Nairobi — A fighter pilot is one of the world's most glamorous professionals. Romanticised in such blockbuster books and films as the "right stuff "and the "top gun", the dashing aviator captures the imagination of millions of young men and women who dream of becoming like him.
If the Kenya Air Force headquarters put out an advertisement calling on youths of between 18 and 21 years to turn up for recruitment as fighter pilots, it would have to move to another place avoid being buried in an avalanche of humanity.
Such is the fascination with flying, especially high-speed flying. Yet unknown to many aspiring pilots are the risks involved. Perhaps they don't matter, or they are worth it, as long as one can get the chance to strap oneself in a jet's cockpit.
This must certainly be the case because virtually all pilots who have survived the closest calls to their lives have always expressed the desire to return to flying as quickly as possible. It is an addiction that those called to this life seem to identify themselves long before they earn their wings.
Like many other young men, Lt-Col John Kiili, the current commandant of the Kenya Air Force flying training school, dreamt of flying. He was lucky. He achieved his dream and became an Air Force fighter pilot. He flew at great speeds, with both the Kenya and US Air Forces. And he loved every minute of the great adventure -- 25 years of flying the dream -- literally.
Today, at 47, the dashing man has mutated into a mature and thoughtful flying instructor. He is reading for a masters degree in armed conflict and peace studies. He already holds a BA in sociology and communication from the University of Nairobi.
Few are better placed to separate the myth from the reality of flying than the big, bespectacled Air Force officer. He has logged almost 3,000 hours of mostly uneventful flying. But he also holds the unenviable distinction of being the only pilot in the Kenya Air Force to be forced to abandon two planes in mid-air to save his life.
First, he had to eject himself from a Hawk jet fighter, and then he had to order his student to get out of a Bulldog trainer before he himself followed. Both planes had become uncontrollable and the decision to abandon them had to be made in a matter of seconds.
Kiili was a captain serving as a pilot with the Hawk Squadron at the Laikipia airbase when, on January 7, 1994, he was tasked to do an air test on one of the jet fighters. This was a routine assignment and he had done many such duties before. The only difference between this flight and the previous ones was that the plane he was going to test was itself going to test his will to live as well as skill and courage to enforce that will before it went down in flames in the plains of Dol Dol in Laikipia.
According to rules governing air safety, it is mandatory to have an aircraft air-tested if any of its parts has been tampered with for whatever reason. Air tests fall into two categories -- full and limited. The full test is done when major components such as the engine are involved. This invariably involves two pilots, and detailed note taking is done. A limited test is a lower-level category, and usually involves one crewman.
Kiili's Hawk fighter jet needed an air-frame test. The airframe is the aircraft's body, and it is where all the control surfaces -- the flaps, aerolons, radar, trimmers and so on -- are located. His mission involved testing the efficacy of all these. He would fly at different altitudes and speeds and put the aircraft to different attitudes (angles and postures) and make a report of his findings.
The captain made a smooth take-off from the Laikipia airbase and headed out to the designated test site around Dol Dol. The aircraft performed flawlessly during the test.
He recalls: "The aircraft had passed all the essential stages of the test, and the final checks remaining required it to be flown at a height of 2,000ft above the ground.
As usual, with such a test, I put the aircraft in a steep dive against the dark green foreground of the land. I was plunging from a height of about 11,000ft, but never made it smoothly to the desired height. At anything between 2,500ft and 3,000ft, I heard a deafening explosion and, for a while, I could not tell what had happened."
On looking around, Kiili found that the glass canopy that houses the cockpit was badly shattered. At that time he was doing at a speed of about 800kph, and the noise coming through the exposed canopy was unbearable. Even worse, he had this feeling that a part of his body had been ripped off. At the same time, lose objects were flying around the shattered cockpit and communication with the control tower became a gargantuan task.
On further inspection of his environment, Kiili saw that, among the objects flying around, were a bird's feathers.
He notes laconically: "These were definitely not in the cockpit when I was taking off, nor were they part of the aircraft." He immediately concluded that he had made a bird strike.
"Some fragments from the bird and debris from the aircraft had caused some injuries on me," he recalls. "Blood was oozing through the sleeve of my right arm and from the side of my face. Clearly, the impact had damaged my helmet."
On seeing these, he decided to find out no more. All this was happening in a matter of seconds and the ground was rising up towards him. He levelled the aircraft and started climbing again. When in trouble, pilots are instructed to pull up immediately and gain as much height as possible to buy them time to solve the problem. As he flew up, Kiili kept inspecting his plane and noted that the right wing was badly damaged.
Visible points of impact
Obviously, given the visible points of impact on the plane, he had come into contact with not one, but a flock of birds. And they must have been big birds. With searing pain in his body and enduring unbearable noise from the headwind rushing through an exposed canopy, he shouted into his radio:"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" It is the international radiotelephone call for help used by aircraft and ships when in distress.
