Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for impact because this flight is about to smash the glass ceiling.
Determined to stay on the radar in a male-dominated industry, a movement of Kenyan women in aviation is on a mission to navigate their way through barriers that have been slowing their careers.
They are also out to ensure that as many women as possible are on board – not just as air hostesses – but in positions that have traditionally been occupied by men.
Last week, the movement held the first Girls in Aviation Day in Kenya, which was coordinated by the local chapter of the Women in Aviation International.
According to Ms Una Gertrude Odhiambo, the president of the organisation in Kenya, their main objective is to reach as many school girls as possible and to ignite their passion to venture into aviation after school.
Lifestyle spoke to five women in the aviation industry.
Employer: Kenya Airways
Last Wednesday, her experienced hands were controlling Flight KQ616 from Nairobi to Mombasa. Mrs Mary Kai ensured the 145-seater plane made all the right turns, was flying at the acceptable altitude, hit the JKIA runway at the proper angle and all that.
It is a job she has been doing since 2005, and it has seen her fly to multiple destinations in Africa, Dubai and India. One of her recent assignments was flying the Kenyan Paralympics team to Brazzaville, Congo.
What can she do to get fired? Easy: If she does not pay attention to the specifics of every flight she is involved in, if she doesn’t adhere to the time schedules in her employer’s duty roster, if she doesn’t coordinate with the rest of the crew assigned to a flight … the list is quite long.
However, getting fired literally is not the worst that can happen. If she lets her guard down, one blunder can have a spiral effect and the result might be fatal.
“It’s the same as road accidents. They happen every time but they don’t stop you from driving a car,” she says.
The holder of an aeronautics degree from the St Louis University in Missouri, US, Mrs Kai started off as a second officer — the person who sits beside the pilot — in 2005. Later she became a first officer, operating the Boeing 737, a plane that can carry between 116 and 145 passengers.
She was later promoted to fly the Boeing 767 (which has since been pulled out of the Kenya Airways fleet) that can fly up to 200 people. After that she was licensed to fly the Boeing 777 that carries between 322 and 400 passengers.
Mrs Kai was later bestowed with the rank of captain, a person who is the overall commander in a flight. She is currently a captain of the Boeing 737.
A mother of a six-year-old daughter, Mrs Kai is the treasurer of the Kenyan chapter of Women in Aviation International and says she is passionate about mentoring girls to join aviation.
“We want to have more of us come into aviation. We want to also tell them about diversity; because most of them don’t think of the other professions besides being a pilot. You can be an engineer, cabin crew, a dispatcher, an operations officer, you can work in the network planning – it’s so diverse,” she says.
She recalls that women did not form more than 15 per cent of the students in her aviation class at the Parks College that is under St Louis University.
Designation: Air traffic radar controller at JKIA
Employer: Kenya Civil Aviation Authority
Her core mandate is to ensure that aircraft don’t collide when landing or taking off.
She is charged with ensuring flights entering and leaving the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport are scheduled accordingly so that none flies into the path of another.
That is why she was a bundle of nerves in her first days on duty in 2007.
“At first it was overwhelming. I had a lot of anxiety, because of the knowledge that people’s lives depended on the decisions I made. But with time, you adapt to the responsibilities. I have come to love my job,” she told Lifestyle.
Ms Njoroge works from a control room from where she communicates with pilots to ensure all landings and take-offs are harmonised. The holder of a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and computer science from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Ms Njoroge joined the aviation industry because she was bored with her work as a banker.
She responded to a 2006 newspaper advertisement calling for air traffic controllers and the rest, she says, has been steady career progression. She has since achieved three ratings in aerodrome control — achieved in 2007, 2010 and 2014.
She is the outreach chairperson of the Kenyan chapter of Women in Aviation International, and says gender stereotyping has continued to hold back women from excelling in the aviation industry.
“There are staff in the aviation industry who will look down upon you at work. You have to always prove yourself. I also have to withstand the stereotypes associated with working women. There are people who, for example, don’t understand why my husband takes children to church on some weekends,” said the mother of two.
Because JKIA operates on a 24-hour basis, Ms Njoroge together with her colleagues have to work on day or night shifts.
She recalls that there were only three women in a class of 15 students when she was undergoing training at the East African School of Aviation.
