Wings Over Kenya
January 28, 2015
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  • I entered this world with an adventurous spirit, but my true passion for flying didn’t fully emerge until 17 years later, when I was a high school student and my friend Jared Guillory gifted me with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.

    I invested hours exploring the physics of flight, deciphering the multitude of cockpit instruments, and practicing thousands of simulated takeoffs and landings at airports all around the world, including dirt landing strips in remote African villages.

    Shortly after that, I started real flying lessons in a five-decades-old Cessna 152. Early in the morning on July 4, 2001, the day America observes its independence, I earned my pilot’s license. The memory of that flight test and subsequent accomplishment remains forever etched in my mind.

    Pilot Examiner Peyton Enloe was the first person to direct me to log my flying time as “pilot-in-command.” Little did I know the extent to which general aviation would influence my life — the friends I would meet, the airplanes I would operate, the destinations I would experience, and those to whom I would introduce the wonder of flight.

    Flash forward 10 years. On behalf of the US Navy, I found myself on my ninth official assignment to Kenya, the Cradle of Humanity. Duncan Karanja, a 28-year-old Kenyan employed as my driver, met me at the Moi International Airport.

    Duncan, who hails from the Kikuyu Tribe, also served as my Swahili teacher, cultural adviser, and loyal friend for the two years I worked in Africa. He told me he had never been in an airplane before, and that he was looking forward to the day he would slip the surly bonds of Earth.

    I assured Duncan I would someday take him flying. Kenya is no different from the USA — a man’s word is his bond, and Duncan planned to hold me to my promise.

    As you might imagine, it was no easy task to find a rental airplane in Mombasa. However, I found a 1975 twin-engine Piper Seneca operated by Air Amani. I met with the owner, Brigitta Baumgartner, a Swiss woman who has called Kenya home for the past 27 years. She said it was the rugged nature of working “in the bush” that had captivated her as she delighted in hauling supplies and flying tourists on air safaris.

    Together under the sun’s unforgiving rays, we inspected the faded orange-and-white twin-engine Piper. The aircraft showed her age on the outside, but her interior upholstery was in fantastic condition. Fashioned in red, purple, and blue, she symbolized the colors of the Maasai tribe’s traditional dress.

    Duncan, along with my colleague Justin Boyd, climbed into the passenger compartment while Brigitta and I squeezed into the cockpit. She announced the checklist by memory and I performed the tasks. I started the engines and advised Mombasa tower of the souls on board, the amount of fuel, and our navigational heading to South Coast, a nearby island popular with European tourists.

    I began taxiing the 36-year-old airplane from the hangar to the active runway when we observed soldiers posted alongside the taxiway brandishing their haggard assault rifles. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki was in town, and his official jet was parked nearby on the tarmac. I recognized the presidential aircraft with its colorful flag and “Republic of Kenya” painted on the fuselage.

    At the departure runway, I turned rearward to give Duncan a thumbs-up to verify he was ready for his maiden voyage. He was smiling ear to ear, revealing both nervousness and excitement. He nodded yes, and then I fully advanced both throttles. The combined 440 horsepower of two engines laboring in unison roared, and we barreled down the runway and departed terra firma.

    Leveling off at just 500 feet, we soared over the bustling seaport. We saw both an American and a Greek warship docked for supplies, as well as commercial tankers, passenger ferries, the naval base, and a downtown devoid of any skyscrapers. I then banked south toward the sandy beach of South Coast, which is famous for its dolphin watching, elephant reserve, and luxury resorts. The clear ocean water provided an unobstructed glimpse of the beautiful turquoise coral blooming under the surface. We also spotted fishermen casting traditional rope nets.

    I turned my head toward Duncan to ensure he was still enjoying his first flight. His head stayed in constant motion scanning this new bird’s-eye view. He paused momentarily to give me a double thumbs-up and then returned to soaking in all the sights. Behind him, I noticed Justin peering out the starboard window while exhausting my camera’s battery and memory card.

    As exhilarating as our air safari was, sharing the magic of flight with friends proved even more rewarding. Leonardo da Vinci declared, “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

    After landing, Duncan raised a clenched fist as he exclaimed, “Tucker, you are the man! Thank you, rafiki! I am very happy right now. My favorite part was seeing my homeland from the air. I will never forget you!”

    Hakuna Matata, my friend. The unique landscape and Swahili culture truly make Kenya like no other place in the world. I also will always cherish my visits to Kenya and the memory of flying over equatorial Africa.