While she was walking to the podium to receive her award as one of the Top 100 African Women Travel Personalities at the 2017 Akwaaba Travel Market in Lagos, her demeanour depicted a beauty queen and threw all eyes at her direction.
Beyond her dashing beauty, however, Captain Irene Koki Mutungi, who naturally catwalks, is one of the bravest women pilots across the world.
Considering her beauty and innocent look, her passengers wonder at her courage, especially how she meanders through storms making jokes of the toughest turbulence even at 40,000 feet above sea level.
The Kenyan-born pilot is the first African female captain of an airline, and in 2014 she led an all-female crew to fly Kenya Airways’ fourth B787-8 Dreamliner from the Boeing assembly plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, United States of America to Nairobi.
Recently after flying the Airbus 350-900, the latest Delta Airline aircraft to Atlanta, USA, I waited outside the aircraft to see the brains behind its smooth operations. As the crew came down, a beautiful lady, who dressed differently from the rest of the crew, caught my attention. I figured she could be a pilot.
“Could this lady really be one of those who flew the new aircraft? Could Delta entrust its new biggest investment in the hands of this beautiful lady?” I asked myself.
To satisfy my curiosity, I rushed to one of the organisers of the event, Cullis Olivia, to ask who the lady was.
“She is the pilot in charge of the flight,” Olivia told me delightfully, beaming with smiles.
Delta currently has 500 female pilots. Earlier this year, Delta launched its third annual Women Inspiring our Next Generation (WING) flight to expose young girls to aviation careers on Girls in Aviation Day. From gate agents at take-off to the ramp agents receiving the plane to the 115 students on board, the flight crew was entirely female.
Ethiopian Airline recently made history with an all-women flight crew. From the flight deck, crew members to senior executives on-board, all women. The on-ground flight preparations were also conducted by females.
If alive today, the late former South African President Nelson Mandela, who was pleasantly surprised when he was flown by a black pilot in 1957, would sing the praise of Captain Koki and the Ethiopian Airline all-women flight crew deep in the ears of the African girl-child because very few African females are taking to the skies even in this 21st century.
Sadly, Nigeria seems to be missing out in this great revolution of emergence of female pilots. A document obtained by BDSUNDAY from the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) shows there are 7,222 pilots in the NCAA’s register. Of this number, only 2,673 are currently active, out of which only 107, or 4 percent, are females.
Our further checks show that just three out of 30 pilots working for Medview Airline are females. Dana Air has 63 pilots, only three of them are females. Air Peace has 70 pilots comprising 66 males and four females. Aero Contractor has 21 pilots, only two of them are females.
Life as a female pilot in Nigeria
Aside from the glamour and admiration that come with practicing as a female pilot, an area that is mostly dominated by men, there are other interesting things that come with the profession.
BDSUNDAY spoke with two top female pilots – Violet Enahoro, senior first officer, Air Peace, and Ladi Ogun, a female pilot at Bristow Helicopters. They shared their experiences of what it takes to be successful on the job.
Enahoro says she was motivated by the fact that flying isn’t a boring job.
“I would see the vast spread of the sky often and I would get off the ground and I would enjoy my job,” she says.
On her work-life balance, Enahoro says with good planning, women pilots juggle through the job much better than they would have with a regular job.
“For home chores, a pilot earns enough to pay for chores to be done and there are many services now like cleaning, laundry, among others you can exchange money for time,” she says.
“As for family, a pilot may have an afternoon flight, which means she can actually get her kids ready for school in the morning, spending quality time with them before she goes to fly, and on days she has to fly early, the children can be prepped by a paid nanny; this isn’t every day and can be unpredictable. Besides, if she is married, the other parent can handle it some days! Bonding with kids isn’t solely a mother’s job. So a female pilot can’t marry an archaic thinking man,” she adds.
Ogun has different motivation and experiences from Enahoro. According to her, she got interested in flying because she was looking up to her cousin who is a military pilot. At that time, unfortunately, females were not inducted as military pilots, so she opted for the next best thing: airline pilot!
“Initially, I trained to be a flight dispatcher and worked for four years before I started flying commercially in December 2009 as a cargo aircraft pilot in Allied Air DHL Cargo. Eventually, I worked with Arik Air for four years before my present job flying the Embraer with Bristow Helicopters,” she tells me.
When she is not flying, Ogun loves cooking, reading novels and watching historical movies. She describes herself as a dreamer, spiritually-minded Christian and “single but not searching”.
She is surely proud of the family she comes from and she shares more.
“Dad was a mechanical engineer with the refinery in NNPC and Mum a caterer with companies like UBA and textile mills. My humble upbringing makes me grateful for everything; even what may appear little, I am grateful for all,” she says.
