“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more,” so said renowned American medical researcher, the late Jonas Salk.
And no one does the truth of this resonate better with than Irene Koki. The 42-year-old has risen through a male dominated field to the rank of captain.
And on October 28, she will make history by commandeering the maiden Kenya-US direct, ultra-long-haul flight that has generated much excitement among travellers. Koki will be the lead captain of Dreamliner Boeing 787-8 and on board will be President Uhuru Kenyatta, who acquired the first ticket for the inaugural flight.
Indeed, her life has been a ladder of excellence and opportunities, a legacy of firsts. After acquiring a commercial pilot licence from the Federal Aviation Authority of the United States in 1995 where she had gone to further her studies, she returned to Kenya and was hired by Kenya Airways (KQ).
She became the national carrier’s first female pilot. In fact, she remained the only female pilot at the airline for the next six years.
And in 2004, she became the first African woman to captain a commercial aircraft when she qualified to command the Boeing 737. She has since qualified to command the Boeing 767.
She then took the conversion course which allowed her to transition piloting Boeing’s latest sensation, the 787 Dreamliner. She became the first African female 787 captain.
“I was employed as a cadet by KQ when I was 19 years, promoted to second officer, first officer and now 23 years down the line, a fully fledged pilot (captain),” she said.
She was speaking to People Daily at KQ headquarters during the visit by US UnderSecretary for International Trade and the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa Gil Kaplan last week. Kaplan led a 60-person delegation from US to KQ on a fact-finding mission on the preparedness by stakeholders for the inaugural flight.
“I am at the peak of my career. Flying Dreamliner Boeing 787-8 is a dream come true,” captain Koki said, adding that the historic flight won’t be her first US to Kenya experience.
“The longest flight I have done is from South California to Nairobi (15 hours) when I delivered the Dreamliner. The experience is amazing, I love what I do,” she said.
She said the 787-8 is one of the most sophisticated aircraft in the market currently and being entrusted with it on an occasion of such significance was every pilot’s dream.
Engineer Eric Gituma, the Dreamliner specialists who has been in the trade for 12 years holds Koki in high esteem.
“We have done long chase together her in many places worldwide and I can attest she is among the top in the country and globally,” he said.
He said the captain is among the few female pilots to fly the Dreamliner and is a mentor to other pilots.
Where she will be landing in USA, status of women pilots remains just as low.
Last year, American Airlines told the Airline Pilots Association that out of its 13,762 pilots, just 626 were women.
Captain Koki says her wish is to see more females in aviation, adding that she gets a sense of pride when she meets another female pilot. “I think that pilots should be employed based on their skills and not their gender,” she said.
Her motivation to become a commercial pilot was developed when she was five years old, by observing her father, a KQ pilot at the time.
Four years ago, she was named among “The 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa 2014”, by Forbes Magazine.
She allayed fears of exhaustion from the 15-hour flight saying the plane is so well built fatigue associated with such distances is nearly eliminated.
“Dreamliner aircraft are designed to offer a “calmer cabin experience”, equipped with a quieter air conditioner and advanced technology that isolates noises from vibrations in sidewalls and ceilings and reduces engine noises,” she said.