How woman’s one-plane venture grew into modern Wilson Airport

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A section of Wilson Airport in Nairobi on August 9, 2016. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

In 1964, I was thrust from the provincial life of Kibichoi in Kiambu District to the modern city of Nairobi.

My father had just been transferred to Harambee House and was allocated a government house at the corner of Elgon and Matumbato Roads in Upper Hill.

The house was a raised timber floor affair with a stone fireplace, but equipped with modern facilities. I spent many hours watching little aircraft land and take off at Wilson Airport, which was clearly visible from the verandah of the house.

To the right, over weekends, there was always a flotilla of sail boats with brightly coloured sails, darting back and forth on Nairobi Dam, belonging to members of the Nairobi Sailing Club. It was quite a spectacle. Unfortunately, Nairobi Dam has since been gobbled up by water hyacinth and solid waste.

Captain Tom Campbell Black, the famous aviator, arrived in Kenya as a soldier settler in 1922, and joined his brother, Frank Milner Black, who had been stationed in Kenya as a soldier and decommissioned in 1920.

According to Black family history, the two brothers managed a coffee plantation between the towns of Rongai and Eldama Ravine (probably in the Subukia Valley). However, aside from serving with distinction as a pilot in World War 1, Tom was more interested in the finer things in life. He was a reknown equestrian, winning several trophies in show-jumping. He also had a penchant for melting the hearts of wealthy women.

Mrs Florence Kerr Wilson came from a family of shipping magnates in England. Florrie, as she was affectionately known, came to Kenya with her husband Major W.H. Wilson after the First World War. She and her husband were farming in Timau area before his death in 1928.

Returning to England on business later that year in the company of Tom Black and John Carberry in his Fokker Universal plane named Miss Africa, in a trip that lasted four days, Florrie was won over to the idea of starting an airline business in Kenya.

Mrs Wilson bought a de Havilland Gypsy Moth single passenger open-cockpit aeroplane, nicknamed Knight of the Mist, to launch Wilson Airways.
True to form, Tom had other ideas and by the time of their return to Kenya a romantic relationship with Florrie had blossomed “in the air”.

The first permanent airfield in Nairobi was “built” in the early 1920s in Dagoretti near the site of the current Junction Mall. It was known as the Ngong Landing Field and was little more than an open field, often shared with Maasai cattle.

It was at this airfield that Mrs Wilson opened her office for Wilson Airways with Captain Tom Black as her chief pilot and managing director. The airline provided mostly mail services throughout East Africa.

The business grew rapidly but a chance meeting with Nairobi socialite Beryl Markham, while repairing his broken down car by the roadside, led Tom off the tracks as he began a torrid affair with her. Not only would he teach Beryl how to fly but the two became the talk of the town for their well-publicised dalliances.

The mènage à trois became untenable and in 1933 Tom left for England to become the personal pilot of UK horse breeder, Lord Marmaduke Furness, ending both affairs. He would marry English actress Florence Desmond in 1936 before perishing in an air crash in September of the same year.

In 1929, the airport was relocated to Langata (the present site of Wilson Airport) and renamed Nairobi West Aerodrome with more permanent facilities.

Mrs Wilson struggled to run the airline alone but fortune was on her side. Her fleet grew to 17 aircraft with the booming passenger business. Her clients would include members of the Royal Family, other wealthy persons and the popular safari groups.

She also started the first air ambulance rescue service and an aviation training school. Through Mrs Wilson’s pioneering efforts the airport became a regional hub.

Dream was shattered

Unfortunately, at the outbreak of World War 11 in 1939, the airfield and all of the aircraft and pilots of Wilson Airways were taken over by the government. The facility became a Royal Air Force base. After the war, the airport continued to be a successful civilian aerodrome, but Mrs Wilson’s dream was shattered.

As a saving grace, however, the incoming government sent its Minister for Commerce and Communications, Mr Masinde Muliro in 1962, to rename Nairobi West Aerodrome as Wilson Airport. Mrs Wilson was present at the unveiling of the plaque. She passed away at her Karen home six years later in 1968.

Today, Wilson Airport is one of the busiest airports in Africa handling an average of 120,000 flights per annum to regional and international destinations. It used to be said there was a take off or landing every minute of the day at Wilson Airport. Plans are under way to build a modern control tower at a cost of Sh163 million to replace the current facility, which is over 50- years- old.

There is priceless memorabilia at the Aero Club of East Africa situated within the airport, which tells the history of Kenya’s aviation industry. A very nostalgic walk down memory lane, with a hint of danger and adventure. Wilson Airport still retains its rustic, charming and rather eccentric nature.

As in many other locations in Nairobi, Wilson Airport has also suffered the ugly effects of land grabbing with the development of real estate on flight paths posing a real security risk.

Kenya Airports Authority says that hundreds of acres of land belonging to Wilson Airport have been grabbed and allocated to third parties who have in turn sold to other, supposedly innocent, parties. Despite pledges by the authorities to stem this menace, the practice continues unabated, with no end in sight.

The author is a retired banker and motorcycle
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