aircraft, and incorporated the pilots within the Kenya Auxiliary Air Unit.

Mrs Wilson, who had a home in Karen, watched as her dream was taken over. Wilson Airways was not only closed, but became part of the Royal Air Force and operated next to the military base at Langata.

It is on the grounds it stood that the self-government in 1962 sent its minister for Commerce and Communications, Mr Masinde Muliro, to go and perform one last rite— renaming the Nairobi West Aerodrome as Wilson Airport.

Mrs Wilson was present when the plaque was unveiled. Six years, later in September 1968, she died in Karen.

But Wilson Airport lives on.

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