Since we do not have a national airline, when you meet a pilot fresh out of the East African Civil Aviation Academy (Soroti Flying School), the first thought that comes to mind is, “Honey, what airline are you aiming to work with?
“People ask me that question a lot, actually,” Faridah Ashaba says as she leans on a high counter stool, continuing, “Right now, we have chartered companies such as Kampala Executive (Aviation Limited). I would love to work with them but I have always wanted to be a private pilot, you know, flying a private jet.”
The 26-year-old already has a private pilot’s license, although she cannot fly passengers just yet, until after she has obtained her commercial pilot’s license in March 2018.
Ashaba is an enigma. For someone in a profession that has strict weight requirements, she loves to eat. She admits to this pleasure with a cheeky laugh. She has prepared rice for lunch but as we talk, we forget to eat.
She is the daughter of Hajj Nsereko Mutumba, the spokesperson of Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) – but was brought up by a single mother. Throughout the interview, the feminist in her rises to the surface, seeking an outlet.
Ashaba converted to Christianity and considers herself a proud remnant. “I honour my spiritual father, Prophet Elvis Mbonye. There was a time when I had lost hope, and he prophesied that he had seen me in a cockpit. I was already flying but the small plane I fly does not really have a cockpit. A cockpit is for big planes. So, his prophecy encouraged me. I have found comfort in Christianity.”
Her first solo flight
“You did not ask what I like about flying,” Ashaba enthuses, continuing, “Let me tell you, when I am in flight, I get a sense of freedom away from congestion and traffic. I am in a different world away, from everyone.”
Her first solo flight in 2015 was a daunting experience. She flew around the circuit in Soroti in a Cessna 172 G1000 Glass Cockpit, a four-sitter high-wing trainer aircraft. Flying with an instructor is much easier because he tells the student what to do and what speed and power to use. Alone in the cockpit, Ashaba had to remind herself of all these things.
“Oh my God! It was scary,” she laughs. “Everything was going so fast. The power was already too much and I was trying to remember everything I had learned. It was fun up there, but the challenge came when I had to land. I was praying, ‘Please, God!’ There was so much to do! I had to communicate on the radio, tell the tower guy where I was and ask for clearance to land. It scared me! The moment I landed I said, ‘Oh my God! Thank you! Thank you so much!’ That was my best landing. The solo flight is every pilot’s best landing because you are so careful,” recalls Ashaba.
When she shut down the engines after the flight, there was a bizarre rite of passage to go through. Luckily, she was not wearing her best uniform.
“The students pulled me away from the hangers and took me to a place where they had been mixing mud and water. They drenched me with water and began to pile mud on me. People were kicking, flogging, slapping, and rolling me in the mud.”
Only senior students are allowed to touch those who have flown solo. “They made me demonstrate different flying techniques and after that, they put their feet on my shoulders and took pictures. Then, they poured clean water on me. I took off my shirt and everyone wrote something good on it,” she narrates.
Today, Ashaba has logged more than 100 solo hours from Soroti to Entebbe.
Women have to prove themselves
According to Ashaba, there are not more than 10 girls at Soroti Flying School and about 30 male students. “It is a challenging and frightening course. I do not think companies really favour women that much because when you apply for a job, they are thinking you will soon get pregnant and the entire time you are not working, your male counterparts will be working.”
Acording to Ashaba, the reason there are few women in the aviation industry is because men despise them, thinking they are weak and not fast enough with their hands. “They think we do not use our brains. You feel discriminated against. Sometimes, they think you have reached a certain stage because you are favoured or have slept with the instructor. I know for a fact that I am brighter than some of the guys at school, so it always kills me when I see people look at me and feel they are better than me.”
Cost of becoming a pilot
The course should last two and a half to three years but it can stretch depending on the weather, availability of aviation fuel, a student’s progress in flying, maintenance checks on the plane, and theory classes.
“If there is no fuel or if the plane requires a maintenance check, you can be set back a week or two. For private students, there is always tuition difficulty. I am studying on a government scholarship and when I started in 2013, the tuition for the course was $18,000 (Shs65m). Now, it costs $22,000 (Shs79.6m) and may soon be raised to $90,000 (Shs325.8m).”
She believes one does not need to be a people person to succeed. All you have to do is follow the commands of the captain (for bigger planes) or pilot-in-command (for smaller planes).
