Dangerous Flight: I flew plane with water in the engine – Chinyere Kalu, first female commercial pilot

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Being a pacesetter in  the aviation sector in Nigeria is no mean feat. But for Captain Chinyere Kalu, the Rector and Chief Instructor at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, being the first female commercial pilot in Nigeria was a natural choice which had the support of her aunt whom she grew up with. Although she says her decision to be a pilot has caused her lots of pains because some people felt she was a threat to them, she has no regret that she opted to be a pilot.

In this interview with BEN AGANDE Chinyere  takes us down memory lane and speaks on some of the challenges she has faced in the course of her profession thirty years after she left the aviation school.  Excerpts:

Was there any opposition from your parents when you made that decision to fly?

No opposition surprisingly. My aunt, who was my mentor,  was the first person to travel to the United Kingdom from my village, so she was some  kind of a celebrity of her time. So I mentioned the idea of flying to her; she did nursing in the UK; she was a trail blazer so to speak.

And having been that exposed, she just felt ‘this is your opportunity, don’t even look back, just make the most of it, grab it’. So she was quite instrumental, encouraging and motivating. And, because she is my mother’s elder sister, and she was more or less the head of the family, she had a lot of influence, so once she had given her blessing, her go-ahead, my mother just said it was fine.

What was the motivating factor that made you go into this male dominated profession at the time?

That was about 33 years ago. The motivating factor was the adventurous spirit, to venture out to see what  was out there. I felt flying would  be challenging and I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing at the time. I wanted something unique, something special, something challenging, something that would  be fulfilling.  I also thought it would  be a good opportunity to travel all over the world and being paid for it.

*Chinyere Kalu

How has the journey been?

I want to thank God in every sense of it. It has not been easy for a number of reasons. If you are not from the ‘right part’  of the country, if you don’t speak the ‘right language’, you won’t get all the support and encouragement. And I have suffered a lot because of that; in fact,  I had been a threat to a number of people, chief executives prior to my time.

They felt so threatened to the point that they felt if they left me to excel, probably I was going to take their job from them. So there was a lot of victimisation, but the bottom line is that God, who brought me from the dung hill,  has made it possible for me to be on this seat at this time and I just thank Him.

It has not been easy. There was a period  in my life that I was sent packing for 14 months, no salary, nothing! And that was not the first time or the second, but God has been faithful and that is the bottom line. It has not been easy because I didn’t have the desired support, I didn’t have godfathers and I was there suffering, but God has been faithful.

In all of these, do you sometimes regret you went into the wrong profession?

I don’t think that has ever crossed my mind, but what I know did happen was that it kind of discouraged my children and my family members from going into flying from the onset. My daughters, two of them in the United States now, one doing her Ph.D, the other doing her master’s and even my last son would have gone abroad to do one thing or the other. But until I became the Rector and they saw some safe haven to remain and pursue the career, none of us ever thought of going into aviation or flying because it was rough. So God has been good and gracious.

Can you share some of those memorable moments you had flying?

One of the memorable moments of my life in flying was when I went on my first solo. First solo is the first time a student pilot will take off with an aircraft and land all by himself or herself, without the instructions and the presence of a flight instructor. That I did I think on the 6th of June, 1978. I can remember it clearly.

At that time, the set of instructors that we had were semi-military and they could be so harsh and unfriendly. So my instructor said to me, `go, if you like, kill yourself’.  I, as a pilot and as an instructor, will never say that to my students at this point.

I will say, `I believe in you, all you need to do is to show me that you can go up and come down on your own. Go ahead, I am praying for you and I know you will succeed’. But he told me, `you can go, if you like, kill yourself’; that was very negative.

Well, I did go up and when I went up, instead of being afraid, rigid and timid, I felt so relaxed. I could remember I was singing, flying, just praising God and thanking God. I was not frigid, I was just there doing my own thing, knowing that this man (I hope he doesn’t get to read this because he is still alive and still very much in the industry) that said I could g up and kill myself if I liked, that was shouting at me was no longer there.

I could do what I wanted, fly the way I wanted; of course you have to follow rules and regulations. And I went up and came down. We are supposed to do three circuits, that is  land three times and I did that and I was so happy and thankful to God that He made it happen. Another day was when I was flying, I had gone on a cross country and, before you can qualify as a commercial pilot, you have to do a lot of navigations and, at that time, we used to do solo navigations, now we have dual where you have two student-pilots going to fly. One will be in command while the other
one will be the co-pilot. But in our own time, it was just one person flying.

I had flown to Katsina and, for one reason or the other, I couldn’t locate Katsina and Katsina is close to the borders, so I was afraid and I said, `well, I hope I don’t fly into Niger and they  shoot me down `or something like that. So I was so concerned and worried and of course I panicked a bit and, instead of doing what I had been taught to do rigidly, I was now just flying all over the place and not maintaining a constant heading and all that. I was really putting myself into trouble but the truth of it is that God helped me to locate Katsina and from there I was able to get my bearing to the college and nobody knew what had happened.

What was the other incident?