"Confirm you have an emergency," radioed back the controller.
The conversation was barely audible. The controller was Maj Noah Sawe, now retired. He was at the time Kiili's best friend, and he knew that his friend was in great distress, going by the violence coming through the radio. It was too much for him.
Just as a doctor disqualifies himself when faced with a close friend or relation in a life-threatening situation, Maj Sawe decided to hand over the controls to somebody else. He quickly called his commanding officer, Lt-Col Harold Tangai, who arrived promptly on learning of the emergency.
Tangai is currently Air Force commander with the rank of major-general.
He was calm, and spoke sympathetically to his pilot. "Describe your problem," he requested. Through the cacophony, Kiili laboured to say he had injuries on his face and on his right arm. They appeared minor, he said, but not so for the aircraft.
"The damage to the aircraft is serious, but it is still operable," he reported. "There is damage on the canopy and on the wings."
"Can you attempt to make it back to the base?" Tangai asked.
"Yes, Sir," Kiili replied, "But if things get any worse, I will eject. I am preparing to eject."
"Try and make it back to the base," Tangai told him. "Wish you all the best."
Tangai was trying to be as encouraging to the stricken young pilot as he could. Kiili was now flying a course with a heading for the Laikipia airbase.
But he had barely acknowledged his boss's call when everything seemed to come apart.
He recalls: "Moments after this conversation and flying at a height of 10,000ft above the ground, all hell broke lose. Without warning, I heard a loud popping noise from within the aircraft followed by a sudden deceleration. I tried to boost the power, but there was none.
Looking at the instrument panel, I saw that all the warning lights were on, including the one that showed engine failure. At that point, I was 40km away from base and I knew that reaching home in my circumstances was virtually impossible."
Tangai was back on the radio. "Will you attempt to make it back to the base?" he asked.
The dire reply from the pilot said it all. "Sir, I've just lost the engine as I am talking to you."
"Where are you?"
"Too far, Sir, I cannot make it home."
"No Sir, the base is so far away. I am preparing to eject."
"Okay, John," Tangai said with resignation; "call when ejecting."
The cockpit was a festival of flashing warning lights. The red light indicating that the engine was on fire was particularly scary for Kiili. He looked around, but didn't see a fire.
But he knew better than to mistrust his instruments, which showed that virtually anything that could fail had failed. He was steadily losing altitude and speed, and his fighter was now a glider.
Even the most resilient and hopeful of pilots know when the game is up. You linger a little longer, tampering with the instruments and hoping you will kick the dying aircraft back into life and you go down with it.
On the flip side of the coin, ejecting is no simple matter. For one, there is no guarantee the mechanism will work; the seat could jam and you remain strapped to it until the hard and fateful contact with the ground.
If not that, you could get kicked out of the aircraft and the seat fails to separate from you, making the parachute useless, with similar catastrophic results. In such moments and in a matter of milliseconds, the brain analyses which is the best method of dying and comes to a decision which it instructs the body to perform.
Says Kiili: "The motion of the aircraft was now inevitably downward, and I kept updating ground control of the impending tragedy since the aircraft was no longer flyable. In my mind, I was left with no other option, but to eject.
In less than two minutes, I would have no more height to lose and I therefore informed base of my decision to abandon the aircraft."
Through the cacophony of flying debris and a powerful headwind in a shattered cockpit, Kiili radioed: "This is John. I am ejecting now. See you later if it is possible." He wasn't sure he was going to live.
"Okay," replied a resigned Tangai. "We wish you well."
And with that, Kiili pulled the ejection handle and armed the triggers. He was kicked out of his plane and became a projectile travelling at hundreds of kilometres an hour. Before blacking out, he saw the plummeting, disabled aircraft with fire coming out of its engine. He had time to note that his fire warning instruments were right and maybe he had just beaten a mid-air explosion.
When he came out of his blackout, he saw himself floating down gracefully in a brightly coloured parachute. His first thought was: "I am alive!"
But the whole experience of distress is nothing but a series of worries that flash through a hyperactive mind. When the birds first smashed through the glass canopy, his first worry was whether he could somehow fly the plane home. When it became clear he could not, his next worry was whether he could safely eject.
Now that he had done so, his next worry was whether he could land safely. Hazards included landing on tall tree tops, cliffs, rocks and even electrical power lines. There was simply no way to control where one landed.
Says Kiili: "The parachute of a jet fighter comes down faster than that of transport planes. It is designed this way with a war-time scenario in mind. When a fighter pilot is shot down over enemy territory, he must reach the ground as fast as is safely possible to give him a chance to evade pursuers and seek help. I tried to slow down the parachute's descent, but I couldn't.
"I had landed in the in the area between Dol Dol and the Laikipia airbase, an area infested with wild animals as well as thick and thorny vegetation and a rocky terrain. Now my worry was that I would be eaten by the animals.
