Captain Chinyere Kalu is a pilot and presently the Rector of the Nigeria College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) Zaria. In this interview with a select group of journalists she bares her mind of her over 33 years flying career.
What motivated you to become a pilot?
It was a long time ago, about 33 years ago. The motivating factor is just an adventurous spirit, to venture out to see what is out there. I felt flying will 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 I feel will be fulfilling. So that is what led me into flying. I also thought it will be a good opportunity to travel all over the world and get paid for it.
What was the reaction of your parent to that decision?
Surprisingly, there was no opposition. My aunt who was my mentor was the first person to travel to the United Kingdom from my village. She was a kind of a celebrity of her time. So when I mentioned the idea of flying, having been the first person in my village to go to UK, she did nursing, 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.
What about your father?
Well I didn't grow up with my father. I had a lot of female influence around me when I was growing up. My mum had separated from my father long ago and I didn't grow up under his influence.
How has the journey been so far?
It has not been easy for a number of reasons. I have suffered a lot; in fact I have 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 leave me to excel, that 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. That is the conclusion of it all. It has not been easy, there was a period of time in my life I was sent packing for 14 months no salary, nothing. And that was not the first time nor was it the second but God has been faithful and that is the bottom line. It has not been easy because I didn't have a lot of support, I didn't have a lot of godfathers and I was there suffering but God has been faithful.
How have you been able to combine family with your career?
When I was bringing up my children my work wasn't this busy and so I had time to bring up the children. And I have a wonderful husband; he is very supportive. Sometimes he will ask, when are you coming home and I will say not so soon or I am coming right back. He understands and he doesn't mind if I don't cook his meals, if I don't come home early but he is a workaholic as well. So even if I get home at 12 midnight he is still very much awake and I will end up going to bed before him. So he works late but the truth of the matter is that he is very loving, very understanding and very supportive. If he had not been so supportive of me through it all I don't know how I would have managed.
What is your most memorable flying experience?
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 the 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 "well you go if you like kill yourself". For me as a pilot and as an instructor I will never tell 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.
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.
The other incident I had was on 6th of October 2006 when I had a plane crash. We had gone up with some two girls, twin sisters with another boy on a flight. At that time I think the exercise they were to do was climbing. It hasn'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 so they were doing it themselves and then it got to a point and one of the student 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 when that happened I took over control from her, obviously I should take over. I am 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 realised that this is 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. 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 realised 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.
When that was happening, the twin sisters asked, Ma does it mean this is it? I said well it could be but pray, call on your God. And the faithful God remain 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. When this was happening I had called the tower to give them our situation report and what was happening per time, 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.
In view of your experiences, will you advise more girls to take to flying?
Well looking at your face I could conclude that in fact once you allow your daughter to toe this line she will become a heroine. Yes, nobody is going to victimise her, she will be greatly encouraged. I have taken all the beating and bashing and all that so no other woman flight instructor will go through. In fact, at a point, I was retrenched because I was expecting my first baby. They said as a pilot you cannot fly but we went over that and so many other gory experiences. But I thank God I am still here after 33 years.
Recently I went to Abuja for a programme by the University of Science and Engineering in Abuja, I was invited to give motivational talks to young girls and I was just encouraging them. I am ageing and I need replacement, I need younger people to come and replace me. They should come because I think women make better flight instructors. They are patient, they will teach, advice, encourage.
How many students do you have?
We have quite a number. We have a set of students in Minna, we have a campus there that the Niger State government collaborated with us to open to conduct ground instructions for flight training. So we have 28 (SP 28), in SP26 we have about 17 students, in SP27 we have about 20 students and then we have some students in SP25 and by January we will take in another set of students. So you can say we have about 70 flying students.
How many of them are women?
I really don't know. I know in Minna we have about three girls for other ones we have girls in the class, maybe a total of 10 or there about.
What is the cost of training a pilot?
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 of fuel.
One of your students (Governor Suntai of Taraba State) recently had a plane crash.
(Cuts in) I wouldn't want to answer 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, it is 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 some of the best in the world.
How often do you fly?
Well, in the past it wasn't as often but now much more regularly. As I go to Abuja for one programme or the other, I seize the opportunity to fly so that I remain current.
You don't go to Abuja by road?
I do sometimes but when I am pressed for time or I have a lot to do, I fly.