Sunday November 20 2016

Ibanda girl reaches for the sky in fighter jets

Doreen Kyomuhangi stands next to a combat

Doreen Kyomuhangi stands next to a combat jet fighter, which she is qualified to fly. PHOTO BY JULIUS OCUNGI 

By Julius Ocungi

Kyomuhangi was the only female student out of 20 who graduated as Uganda People’s Defense Airforce pilots from Gulu Air Base on July 1, this year after intensive four-year training in flying L39 Albatross Fighter jets.

Wearing a green khaki flight jumpsuit, the soft-spoken pilot Kyomuhangi, shares her story with poise. Growing up as the last born in family of nine, Kyomuhangi dreamt of working in a hotel or the fashion industry.

“I fondly recall admiring planes flying in the sky and cheering them during my childhood. But I never entertained thoughts of flying one, let alone a fighter jet that I used to fear so much,” Kyomuhangi recounts.

The beginning
Born in 1988 in the remote village of Rwanbu in Ibanda District, Kyomuhangi started out her education at Rwenkobwa Primary School, then later joined Citizen Secondary School for O and A-Level.

After A-Level, she enrolled for a part-time job as a Geography and Christian Religious Education (CRE) teacher in one of the secondary schools in Ibanda District. “I tried out some work but life was starting to get really hard.

I had an elder brother who had joined Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) who seemed to be doing well. That was when the thought of joining the army first crossed my mind,” recalls Kyomuhangi. Her brother had by then just been passed out as a cadet officer in 2010.

When she shared her thoughts, however, her parents were vehemently opposed to the idea of their daughter joining the forces. “But my mind was already made up and it was what my heart was yearning for; to be a soldier. I told myself that nothing would stop me,” she says.

In March 2010, without the consent of her parents and relatives, Kyomuhangi decided to join the army during a recruitment exercise by the UPDF in Ibanda Town. “To make sure I didn’t miss the UPDF recruitment drive, I escaped from home to participate in the drills and tests.

I was selected among the successful recruits and taken to Singo Training Wing in Nakaseke District,” narrates Kyomuhangi. Because she left for training right away, her parents only found out from her brother. Kyomuhangi would deal with their disappointment at a later date; for now she had work to do.

The training
Of her time at the training centre, Kyomuhangi recounts; “There were many women and everyone was treated equally irrespective of sex. Things were not easy and at one point I thought of escaping but remembered I had also escaped from home, so I gave up and continued.

“We had to adapt fast to the environment or we got punished. Despite the tough conditions at the training school, I continued to do my best. But, I never had any idea I would be selected for the aircraft training because I did not have any background in engineering. I had only stopped in Senior Six so I figured the selection would maybe see me end up as an aircraft cleaner, but never a pilot.

“There were many degree and diploma holders among those selected for the course and we were all later given a test which I passed.

As reality dawned on me during the aircraft training where I was really headed, I had to make hard decisions. The training was conducted by Bulgarian aircraft experts contracted by the Ugandan government.

“I started wondering why I was taking myself through such a risky venture. I had passions in life but flying an aircraft was not one of them. I was very nervous about my decision but I later had to relax and give my new career a try.

The trainings started with basic studies of jet fighter aircraft between November 2011 and January 2013, and then later, we started actually flying the jets. We started straight away with real fighter jets.

It was very scary the first time I sat in the cockpit and flew the plane from the ground into the sky but with time I got used to it. In the four years of training, we learnt how to take off and land a plane, do basic manoeuvres in the sky, advance manoeuvres in medium altitude, cross country and ground attacks. The next phase of training will entail advance trainings on formation flying, air to air combat, and night flying.

Winning back family support
Kyomuhangi says when she got the chance to talk to her family about her decision and her family realised how determined she was, all objections were dropped. “My parents and friends have since supported my course of doing what I like, and I am grateful to them.”

Without any ambition in the aviation sector during her childhood days, Lt Kyomuhangi, challenges other women to ready themselves for unforeseen opportunities that may turn around their lives. “I also advise fellow women to be determined in what they do so that they can accomplish their goals,” Tips
Kyomuhangi. Her dream is to become East Africa’s best military aircraft pilot.

She believes that one day, ladies will look up to her and take her path into fulfilling their ambitions and breaking stereotypes of attributing specific jobs as fit for only men but not female. Kyomuhangi was in October this year passed out as a 2nd Lieutenant among other 229 cadet officers from the Uganda military Academy in Mubende District by President Museveni.

There have been other Ugandan women who have flown military aircrafts. Among these is Lt. Col. Rebecca Mpagi, one of the Uganda’s first woman military pilots whose journey began in 1986, after joining the National Resistance Army (NRA) now the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

What others say
Gen Katumba Wamala
While presiding over the pass out ceremony of the 20 pilots in July, the UPDF Chief of Defence Forces praised Kyomuhangi for her brave decision to become a combat pilot and encouraged other female soldiers to work hard and build their confidence so that they can fully explore their potential and

“It’s hard to make decisions like Kyomuhangi has made, especially for a lady, but if you are confident, you can make it just like male pilots,” he said.

Capt Sam Nkwasibwe
Also a recent graduate from Gulu airbase, Capt Nkwasibwe says, “Kyomuhangi is a jolly and social outgoing person, she made it easy for other students to be supportive of her during the course. She was bright in class just like other male students.