The crosswind gusting at 20 knots made for a bumpy landing, at least for a trainee pilot who hadn’t spent much time in the cockpit. Miraculously, I greased the landing into Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, and it might have been my best yet.

It was not a waste for me to begin training in the Kusi winter winds when I lived in coastal Kenya prior. Those early days, flying in a tiny Cessna 152 while it was tossed around like a feather in a storm, I feared I would not make it out alive. Having moved to the capital city a couple of months later, swapping a sleepy seaside airport for one of Africa’s busiest, nailing this landing gave me my first solo flight.

“But not with these winds. Wait till next Tuesday,” said my instructor Captain Vishant Modasia. It was Friday, and I could not bear spending three more days in this apprehension, so I yelled, “let me solo today—I’m ready.” Immediately, I regretted it—fear, of course.

In the larger Cessna 172, I was alone for the first time, with only the loud thud of my heart and my parched, desert-dry mouth for company. I pressed the PTT (push to talk switch) and requested clearance for departure from Air Traffic Control. One of the 10 exams I must pass to earn my Private Pilot’s Licence is radiotelephony, an entirely separate language.

On “cleared departure runway 07”, my aircraft entered the runway. It’s a powerful moment, being alone in a small turboprop plane, about to take off, with the runway ahead ablaze in the beating equatorial sun. As I glanced at the panel, I spoke loudly my final vital checks and put pedal to metal. Multitasking at that speed is not for the faint-hearted—but then neither is flying. Within seconds, I was flying over Nairobi National Park, where I spotted giraffes, rhinos and even the odd lion!

Then it hit me—I’m alone. The only safe way back to earth was to land this thing myself. Fortunately, tasks are plenty and pressing, not leaving much time for panic. Twelve minutes later, I had completed the circuit and made my most perfect landing to date. “Congratulations on your first solo,” Air Traffic Control said into my shiny new David Clark headphones. I’d done it! A sense of overwhelming relief took over, followed by pure elation.

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THE BACK STORY

My attitude towards flying had changed after a conversation with a fellow mum who questioned my role as a woman, a mother, and a wife. It amazed her that my husband was my greatest supporter. The outdated culture of womanhood provided my rocket fuel, and I became determined to succeed—for women, mums, my little girl, and anyone else battling the status quo to live authentically.

My five-year-old assumes she will fly and measures her leg length every day in anticipation of reaching the rudder pedals. She has no notion of gender differences yet. I remind her every day that every glass ceiling is just waiting to be smashed, and that she should not be afraid to lead the way. As part of our efforts to raise her to be confident, inquisitive, and flexible, we have taken her around the world—India, Mozambique, Rwanda, Oman, Ethiopia, Fiji, Montenegro, Costa Rica, Bosnia; 35 countries by the time she was 4. That is our gift to her. Thus, she assimilates so naturally and effortlessly into new situations—a vital asset in this era, and especially during our transition in Kenya.

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As a family, we had discussed moving to Kenya years ago, but pushed the idea aside when I left journalism and began medical school. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic in the UK allowed me to suspend my studies, and we left for Kenya. A temporary sanctuary has become a second home. While I will have to return to the UK to resume medical school, the plan is to return to East Africa after I graduate.

Kenya is a major aviation hub in Africa, with well-established flying schools— including the decorated, historical Aeroclub of East Africa, to which I am proud to belong—and an integrated wildlife conservation and humanitarian outreach network. Aviators are a close-knit community, fiercely supportive, and a true second family.

We are the lucky ones. Imagine the rich African culture, the balmy tropical days on the equator, wild airstrips strewn across bush and beach, spotting wildlife in national parks, passing barren crater lakes at eye-level, and snaking along the Indian Ocean coastline. It is the kind of visual feast that you can only experience with a bush plane.

Learning to fly is, without a doubt, the pinnacle of my Kenyan stay. A pilot commanding an aircraft, directing it to fly, and bringing it back to earth without incident is truly an accomplishment. It’s made more overwhelming because I have high-functioning anxiety. Yet each flight ended in a surge of triumph, enlivening me and causing me to crave more.

MISSION TO FLY

Phase 2 of my solo flight was the local area. Nairobi itself is over 5,500 ft above sea level. By flying 3,000 ft above ground, I had reached 9,500 ft. Flying “hot and high” impacts aircraft performance in a way that I only grasped through my theory modules.

The first challenge was locating my landmarks the old-fashioned way. Unfamiliar with Nairobi then, I was particularly intimidated. “Don’t get lost” remains permanently etched in my mind. Beyond the aerodrome, I flew over Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, with its shimmering tin-roofs and a hotchpotch of colourful shacks. Overlooking the tea plantations of Limuru, distant hills unfolded in the distance, leaving the city skyline in its wake. I imagined how different it would be to fly over Oxford or London back home.

The flight back along the gentle slopes of the Ngong Hills towards Nairobi National Park took me past Hemingways Nairobi hotel, where I lived on arrival in Kenya, and our cottage home on the fringes of the park. Being able to experience this is a privilege. However, the copper soil that permeates the entire landscape is what stands out most. I was flying in Kenya. Absolutely unbelievable!

I had to pass 10 exams between flying and ground school. In Kenya, eight of these are sat over two consecutive days at the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority’s headquarters. Studying all hours worked for me. Navigation calculations proved challenging, but I scored in the 90 per cent range for half of the papers.

Doing well in Phase 2 set me up for Phase 3—cross-country flying. My instructor flew me once to exquisite Lake Magadi, a peninsula surrounded by pink flamingos, turquoise waters, swirling milky sandbanks, lush greenery and a bush airstrip. The next day, I flew the same route and landed at the unmanned airstrip. I felt challenged beyond belief. Nevertheless, I had reached a point of no return and my confidence had emerged.

On the return flight to Lake Naivasha, I experienced my first frightening weather. Raindrops pelted the windscreen, substantially reducing visibility. While not enjoyable, it was a solid learning experience as I circumnavigated clouds and changed my route on the fly. The grand finale was a triangle: two destinations, three take-offs, three landings, and returning to Nairobi Wilson, solo.

A General Flying Test is needed to earn the official seal of approval. It is a thorough skill-and-knowledge test by independent examiners that includes Air Law and Navigation verbal questions, a walk-around of the aircraft detailing engineering, and culminates in a flight demonstrating skills and emergency drills: engine fire, engine failure, and radio and instruments failure; some with narrow margins of error. It was nerve-wracking. Passing it was an inexpressibly emotional moment.

Now I was legally allowed to have more fun in the sky than I should have been able to! I celebrated that same evening with an unforgettable party at Aeroclub, where many of Kenya’s aviators came together as a family to toast my success.

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My ambition? To become a flying doctor and provide outreach across East Africa. Kenya’s northern frontier is remote, and medical assistance is scarce. Women still suffer in childbirth and young girls are scarred for life from cooking burns and more, which have wide-ranging cultural repercussions.

When I become a doctor, I’ll return to this region. Perhaps I will buy a small plane, convert it into an ambulance, and serve those who need it most. Another option would be to work for a medical aid charity such as Médecins Sans Frontieres—something I have wanted to do since I was 16. My Private Pilot’s Licence is only the first memorable step towards my dream. Next up, my Commercial Pilot’s Licence. Standby.

Photos: Anisha Shah