The other incident I had was on the 6th of October 2006 when I had a plane crash. We had gone up with two girls, twin sisters, and a boy on a flight.  I think the exercise they were to do was climbing. It hadn’t been long they started flying when it happened. So we did the normal checks, all the parameters were okay, everything was working fine and then we took off. And because I had taught them some of the exercises, they were doing it themselves and then it got to a point and one of the students said, `Ma, it seems as if our aircraft is losing power’. So I checked and looked at the parameters and they were okay, but from the sound of the engine and the engine indicator (thermometer RPM indicator), I could see that actually we were losing power. So I thought,  what do we do? We had  practised that over and over, not with this set of students, but, as a pilot, before you graduate, you will do a lot of false landing, engine failure, precautionary landing. We had done a lot of that over and over, but it wasn’t
something new, only that this was real, it was no longer stimulated.

So when that happened, I took over control from her, obviously I should take over, I was the pilot in command and did all the other checks to see if we didn’t do something right or put something wrongly. I did all that and the power was not being sustained, so I realized that this was for real. So I was composed, I was calm then I decided that we should head towards the air field, that is, coming back to our airport here.  Before then, I had had similar experiences. There was an occasion; I had gone to fly and somehow the engine began coughing, that is disruptive operation. So I decided that, instead of looking for a field to crash land because if you crash land there is a lot of publicity to it, you have to come and explain, NCAA will come in, your license will be suspended, investigation will take place and all that  – So its quieter if you can manage it and bring it down but then you shouldn’t risk it in the process of managing it, you don’t want to crash and kill yourself, you still want to come out alive
– I started coming back to the field and I was able to make it to the field. That was an incident some years back and, when we landed, we realized that water had entered the engine. We drained and saw half bottle of water from the engine, so it was the water that entered the engine that was making the aircraft to rough run and not to perform well.

There was one too that I had and we headed back to the air field; it was moments after we landed that the engine stopped, and when we checked, we saw that the hose was not supplying fuel to the engine, and it had pulled off; so God just helped us to make it. The problem started, I said okay go ahead back to the field. We were heading back to the field when I realised that at the rate we were losing height viz-a-viz the distance to the field I will not be able to make it. So I had to make alternative decision which is to land on the field. There was a road they were constructing and I decided that I will try and land on the road. But as we were coming in to land on the road we were quite low and, because of the way the road was positioned, I had not positioned myself to land comfortably on the road. When I was approaching the road I discovered there was a house on the right and I said to myself, `If I begin to turn in order to land on the road and I was quite low, chances are that my wings may hit the house an
d if my wings hit the house, I will lose control and the aircraft is going to crash land and we may sustain injuries’.

So, at that point, I saw that beside the house there seemed to be guinea corn field and I decided to land there. That was the last decision because  when you have an emergency you keep changing your decision based on how you study the situation. Your situation will determine whether you will carry on with your first decison or you have to revaluate aend make another decision. Initially I planned to come back to Zaria to land.  I saw that I was too far away I could not make it.  So the last decision was for me to land on the guinea corn field and that was where we landed. We landed very well and I thank God, but on  landing I didn’t know there was a hump, it was as we went over that hump that the aircraft sustained some damages, but none of us came out with a scratch, we didn’t even take Panadol. So God did that miracle for me and I thank Him.

When that was happening, the twin sisters asked, `Ma, does it mean this is it?’ I said  it could be, but call on your God. And the faithful God remained faithful to us and nothing happened. When we landed, I told them to rush out immediately.  We all rushed out because with that impact there could be fire. While this was happening, I had called the tower to give them our situation report and what was happening, so tower was busy calling us but we had rushed out for safety. When we waited for a while and noticed there was no fire, we came back to answer tower and told them our exact location, eventually they came for us. And of course I have had experience of ferrying  some of our aircraft from France to Zaria; it was a wonderful experience flying along the west coast of Africa, we landed in Senegal, then Abuja and then eventually in Zaria. It was a beautiful experience. So a lot of beautiful experience.

What is the average cost of training a student to become a pilot here?

The cost is N7.5 million for the whole period and that is inclusive of feeding and accommodation and, in reality, that is below the cost price because when you talk of International College of Aviation in Ilorin, they charge N10 million excluding feeding and accommodation and then the fuel they use are produced locally compared to ours that we buy from outside the country and we pay about N125,000 per drum.

One of your students (Governor Suntai of Taraba State) was involved in a crash?

(Cuts in) I wouldn’t want to respond to that. I will want to say that we have had students like Capt. Adoka Rein, he was my own personal student and he is flying and is still flying. He was MD NAMA and now he is flying with Arik Air and a host of them. Yes, we train students, it is the same standard we are maintaining, but anything can happen any time  not because of the school. We maintain our standard. NCAA is a regulatory body that checks our standard, so we maintain very high standard and Nigerian pilots trained in this college are among the best in the world. We have very high standard.

Do you have foreigners coming here to train?

Not again, but there was a time we had students coming from Nyame and they were training basically air traffic controllers. English is aviation language, so they will send them to improve on their proficiency of English and we will test them and give them Category 4 because ICAO stipulates that you must have proficiency level of Category 4 before you can be a controller.

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