29 June 2003

Kenya: The Jet That is Now President Kibaki's

Nairobi — The Fokker 70ER, registration KAF 308 that President Kibaki has inherited from former President Moi, has few equals in the African skies.

Notwithstanding the criticism about high cost that preceded its arrival in December 1995, the Narc dignitaries who sampled it on their flight to Tanzania this week must now be persuaded that every cent that went into buying the jet was money well spent.

The Fokker 70ER

The Fokker 70ER (ER stands for Extended Range) is considered a VVIP executive jet that offers highly reliable systems, comfort and speed. Most presidents that Kibaki might visit in Africa during his tenure are often ferried in Gulfstream, Cessna, Dassault, Falcon or Airbus (corporate) which may not measure up to the sleek white jet that Moi bought.

None of the VIPs who used it with Kibaki to Tanzania and to Zanzibar may have boarded it during Moi's time and the Kenya Airforce flight crew who flew them might have taken time to explain not just the exquisite interior decor but also the state-of-the-art custom-made facilities that Moi's experts ordered to specification.

Starehe MP Maina Kamanda, the surprise guest in the entourage, and the rest of the Kibaki retinue who did the one-hour flight to Dar-es-Salaam might by now have changed their perception of how Sh2.7 billion was spent to buy the twin-engine jet.

If the pilots allowed them, the members of the entourage will have appreciated the interior of KAF 308, starting with the spacious user-friendly cockpit that accommodates two pilots.

They must have nodded on seeing the cool decor of the pressurised cabin that can carry 28 and is as comfortable as the first class compartments of the Concord. None of the commercial airlines the Kibaki team has travelled in before equal this.

Kibaki's seat is the one that was Moi's, nearest the cockpit as is the case with the first class cabin on a commercial airliner. But the seating arrangement is far more comfortable and can be arranged in a conferencing manner, so that the President can hold a mid-air meeting coffee-table style.

The jet has a bathroom and a mini-kitchen. The Presidential suite features the latest communication equipment. His computer can access the Internet while a TV monitor can show the flight path and the exact position of the aircraft on the globe.

The President's meeting table is an adjustable mahogany piece of furniture which can be laid with a fax machine and several telephone sets. Indeed, if he so wishes, he can hold a conference with people on the ground via a video facility. A phone line that remains open in-flight allows him to reach or be reached by any of his Cabinet members on the ground.

The door separating the Presidential suite and the cockpit features a painting of Mt Kenya while a silver coat-of-arms hangs above the Presidential suite. Both are said to have been done to the taste of Moi, who is said to like interior decor, but now the Mt Kenya decoration might acquire another symbolism after the recent shift in the centre of power.

Just next to the Presidential suite is a VIP cabin that can seat six people, most likely ministers or other dignitaries travelling with the head of state.

The rest of the seating, behind the VIP cabin, is as tastefully furnished as the Presidential suite. The entire floor is covered with a cream carpet. All the seats are white and are made of soft leather.

Each VIP passenger can recline on the spacious, wide-adjustment seat, undisturbed at all by the engine hum which is laid way back at the base of the tail fin, as the presidential Fokker cruises at 35,000 feet above sea level.

For those familiar with different makes of aircraft, the Fokker that was ordered for Moi is regarded as one of the most special of executive jets.

The pilot who flew it to Kenya for the first time from Netherlands where it was made, Col James Gitahi, was once quoted saying: "The first sight of the Fokker 70 Extended Range presidential aircraft, KAF 308, will remain in my memory for a long time. It struck most of us as the most beautiful plane we had ever seen."

Contrary to allegations, when the aircraft was bought it was actually brand new. It had only logged three hours of flight, incurred during testing, when it was delivered to its Kenyan owners on December 20, 1995.

Experts in aviation say it will be in the skies for a long time, even over 20 years to come, given the hardiness and reliability that is associated with Fokker aircraft. That means the same aircraft could be in use for the President who will be elected in the 2022 General Election.

The aircraft has safety facilities that include enough power to climb and land on one engine if the other failed. It has an advanced stall protection device, easy handling, plus a cockpit that offers the pilot excellent forward visibility.

Kibaki could rest easy in the knowledge that the experts who ordered the jet for Moi considered it one of the few that can be cleared to land even in the most difficult runways of the world.

In one of the early trips with the aircraft, Moi was invited to Sion, Switzerland, to attend the Crans Montana Economic Summit. Due to the difficult terrain around Sion Airport, Moi faced the option of being forced by the Swiss government to travel by a commercial airliner.

Airport Pilot Lt Col James Mulinge, who flew that trip with Col James Gitahi had their experience recorded in a military magazine.

Sion Airport is one of the world's trickiest airports to land in or take off from. It is situated in a valley in the Swiss Alps with mountains on either side of the short runway and another mountain lying straight ahead.

Normally, airport authorities in Sion require visiting pilots to perform practice sessions before they can be cleared to use it. But the requirement was waived for the highly regarded Kenyan crew of KAF 308, who were flying a reliable aircraft.

With Moi on board, Col Gitahi and Lt Col Mulinge executed the text book touch-down at Sion Runway 26.

Recounting the experience, Lt Col Mulinge said take-off was even trickier with a mountain looming shortly after gear-up. "We had to climb out like a fighter F-5," said Lt Col Mulinge, himself an F-5 pilot.

Such is the ability of the aircraft that will carry President Kibaki and his entourage to his international engagements. For trips further than Africa and Europe, Kibaki might prefer taking commercial airliners, like Moi did, even though the Fokker can comfortably cross the Atlantic. But the Fokker 70ER is not regarded as a long-haul aircraft like the large four-engine commercial airliners. That was why Moi regularly used British Airways for trans-Atlantic trips.

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