“You may talk to passengers over the microphone or not. You can be the friendly pilot who greets passengers but that is really for the air hostesses,” she says.
Challenges on the job
The toughest part of being a pilot is the landing. There is no pilot who can say he or she has mastered the art because every landing is different.”
There are crosswinds that can drive the plane off course. The runway may be slippery or bumpy. “You just have to be alert. When I am approaching the airport, my only thought is that I want to land the plane as well as possible. Not smoothly. Yes, I want it to be smooth but as long as I can make it safely to the ground and the plane is in one piece; that is enough for me.”
Flying through bad weather is also a scary situation. “Most of the time I am actually flying the plane, not on autopilot. If the weather is bad, autopilot can mess you up. I have to keep looking outside to see if there are other planes in the sky. You have to know the dangerous clouds and know where to change course or fly above them. The cumulonimbus cloud is the most dangerous because it keeps building up like a cauliflower. It produces thunder, lightning, and static electricity that interferes with aircraft systems.
Then, there is the overcast weather, where clouds go on and on with no end. A pilot knows better than to enter such a cloud.”
Anyone intending to take up the flying course needs to have passed Physics and Mathematics. However, a pilot also needs to have some vital information on their fingertips as he or she enters the cockpit. “You need to file a flight plan – including the alternative airport in case you do not make it to the planned airport – you have to check your fuel and make sure your radios are working. A pilot needs to be able to work under pressure in case something happens.”
Her mother, her inspiration
Ashaba and her brother were raised by their mother Grace Kyarisiima, a single parent. As she reminisces on the sacrifices her mother made, the memories bring tears to her eyes.
“It was a struggle. My childhood was not happy. Being a firstborn, I had to grow up quickly. I do not remember playing with dolls. My mother was always struggling to get money. Many times, I would walk into the headteacher’s office and ask them to let me continue studying because there was no money at home. I would do this even before mom came to the school to explain.”
Besides her two children, Kyarisiima also looked after and educated about 20 of her relatives. “She had to work extremely hard. Not every single mom works hard. Some chase after men for money, but I have never seen my mom with a man. Our home is in Najjanankumbi and mom would walk from home to Kampala (City) to work, and then from Kampala to Kawempe to visit me at school. She got loans to pay school fees, and then got other loans to cover those loans. Unfortunately, the people she looked after forgot her.”
Her mother is her greatest inspiration and the strongest woman she has ever known.
Kyarisiima has a home-based company, Tamcro Enterprises that makes snacks, including Tam Tam crisps. “As her business grew, my brother was able to attend good schools. Now he is at Makerere University Business School (MUBS) studying business administration. I chose that course because I want him to manage the business. Maybe God will reward my mother through us. I want to be able to fly her on a plane.”
Career is everything
Ashaba is not in a relationship because she wants to give herself time to finish school. “I can date but I want to first establish myself and get respect and trust from my bosses before I can think of starting a family.”
On her ideal man, Ashaba says, “I want a man who is not threatened by my career. I am going to move to different places and sometimes, I will spend months without coming home. I need a man who is mature enough to understand that. He has to respect my ideas and what I can bring to the table.”
She advises young girls not to let men slow them down as they pursue their career, saying, the right man will always find them.
Ashaba has a charity organisation, Bambino Life Foundation. “I love doing charity because I know what it feels like to be deprived. I go to orphanages and schools for the disabled and if I can put a smile on their faces, that is enough for me.”
She also watches TV series, cooks, and reads to relax. Her dream destination is Italy and Japan because she admires their cultures.
“In five years, I see myself flying a bigger plane like a Boeing. Ultimately, I would love to be a private pilot, flying a Gulfstream.”
Why the pilot course?
I attended Shimoni Demonstration School, Bright Day and Boarding Primary School, Wanyange Girls Secondary School, Kyeizoba Girls Secondary School and St Peters Senior Secondary School Nsambya.
I wanted to be in aviation but initially did not dream of becoming a pilot because I was not aware that Uganda trained pilots. I went to Soroti Flying School to study a diploma in Flight Operations and management but when I saw the pilots, I was excited. There were a few girls and I felt challenged.
President Museveni visited the school and asked to meet the students. He offered state scholarships and I forwarded my name. I finished my course and began looking for a job. It took two years for the scholarship list to come out. Eight students had been accepted and I was the only girl.