Chinyere Kalu is a former Rector and Chief Instructor of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology. She talks about her career, changes she will like to see in the aviation industry and other issues
When was the first time you knew you wanted to become a pilot?
That was in 1974 when we were asked to write an essay on the career we wanted to pursue. I had initially thought of being an air hostess but because of how they are exposed to men, I felt it wouldn’t be for me because of my faith as a Christian. That was when I thought of becoming a pilot.
What were the memorable moments of your childhood?
One of the most memorable moments of my childhood was the day I bought a doll from my savings. Thereafter, I designed and sewed a dress for it. That was very memorable for me because I achieved something on my own. Another memory that stands out was when I made a pant for myself immediately after the civil war. I really felt proud of myself.
Also, I was loved and pampered by my father. The day I was taken to the Federal Palace Hotel in Lagos was another moment I cherished because I was awed by the place.
You talked about sewing on a number of occasions. Was fashion designing your childhood ambition?
Yes, it was one of those things I enjoyed. I come from a culture where we made clothes from akwete (a handwoven textile produced in Igboland). I did quite a bit of knitting, sewing and embroidery. I sewed some of my children’s clothes.
What were your other ambitions?
I wanted to do something extraordinary. I love adventures and things that would tax me. So, I thought of flying and travelling to different places to see the wonders of the world. I always like to try my hands on anything that is difficult and challenging.
Which schools did you attend?
Before the civil war, I attended St George’s School in Aba (Abia State). After the war, I attended Lagos Progressive Primary School in Surulere. For my secondary education, I went to Lagos Anglican Girls Grammar School, also in Surulere.
I later attended the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology in Zaria (Kaduna State).
Studying to be a pilot is quite expensive. How were you able to raise funds for your education?
I was quite fortunate to be taken in as a cadet pilot so the school sponsored me. I didn’t have to pay any fees. Otherwise, I would have looked for sponsorship from airlines, which was what some of my colleagues did.
What were some of the challenges you faced while studying to be a pilot?
There were a lot of challenges. As a trailblazer, I was sometimes doubtful and fearful that I was being too ambitious. At that time, I had never seen a female pilot, whether locally or internationally. At times, I felt I was in the wrong place. Also, I didn’t completely find it easy with some of my colleagues and instructors. I was never given any preference. At times, they even made things more difficult for me for having the effrontery to come into a domain that was exclusively for men. It was a bit challenging but my constant prayer and my faith in God strengthened me. I was also encouraged by certain people and by the grace of God, I succeeded.
Was there any time you felt like giving up?
Yes, there were a number of times I felt like giving up but I was encouraged by the Christian brothers in the school at the time. They told me I could make it and they helped me in areas where I was struggling in my studies.
In aviation school, they weed people out along the line. On Fridays, they usually brought brown envelopes which contained letters of dismissal. That kept me on my toes and put a lot of fear in me. A lot of times, I was always on the edge and I constantly asked myself if it was really what God wanted for me. However, the brown envelope never came for me and God helped me to pull through.
Did your parents and other family members support your decision to become a pilot?
Yes, they did. If I didn’t get the approval of my parents, I would not have gone ahead. They encouraged me, especially my aunt who was also a trailblazer. She was the first person (in my hometown) to travel to the United Kingdom for her studies. When I told her I wanted to become a pilot, she encouraged me. By the time she gave her support, other family members did not challenge it because she was the eldest. She was quite instrumental to me becoming a pilot. I actually dropped the admission offer I had to study Engineering at the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos.
How did you feel the first time you flew an airplane?
When one is being trained as a pilot, one is taught on the ground and in the air. In the course of the training, it gets to a point where the instructor feels that one is prepared enough to fly an aircraft. It is a lot easier to take off than to land.
The first time I went up by myself, it felt like a dream come true. Before one gets to that point, there is a lot of fear because that is when a lot of people are dropped out of the school. After one has flown for about 20 to 30 hours and one has not been able to go solo, one would know that one is on one’s way out. And when one sees one’s colleagues going on solo flights, one would also want to fly alone. At that point, there was usually a lot of tension for everybody in the class. When my instructor eventually cleared me to fly solo, I was so excited. I kept singing praises and thanking God as I went up. I was so confident and I felt the presence of God. However, that was different from the first time I flew. The first time I flew with my instructor, I was afraid and jittery. Prior to applying as a pilot, I had not entered an aircraft.
What do you love most about being a flying instructor?
I love being able to build confidence in students. I help the students to believe in themselves that they can make it as pilots. It makes me fulfilled. Before I became an instructor, I loved landing an aircraft and the intricacies of navigation. For many pilots, having a soft landing is a great achievement which doesn’t come with all flights. When one is able to have a ‘grazer’ (landing softly on the runway), that is quite exciting.
When it comes to navigating, I love being able to identify different places on the map when one is flying. That is also wonderful.
Why did you decide to stick to the academic side of piloting and not go commercial?
It was majorly because of my family. I was married and raising children, and my husband was busy with God’s work. As a commercial pilot, I would have to travel constantly and have to sleep in different cities. I felt that would be difficult for me as a wife and mother. Also, I figured that the aviation college would be more tolerant than airlines when I’m pregnant. One wouldn’t be able to fly when one is pregnant and after one has had the baby, one would practically have to start all over again because one would have to do new medical (tests), recurrency check and revalidate one’s license, among other things.
