Johannesburg - The first time Irene Koki Mutungi took the controls of a commercial flight, a passenger refused to board.
“It was a Fokker 50, the door would swing down and become the steps for the passengers to board and they would enter the aircraft past the open door of the flight deck. The man saw me and said: ‘I’m not a guinea pig,’ and refused to take his seat.”
Mutungi’s captain made the man publicly apologise to his first officer before allowing him to continue with the flight.
Last month, Mutungi became the first woman in Africa to command the Boeing 787 Dreamliner when she flew Kenya Airways’ (KQ) inaugural flight to Paris. It was another first for the woman who became KQ’s first woman pilot 19 years ago, then the first black woman airline captain on the continent in 2004, when she qualified to command Boeing 737s.
Charming, bubbly and confident, Mutungi has wanted to fly ever since she can remember. Her dad was a pilot for KQ and she started flying with him when she was 2 or 3. The moment she finished high school in Nairobi at the age of 17, she was off to the nearby Wilson Airport to do her private pilot’s licence and then to Oklahoma in the US to learn to become a commercial pilot. She returned home, did her conversions ratings and KQ took the unprecedented step of hiring its first female pilot. Mutungi remained the only female pilot in the company for six years. Today there are 39 of them, and five are captains.
KQ chief executive Dr Titus Naikuni is one of her biggest fans. “Koki was already a pilot when I joined the airline. I admired her. I still do.”
Mutungi’s journey, which has included further aviation training in Australia and Britain, inspired Naikuni to radically revamp the cadet pilot training scheme to allow suitable candidates to get bursaries to learn to fly through KQ, then pay their study loans back while they worked for the airline. “We wanted to attract young Kenyans mad about flying who might otherwise have never got the opportunity because of the costs involved.”
The initiative has borne fruit. In 2007, KQ had 157 pilots; today it has 500. When Mutungi became the first airline captain in Africa in 2004, she celebrated by leading an all-female flight to Entebbe – from first officer to flight engineer, purser and cabin attendants.
“I think we’re the airline with the highest number of female pilots on the continent,” says Naikuni.
Mutungi spends up to 18 days a month out of Kenya flying the length and breadth of Africa, up to Europe or out over the Indian Ocean to the Far East.
The mother of a young son is the standard bearer for the hopes of kids across Kenya, many of whom have her poster on their walls and follow her on twitter @ms_koki.
“My colleagues look at me as a trailblazer. I’m not, I’m an ambassador for all Africans, showing them that the sky’s not the limit, especially not for women.” - Saturday Star