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Profiles

Three decades in the skies

Former KQ Pilot Capt
Former KQ Pilot Capt. Peter Maraga. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

Peter Maranga wore his first shoe in 1968 when he was joining Kagumo High School. After that, he started running after his dreams of getting his commercial pilot licence from AST, Britain’s Air University in Perth, Scotland.

(He was also the first Kenyan to be issued with a commercial pilot licence for a hot air balloon). He has since worked for Kenya Air Force, Directorate of Civil Aviation, Air Kenya, and Kenya Airways where he just retired as a pilot after over three decades.

During this time, he acquired 17,500 flying hours under his belt. He has three children (one is a pilot at KQ), published three children's books, and served in the Kaplan Rawal Commission of Inquiry into the chopper crash that killed the late George Saitoti.

He is 65 years old now, he tells JACKSON BIKO, and has embarked on another chapter of his life.

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The Boeing 787 flies at, what, over 40,000 feet? It's way up there in the sky. Does being so far up shift your perspective of spirituality?

Well, there is a way it does. One of my best moments is when flying above the earth at that height, just before dawn and you see the horizon and how the earth curves.

You see how all these colours begin to change. It’s a beauty that is difficult to describe, something that speaks to my heart and spirit deeply.

Also seeing everything below me, thinking of this heavy machine —and I understand the science that keeps it suspended— but still marvelling how amazing it is that I’m here and all these hundreds of people are in this aircraft weighing over 200 tonnes and we are all suspended in the sky.

Are you spiritual or religious, Captain?

I’m a born-again Christian and my faith is deep. A lot of my life is impacted by what I believe. However, I don’t walk around with a face that’s (Chuckles) broadcasting my faith.

Is there any instance in your 45 years career in flying that the concept and idea of God were brought so close to you?

There are many, but one of them is when we had just taken off from JKIA in a Boeing 737 outbound Dar es Salaam. I was co-piloting. We flew straight ahead, turned right, banking the plane, and as we rolled out, ahead of us were something like 20 marabou storks.

They were right in front of us, with absolutely no time to do anything.
Within a fraction of a second, we ran into them and there was the biggest explosion, the windscreen shattered, glass flying in and the captain collapsed, blood coming from his face shattered by flying glass.

I declared an emergency and requested a return to Nairobi. On our way back, there was a huge gushing sound, like the wind was coming into the plane.

I knew the plane would break any moment. It was the longest flight back even though it was just from a few minutes.

At JKIA, we discovered a gaping hole over the eyebrow of the windscreen with about 20kgs of mangled marabou storks' meat. (Chuckles) I mention this incident because that morning I had felt deeply that my wife needed to pray for this particular flight.

She told me of a scripture that God had put in her spirit. I believe her prayers saved us. But there was an incident in my career that we ran into a huge storm and I said a silent prayer and the storm opened as it did for the children of Egypt on their way to the promised land.

Would you say that this was the scariest moment in your whole career?

The marabou stork one? Yes. Definitely. I didn’t think we’d make it back alive.

We have seen captains in airports in pristine white uniforms, sunglasses, pulling on a suitcase, and looking very suave. Does your personality change when you get into those snazzy pilot uniforms? Do you just get into character?

(Long laughter) There is something to be said…(Laughs and pauses) It does. You do. (Pause) We once did a trip to Bangkok with my wife and daughter and when we were to come back I told them in the hotel that they needed to hurry up so that I could make it for my pre-flight briefing as I was the captain.

I did this early enough but nearing time for leaving the hotel they were not ready.

I came out of my room dressed in my uniform and said firmly, “we are getting out now.” My daughter, tongue-in-cheek said, “Oh!, Here goes the captain.” (Laughs) I realised that I dealt with them differently because I was in a uniform.

I was no longer daddy, I was the captain. I think when you are wearing a pilot's uniform it changes your outlook of things because now you are on a mission.

Your father validated your flying dream by nicknaming you after the white settler who flew his plane when you were a small boy in the village. Your son is now also a pilot, did you in any way actively validate or influence his decision to fly?

No, I didn’t go out of my way to influence him to fly. However, and we will go back to the uniform thing, the uniform is powerful. I think it made a strong impression on him as a boy and so I didn't need to say or do anything. All he needed to see was the uniform. I suspect that fired up his desire.

You passed the baton to your son on the last flight you guys flew together. What do you fear for him as a young man taking to the skies?
I pray that he stays grounded. The other day I was mentoring a group of young people and one of them asked what makes a great pilot? I said it is the same zeal that makes a great doctor, journalist, teacher, or engineer.

The technical competence must be there obviously but what makes anyone great is humanity. People have said some nice things to me since I retired, but nobody has said 'you used to make such great landings or takeoffs.' Instead, they talked of how I inspired or encouraged or impacted them. These are the things that matter. Competence is a must, yes, but greatness comes from other qualities, like being a good human being. Wisdom, insight, moral character, and judiciousness will distinguish you no matter what career you choose.

If you were a plane, what plane would you be and why?
(Sighs) I'd be a Boeing 777. (Laughs) I thought I'd retire flying the 777 but in the last few years, KQ grounded the ones we had.

Some of us were rerouted to fly the 787s which is a new aircraft. But I still loved the 777, there is the way it sits on the ground, in the sky it's so stable, taking on turbulence better and there is a way it lands like it can do it alone. (Chuckles). After flying the 777, I deeply fell in love with it.

So the Boeing 787 was kind of like a rebound?
(Laughs) Yes.

Who is the most important person you ever flew? And please don’t say all your passengers were important.
(Laughs) I guess in that case the president. I flew the late President Daniel Moi many times and then President Uhuru Kenyatta. I even invited him to the cockpit. He was a good sport.

How did you meet your wife?
I went to visit my sister in the “box” at the university and she was there. (Laughs) They were friends. The rest, as they say, is history.

What are you planning to fill your time with now that you have stopped flying?

Well, I would like to be a lot more involved in mentorship programmes. I also look to offer my expertise in the aviation industry at some level. I’m a trained aircraft accident investigator.

I was in the commission of inquiry over the Saitoti crash. I also have an interest in farming, so I will do some of that, it's therapeutic. I will also certainly be more involved in Christian ministry.

Are you a good Christian?
Yes, I try to be.

And when you fail as a good Christian, what do you mostly fail at?

Many areas. If you read what the scripture expects us to be; humble, loving, patient, persevering, generous, you often don't measure up. However, the beauty also is that Christianity is a journey and you never should feel you have arrived.

There is always room to grow and be better and the scripture is clear that when you fail you go back to God and ask for forgiveness and He is loving and willing to forgive.

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