Una Gertrude Odhiambo
Designation: Flight dispatcher
Employer: Air Kenya
Ms Una Gertrude Odhiambo’s job involves ensuring everyone who has booked a flight with Air Kenya is assigned a plane, they leave at the stipulated time and that their luggage is loaded.
Air Kenya, which is based at the Wilson Airport, operates domestic scheduled and charter services to tourist destinations such as Maasai Mara, Lewa, Nanyuki, Samburu, Meru, Diani, Lamu, Malindi and Kilimanjaro among other areas.
Sometimes, she will be called upon to decide how much fuel a particular aircraft needs for it to contain the weight of passengers and that of luggage, while at the same time ensuring the plane has enough fuel to complete the journey.
At other times, her work involves instructing pilots to change routes in case a client requests a change of schedule or if there is a passenger to be picked up somewhere.
Ms Odhiambo can also cancel flights altogether when weather conditions are unfavourable or when the “notice to airmen”, a vital document among aviation workers, tells her so.
She entered the aviation industry in 2005, working for a Tanzanian firm called Coastal Travels. She would resign from the job to enrol for a degree course in aviation management from Moi University; which she completed in 2011. Ms Odhiambo was one of the women who pushed for the creation of the Kenyan chapter of Women in Aviation International, and she is currently the president of the organisation. The group consists of those employed in the aviation industry and those in aviation schools.
“Our main agenda is to make everyone aware that the aviation industry is not for the high and mighty; that it is also exciting,” she said.
She is pleased that the number of women in the industry has been growing since 2002. However, she is concerned that local institutions are not doing enough in terms of training especially in master’s courses.
Designation: Senior engineer
Employer: Kenya Airways
Ms Mosa Agina is a senior engineer at Kenya Airways for the Boeing 737.
She heads a team of six and their job is to ensure that aircraft are ready to fly and that all necessary checks are done. It is their work to ensure planes are not only available but are also in safe condition.
“At night, the checks are more intense because aircraft are on lay-over after flying long hours during the day,” she said.
Ms Agina, the only woman in her team, says she made the decision to be an aeronautical engineer while still in Form Four.
Although she did not want to be a pilot, aeroplanes generally fascinated her and that was the only push she required to get her into the aviation industry.
And being a woman in the male-dominated industry has never deterred her even though there are still men who wonder why a woman would prefer her line of work.
“The bottom line is that you know what you need to do. In the beginning, some men would want to help you carry out some tasks until they realise that you can do it. Some would say it was just a fluke that you got the job done,” she told Lifestyle. But after 13 years as an engineer, she has proved to her critics that it is not by luck that she landed that position.
The only girl in a family of four – the others are men – her parents’ worry was not her choice of career but rather the funds needed to take her to college. She studied at the Hindustan College of Engineering in India.
Designation: Project Manager B777 & B767
Employer: Kenya Airways
When Ms Amelia Omollo was the national carrier’s engineer or “aeroplane mechanic” as she calls it, her job entailed ensuring aircraft maintenance was at its best.
She would later rise through the ranks to become part of the team that handles the buying and selling of aircraft and maintaining relationships with companies that Kenya Airways dealt with.
Prior to joining Kenya Airways, she was in the military from April 2003 up to January 2007. She says it is her service at the army that taught her discipline and perseverance.
Her initial dream was to be a pilot. She recalls a time in Form Three when her father asked her the career she wanted to pursue. He, however, encouraged her to study about aeroplanes
“He told me that being a pilot is just like being a driver. He asked me: ‘Why don’t you understand why the plane is flying before you can fly?’” she said.
And that was the beginning of her journey. She never got interested in flying after that.
She is the only woman in her department but says she has become used to working with male colleagues because even while in university in Russia, there were less than 10 women in a class of 90 students.
“Definitely, you have to prove that you are actually worth it. Some men tend to think that you are handed stuff because you are a woman. When you get it you have to work extra hard; go an extra mile to tell them that as much as it might be out of the need to meet gender parity, I’m worth my salt,” she said.
Being a single mother, her work presents challenges especially when she has to travel on short notice or when there is a tight schedule to work on.
Ms Omollo, 36, was featured as one of Kenya’s Top 40 under 40 Women in a recognition programme by the Business Daily newspaper.