"By God's grace, I had hit the ground on a clear and safe patch as I watched the aircraft burst into flames on impact some kilometres away.
"The smouldering plane confirmed to me that I was actually alive. It had been a very strange feeling during descent, imagining that I was still in the aircraft and that floating under the parachute was just but a dream."
Happy to land in a clear place, with no immediate evidence of wild animals, Kiili's next worry was losing his aircraft. This was an extremely bitter experience and he kept asking himself whether there was anything he could have done to save it. He felt as if he had lost a part of himself.
Still depressed by the experience that was only slightly eased by relief at surviving the airborne clash with birds made of flesh and bones, he executed rescue procedures as he lay nursing a sprained ankle and wounded face and hand. He had no idea at what point he had lost his helmet -- in the aircraft or when parachuting to earth.
He radioed base for help and a rescue aircraft was dispatched to fetch him. But it was airborne for no more than a minute before developing mechanical problems itself. But it returned safely home.
Luck was, however, with the stricken pilot this time around. He remembers: "A British Army helicopter in the vicinity had witnessed what had happened, and the crew
promptly flew to the spot where I had landed. They picked me up and I informed the base that I was on the way home.
"Being a foreign aircraft, the helicopter needed clearance to land in the restricted airfield, but that was given with no questions asked; base knew its mission. The major injuries I had sustained were a sprained ankle, a cut in the cheek, a punctured arm muscle and psychological trauma. It took three weeks for the physical injuries to heal, but the psychological trauma lingers on to date."
Traumatised he might have been, but he was eager to get back into the cockpit as soon as possible. He did this immediately medical authorities gave their go-ahead. What he had no way of knowing was that in his book of destiny, it was written that he would abandon another aircraft against his will in a similar decision of last resort to save his life. And to complicate matters farther, he would be in the company of a student.
Both successfully bailed out of their recalcitrant Bulldog trainer aircraft in an incident unique to the 45-year history of the Kenya Air Force.
Ejecting and bailing out are two very different actions, though both result in abandoning an aircraft mid-air. Ejecting is an automatic process, while bailing out is manual. In their own different ways, both require supreme courage to do. Kiili is the only pilot in the Air Force's history to have been tasked by his fate to perform both.
This time, his day of destiny was February 12, 2004 -- almost 10 years to the day he had abandoned the Hawk. By this time, he had graduated and become a qualified flying instructor.
He was attached to the Air Force flying school, which had been temporarly moved to Mombasa to conduct high-altitude training, including spinning exercises on Bulldog aircraft. He remembers: "On that day, I was to conduct a spinning exercise for my students --Second Lieutenants Duncan Cheruiyot and Simon Chege.
The briefing lasted about 30 minutes. At 10.30am, we went for tea before flying out to the training area. During my first flight, I was to take 2nd Lt Cheruiyot as my first student. At 11.30 am, we were strapping up, ready to start the engine.
"We did the pre-flight checks, and at noon we were rolling off for take-off to the training area, south of Mombasa. The weather was partially cloudy and a bit hazy around Mombasa."
The training zone extended from Kinango, Kwale and Msambweni down to Ramisi. Instructor and student found fairer weather at Msambweni, where they started the exercise. The first part included a revision of a normal spin and after a thorough airborne briefing, Kiili asked his student if he had any questions. Cheruiyot responded he had none and was ready to proceed. Kiili handed over controls to him and ordered him to start the manoeuvres.
After the pre-spin checks the student entered into a left normal spin. This was well executed and, after three normal spins, he ordered the student to recover from it. Cheruiyot responded as ordered and began the recovery procedures. Here, it is important to note that the effectiveness of the recovery inputs is normally felt within two seconds. But this was a day like never before in the instructor's career.
I was taken aback
He recalls: "For the first time in my flying career, I witnessed an aircraft defy the commands. When I noticed this, I was taken aback and took over the aircraft controls from the student. I put in the recovery controls afresh, but again there was no response.
A normal recovery usually takes place within the first six rotations at most, but we were on the eighth spin. Noting this, I concluded that the aircraft had entered into a phenomenon known as a "flat spin", a state of flight difficult to recover from. I noticed that we had dropped height from 10,000ft to 6,000ft above the ground and were still losing more."
Kiili needed no further evidence that he and his charge were in real trouble. He earnestly got down to work in an all-out effort to recover. The picture of the Hawk incident crossed his mind as he continued to struggle. But the aircraft completely failed to respond and, as they continued losing time and height, he knew that it was time to make that fateful decision again: call it quits and try the final option -- bailing out.
He says: "Bailing out is different from ejection in that ejection is an automatic process whereas bailing out is a manual action where one has to unstrap himself, open the canopy, walk out of the aircraft to the wing and dive away into the air." Just the thought of doing that has made some people prefer going all the way down with the aircraft, betting that the crash will somehow be survivable.
