The little boy who used to walk 16 kilometres to school every day never knew he would make the big time in air travel.
He has learnt how to fly an aircraft, has even flown upside down in a jet fighter moving at supersonic speed, and has flown 40,000 feet above the ground.
Growing up with six siblings, all younger than him, he never dreamed he would one day soar above the clouds. He wanted to be a doctor, you see, and teaching made him happy and fulfilled.
Now standing at six feet tall, with a steady gaze and oozing confidence, he doesn’t fully agree that he is an adrenaline junkie, but he admits he loves adventure — so much so, that he cycles about 100 kilometres on Sundays when he is not working. It builds his endurance, he says. But his biggest joy is clear skies and happy passengers.
His name is Captain Lucas Njeru, a Kenya Airways pilot, with more than 15,000 total flying hours under his belt.
The journey to the skies began more than two decades ago, when he was a second-year student at the University of Nairobi, pursuing a degree in commerce.
“We were on a long holiday in campus, and while at home, there was a recruitment being conducted around home at Nanyuki Stadium by the military. When a friend of mine asked me to accompany him, I knew I was just going to wait for him outside the gate,” says Njeru.
He waited outside, repeatedly being asked by passersby why he was not attending the recruitment. He finally thought, “why not?”, and tried his luck, emerging one of the best recruits that day. He was soon on his way to join the Kenya Air force as a trainee pilot. That was in 1997.
“Back home, my father was jubilant, but my mother advised against it, thinking it was my father’s way of lessening the burden of school fees. Years later, she would be my joyful passenger,” says Njeru.
He finally joined the Armed Forces Training College in liaison with Egerton University at Nakuru. There, unlike at university, where he had the option of not attending classes if he did not feel like it, he had to follow the rules. The environment was different and he had to do tough physical drills.
When he finally completed the military science course, he got a presidential award for being the best student pilot. Soon after, he joined the Laikipia Air Base. Barely two years later, in 2002, he was in the United States of America for a diploma in aviation leadership at the Air Training Wing Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.
After that, he worked in the Kenya Air Force for a while, before joining the Kenya Airways, which has been home to him for about 14 years now.
“I wanted to be a doctor, but I never got the best career guidance. But I have no regrets whatsoever. This turned out to be the best thing I could ever do,” he states, adding that he is the first pilot from his village.
“To be a pilot, you need to have an astute mind, good coordination and the ability to make quick decisions,” he says, explaining that this comes in handy when handling emergencies.
In the 24 years he has pierced the skies, he has experienced only three emergencies, which he was able to handle successfully. There are three steps in handling an emergency, he states — aviating, navigating, and then communicating.
“The first thing we experience in such situations is denial, where you do not want to accept that there is something wrong with your aircraft. However, since you are the captain, you need to acknowledge it, then quickly make decisions to ensure safety.
He explains that aviating means to fly the aircraft first and above terrain to avoid secondary emergencies. A pilot in charge then navigates, which essentially means finding out where you are and where you are going.
“You need to find out if there are nearby airports where you can land in case the need arises, if there are water bodies, or forests in the surrounding locations,” says Njeru. “Once everything is in control, you get your checklist and rectify whatever you can,” he adds.
However, there are items that a pilot needs to have in memory for use during dire emergencies, he explains.
“This means that the success of handling the emergency is pegged on how much time you have. With little time, you cannot pull out your checklist to see how you should handle an issue. So you commit such items to memory. In all emergencies, communication is the last priority,” he states, adding that a pilot should be the last person to get out of the aircraft.
As far as his studies are concerned, he explains that he went back to university to complete his bachelor of commerce, later progressing to MBA and finally to a PhD in strategic management, a feat he explains is rare in the aviation industry.
“The era of being an expert in only one field is over. We need to be multi-skilled. Pilots should nurture studies on the side alongside flying. Find something to do on the side, be it farming or business. You also need to venture into other fields of study,” he encourages.
Even amid the Covid-19 pandemic that snatched Captain David Kibati, his former Air Force colleague and friend, Captain Njeru is optimistic.
“Kibati’s death hurt deeply, but as humans, we tend to forget after a while. Covid-19 has been a mindboggling affair. Even at work, we fly, get to the destination and come back the same day to minimise contact. However, as regards flying, I see an insatiable demand for air travel after this pandemic season. People have accumulated pandemic fatigue and need to refresh,” he says.
He also believes that aviation will spur growth in Africa, since aircraft technology is rapidly improving.
“In the future, flying may no longer need human direction, except maybe just to manage contingencies. The task will be convincing people that a machine can deliver on its own. This can also be used in warfare,” he notes.
“In the next 10 years, I would like to use my feat to trigger success in others who do not believe that they can do it. I want to be a champion of change in embracing technology,” he explains.
As a father and an instructor pilot, he is keen to mentor and inspire his children and other pilots who are new in the industry. His two young sons want to follow in his footsteps, he explains, and he believes that they too will soar one day.
Captain Alex Migwi, Njeru’s colleague, recalls how hard he tried to locate him on the day they were both confirmed to have passed the airline’s interview. He has been a member of the Kenya Pilots Association since 2007.
On that day, he was winding up his interview when he was told that Captain Njeru was unreachable, and time was running out. This was three months after everyone had reported, and his slot was about to be offered to a different candidate.
“I asked for permission and stepped out. For half an hour, I made frantic calls to trace his whereabouts. Apparently, he was conducting the Kenya-Somalia border patrol. When he finally called back, I informed him of what was going on. The man did not even have airtime to call the airline and rescue himself,” says Migwi laughing. “So I sent him some, and he explained that he was on duty. He came back after his operations and now he is where he is,” he adds.
He further explains that he admires his colleague’s hard work and diligence, which has made him the only pilot in Kenya with a PhD.
“When he was doing his masters and PhD, I wondered how he managed. Our work can be demanding and you have little time to pursue other ventures. Him getting his PhD was no mean fete. He is also an instructor, which means more responsibility. I commend him,” said Captain Migwi.
Brigadier (rtd) Stephen Njung’e, who has a track record of leading the Kenya Air Force for more than 35 years, trained captain Njeru at the Laikipia Air Base.
“He joined the base when I was serving at the commanding officer. I trained him on jet flying, in which he did very well. After the training, he decided to go fly the slower aircrafts, something most jet pilots do not prefer due to the high speeds they are accustomed to. He said it would make him happy to serve more Kenyans, so I gave him the last jet flight before he left, says Brigadier (rtd) Njung’e.
“He was good. I knew his capabilities. He was relaxed and confident on a jet flight. When he graduated, he had done more than 200 flying hours that are required by the ended of training. I wished him well, and still do,” he concludes.