On the other hand, with my job at the aviation school, I was able to keep my home, look after my children and have satisfaction with flying and teaching students how to fly. Over the years, I have flown to many places such as France and Niger Republic.
Do you feel you would have made more money if you were a commercial pilot?
Of course, I would but I am happier I did not sacrifice my family. I have my family and I made some money. I did not have to trade one for the other.
Have you ever been flown commercially by any of your former students?
Yes and I feel very happy and proud when that happens. Many times, they would introduce me (to passengers) in the aircraft.
What do you regard as the highlights of your time as the rector and chief instructor of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology?
There were many things we were able to do. We were able to have an ATS simulator which aided the learning process for instructors and students. We also took care of the welfare of staff and students of the institution. Everybody in the college― from the cleaners to the instructors― went for one form of training or the other. Salaries and other entitlements were also paid on time. I am happy God used me to make the staff happy. However, some were also not happy because I blocked the loopholes through which money was being siphoned. During my tenure, we changed our logo and many of the abandoned structures and equipment were resuscitated. In addition, we acquired a Boeing 737 aircraft for cabin crew training. We also bought helicopters, runway lighting and erected perimeter fencing. At times, we got just 60 per cent of our budgets, yet we were able to achieve so much. We were able to do this by being strategic in our planning and execution.
What were the challenges you faced in the course of discharging your duties?
There were a lot of them. I was a threat to some people, especially those who felt my progress and achievements meant their positions were not secured. At times, they set the unions against me. It was a very hot seat physically and spiritually but I thank God that He saw me through.
What changes would you like to see in the aviation industry?
I would like to see faster development in the sector. The industry has a multiplier effect in that it offers a lot of job opportunities. If the fuel price is reasonable, airlines would make more profit, fly more frequently and airfare would possibly reduce, thus encouraging more people to travel by air.
Certain facilities should also be provided at airports to make flying safer. If the aviation industry is developed, it would boost tourism and Nigeria would be able to take its pride of place in the comity of nations.
I feel bad that the country does not have a national carrier. I don’t see why countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa and Ghana have carriers and Nigeria does not. It is unfortunate and all these can be traced to bad management. If the right people can be put in the right places, we would be able to float an airline that would be successful.
In the course of your career, have you faced discrimination because of your gender?
When I was expecting my first baby, I was retrenched because the authorities felt I could not fly while pregnant. But, I could teach students in the simulator. However, after about eight months, I was recalled.
It is said that expatriates in the aviation industry are often treated better than their Nigerian colleagues. Do you have any experience in that regard?
That is true. In one particular instance, a mixed race individual (half Briton and half Nigerian) was brought in as an instructor and he was paid about three times more than his Nigerian counterparts. However, we objected to it and eventually, his service had to be discontinued. It is not proper because we all fly the same aircraft and are exposed to the same dangers. Things like that are killing the industry. Many of the operators do not like to hire fresh pilots and train them. Rather, they prefer to hire foreigners and pay them huge amounts of money. In the past, operators and airlines used to sponsor students but that is not done anymore. There are many pilots roaming the streets without jobs after spending millions of Naira to be trained. Even Nigerians that studied abroad are not paid as much as expatriates. There should be ways that new pilots can be assimilated into the system.
What advice do you have for aspiring pilots?
I would encourage them not to be afraid or intimidated, even when it comes to raising their school fees. They should go through the selection process and if they are successful, they could get sponsorship.
It is a wonderful, exciting and fulfilling career, and I would advise them to give it their best.
They should also not be afraid of having accidents. As a matter of fact, it is safer to travel by air than by roads. The number of accidents on the road is much more than those that occur in the sky, though air mishaps are usually fatalistic and claim many lives. However, safety gadgets in aircraft help to keep accidents at a minimum.
What personal qualities have aided your career growth?
That would be hard work, faith in God, perseverance, doggedness and a firm belief that all things are possible with the help of God.
How have you been able to balance your career and family?
I have a very understanding husband. I also try to be well organised and maintain a timetable where I lay out all my activities ahead of time. Also, I make sure I am involved in whatever my children do as much as I can.
Can you recall how you met your husband?
I met him at the Nigeria Christian Fellowship while I was still a student.
What were the qualities that attracted you to him?
I admired his love for God and his grip on the Bible. He is a moving dictionary when it comes to the word of God.
Some men don’t seem to like their wives being more successful than them. What’s your take on that?
Some men feel threatened and insecure that their wives are doing better than them. Sometimes, it gets to the head of the woman and she feels she is better than her husband, then she begins to look down on him. However, that is not right. We all have specific roles to play and are all accountable to God. Any woman that agrees to marry a man should know that she is subjecting herself to that man. Also, a man should not feel threatened irrespective of the position his wife occupies because God has made him the head. Rather, he should always take care of her and never maltreat her. It is a situation that the husband and wife have to work through.
What are your other interests?
I love cooking, baking and things that have to do with creativity. I enjoy gardening. I also like studying the word of God and motivating younger women as well. They should pursue their careers and not just wait to get married and depend on their husbands. It is important for women to be self-sufficient. That way, men would respect and value them, and they would have happier homes.
I love to teach too.
How do you unwind?
I love travelling and dancing to Christian music. Dancing is a form of exercise for me.
When not in uniform, how do you like to dress?
I wear both traditional and English wear. It basically depends on where I am going. If I am attending an important occasion, I like to wear traditional attire but if it is an official function, I would go in English wear. However, if I’m going to the market, I put on casual outfits.
culled from punchng.com