A glance at the altimeter showed that the pair had dropped to 5,000 ft and having been through 11 spins it was time to jump for dear life. Kiili gave his student the order:
"Bail out! Bail out! Bail out!"
As he gave this order, he opened the canopy. Cheruiyot took heed of Kiili's command without any hesitation. He courageously and readily bailed out and Kiili followed him seconds later. But now the strong attachment to his aircraft took over. He just couldn't proceed without making one final effort to save it.
He recalls: "I stopped and stood on the wing and looked at the aircraft that we were about to lose. At the thought of it, I decided to go back into the cockpit and make the last attempt at recovery."
A horrible dilemma
A horrible dilemma occurred to him during those few seconds that he attempted to coax the plane back to normal. Supposed it obeyed? Cheruiyot had already bailed out and Kiili would have the unspeakable agony of flying safely back to base without knowing the fate of the student he had just ordered out. The plane would be saved and that was good for the Air Force and the country-- but what about the young man?
In these circumstances, should the plane agree to come back to life or should it not? What kind of teacher returns safely home after possibly sending his student to his death? How could he live with this, should it happen? Had he made the right decision -- to try one last time to save the plane after the student was out of it?
All these questions occurred to him in the very few seconds that he struggled with the recalcitrant metal bird after Cheruiyot had jumped out. He had now dropped to 4,000ft, was still dropping and finally he decided: time to leave.
"In the case of bailing out, the parachute has to be deployed manually by pulling out the D-ring on the breast. Since I did not get a black-out, I reached out for the D-ring immediately after diving. On pulling it out the attachment string felt too light and I thought it had snapped. For a while, I thought my end had come.
I looked up fearfully and said a prayer. God heard me and granted my wish -- I saw the parachute gracefully opening up above me. I then felt a jerk and the parachute was fully deployed.
"This gave me a feeling of great relief and gratitude and, with this, I thought of my student. I looked around fearing for his safety. I took a 180-degree turn and failed to locate him. As I was about to settle for the worst, I looked up and saw him gracefully dangling under his parachute several feet above me. I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. I am very religious and kept thanking God for everything."
What happened is that, although Cheruiyot jumped first and Kiili spent a few seconds in the cockpit, the plummeting plane was travelling faster than the student's parachute. That's how he ended up below him when both were floating down.
As in the incident of 10 years before, worries came in quick succession. Now that he was gracefully floating earthwards, where would he land?
This was how he remembers the view of the topography from above: "The landing zone was forested, and directly below me was a cluster of traditionally built houses and a huge gaping borehole, which made my hair stand on end. The houses had central poles projecting from the roofs. My worst fear was that if the poles missed me, the borehole would not.
"Fear gripped me and I started thinking of my family and other relatives, friends and colleagues and started imagining how they would receive the news of my death."
Yet another prayer and yet more grace from the almighty. He survived. He landed on a clear patch in the forest as if indeed by a miracle. Cheruiyot landed similarly -- in a clear patch some 100m away. And to their astonishment, the aircraft, which had crashed just before them, sat at a clearing on its belly, positioned as though by design. There was no sign of fire on the aircraft and no injuries for the relieved crew.
Recalls Kiili: "I bundled up my parachute as I watched my student make a smooth landing. I then walked towards him, reached out to him and congratulated him for surviving and he, too, congratulated me. Normally, a student-instructor relationship is so formal that casual fraternisation is non-existent. But on this particular occasion, all was put aside. My student and I were at that moment equal in that we were both survivors."
Accompanied by bemused locals, the pair walked towards the aircraft. At the crash site, they found that the it had almost flattened due to the great impact. They laid out rescue signs after alerting base about the crash.
They were rescued an hour later by an Air Force Puma helicopter and taken to Mtongwe Naval Hospital for medical attention. Save for minor leg bruises, they had sustained no notable injuries. They were treated and discharged and, sure enough, resumed training immediately.
Says Kiili: "This did not deter me from continuing with my normal duties, and I do not think it will. Flying is just but a part of me."
There was a poignant ending to this story. Cheruiyot graduated as a brilliant student and was sent to the Laikipia airbase to start training on the F/5 Tiger jet fighter. But he never made the squadron as a pilot. Kiili wistfully thinks that the incident over Msambweni had a more profound impact on the young aviator's career than was immediately apparent.
He remembers the observations of the correspondent who reported the crash. He had observed that, while the instructor looked composed, the student appeared traumatised by what had just happened.
"Maybe we should have taken a closer look at him," says the colonel with a melancholy tone.
"Maybe he would eventually have been a very good example to other students, because his experience was real and inspirational. He was a brave, responsive and obedient young pilot, who did exactly as I ordered him to do in extremely challenging moments. But well, he was not fated to fly for a career."