It is often said that what a man can do a woman can do even better, but Ogun believes strongly that it’s beyond being a woman because in an industry like hers, you have to prove your onions.
“Well, a woman has to be two times better to show she’s okay to be accepted in aviation. It’s just the way a man’s world operates,” she says.
But there are challenges too
“More often than not, personally, your friends are limited to people at work because you spend more time at work. One has to be careful of one’s company as a lady’s virtue has to be kept unquestionable in a somewhat unfriendly environment and still hold her ground professionally. So a balance has to be made,” she says.
Experts suggest the myriads of challenges surrounding the practice of the profession are the reasons there are few women in the profession.
Abdulsalami Mohammed, rector, Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, says it took time before women started developing interest in aviation as the first female pilot in NCAT was trained in the late 1970s, just as the airline industry also wasn’t employing many females at a time.
“One of the challenges is that pilots are very expensive to train and then you do not stay for long without flying or else you forget, that is why people go for recurrent training. We have to do certain numbers of take-offs and landings within certain number of days. We also do medical examinations on a regular basis. If a woman gets pregnant, the law says she will stop flying. She will not fly again, until after she gives birth and she is declared medically fit. After she gives birth, she needs to train again before she flies an aircraft. This will take a minimum of 12 months. During this period, airline she works for will be paying her salary and she has to retrain again after laying off for so long,” said Mohammed.
“These factors also affect cabin crew. That is why in the Middle East, for instance, if they are employing female cabin crew, they make them write an undertaking that they will not get pregnant for a certain period of time. Female children look after the parents than the male children, so I rather invest to train my daughter because she is the one that will look after me in old age than the boys. It is easy for a single man who is a pilot to travel out and work with foreign airlines but a female thinking of raising a family, it limits how far they can go. Because of these challenges, they do not practice,” he explained.
Muneer Bankole, managing director, Medview Airline, told BDSUNDAY that some of the challenges facing female pilots are cost of training and work-life balance.
“Women are committed to so many things. They get married, look after the kids, there are challenges of flying and running back home to take care of the children. They fly Lagos-London, Jeddah route and they do not see home until after 72 hours. Some husbands may not allow their wives to be away from home for so long,” he said.
Mitigating the challenges
In a bid to mitigate the huge gap in the number of women practicing as pilots in Nigeria, experts suggest that education is key in changing the mindset of females and their parents that the profession is not exclusively for men.
Moses Oyesanya, a professor of Mathematics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), noted that females are not exposed to the aviation sector in their tender age.
“Parents do not think their female children can play in this sector. You see parents talking to their sons to be a pilot but the ladies are not encouraged to become pilots. So, the background of a child matters a lot and this needs to be addressed,” he said.
For Ladi Ogun, one way of encouraging female pilots in Nigeria is to have more input from female professional pilot in decision making in terms of policies, airport services upgrade, navigational services upgrade and the like.
“Pilots are mostly not involved in policies but if the aviation sector has to improve, then there ought to be active pilot participation in decision making and plans,” she advised.
Abiola Akiyode Afolabi, chairperson, Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 400 civil society organizations, said though aviation sector has for a very long time been seen as a male enclave, that mindset was changing for good.
“Over time people began to deconstruct the gender stereotypes, that is the reason we have very few women in such professions. I think we need a strong behavioural change and attitudinal change; parents need to encourage young children to take up sciences to become pilot, astronaut, among others,” she said.
“We also need models to mentor young women. Women in the profession must encourage others so as to increase the numbers. The country will be better for it, if we see women breaking the glass ceiling,” she said.
Prospects for Nigeria
Female pilots can be encouraged in Nigeria, considering the fact that a lot of women are making it as pilots in other countries and with the population of Nigeria and its strategic location, there are more prospects for women to play effectively in this space.
Mohammed of NCAT believes that the future is bright for female pilots in Nigeria considering the fact that the number of female student pilots has increased.
“Females are now instructors in NCAT. At least for each intake, in a class of 15 students, we have an average of one female pilot. In Aero, there was a time when we had female pilots,” he said.
Bankole of Medview Airline told BDSUNDAY that going forward, his company hopes to increase the number of female pilots if more females take up the challenge.
Chris Iwarah, corporate communications manager, Air Peace Limited, said although women are still trying to get a foothold in the aviation sector, women occupy key offices in Air Peace. These include the offices of COO, Chief of Administration and Finance, Human Resources Manager, Assistant Human Resources Manager, Business Development Manager, Cabin Services Manager, Head of Legal, Head of Maintenance and Planning and Production Manager.
He added that it was just the technical aspect that was a challenge as Air Peace would really love to have more women in all its departments as an equal opportunity company.