The aviation industry describes the Kenya Airforce as, “an ancient fleet.” The newest aircraft owned by the Kenya Airforce were bought in the 1990s. The oldest came into service when Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
The rickety nature of the Kenya Airforce was highlighted recently when a Puma helicopter carrying President Mwai Kibaki began spewing thick smoke from its turbine engine. Luckily, the pilot managed to bring down the aircraft without loss of life.
In a stage managed leak to Kenya’s media, the Airforce claimed that the smoking engines were not a result of its maintenance procedures and that the President had never been in any real danger. “The smoke was probably caused by an engine seal,” said the source who obviously could not be named.
Kenyans should expect more of such near-disasters unless the military embarks on a serious strategy to revamp the Airforce.
The Puma helicopters that the President flies are quickly approaching the end of their service life, having flown for almost 30 years. They are good machines that have played a role in military operations, disaster relief and rescuing stranded persons on land and water. However, there is a limit to how long a machine can be used.
The De Havilland Buffalo transport aircraft were also acquired in the 1970s and are approaching the final curtain of their lives. There are no immediate plans to acquire new aircraft to fulfil the useful roles played by the giant Buffalo planes. It was a Buffalo that was sent to Mombasa in August 1978 to bring to Nairobi the body of founding president Jomo Kenyatta. The story illustrates the age of these aircraft.
During the Moi presidency, the Airforce – which had been renamed the 82 Airforce – bought several De Havilland Dash 8 transport aircraft. However, these can only be used as VIP passenger transports and cannot fulfil the role of the Buffalo. The Buffalo can drop paratroopers and other supplies in operation zones, which the Dash 8 cannot do without substantial modification.
All Kenya Airforce pilots undergo basic flight training in British-built Bulldog light aircraft. These, again, were bought in the 1970s and possibly even earlier than that.
The Airforce has a fleet of Tucano turboprop trainer aircraft bought in the late 1980s to help trainee jet fighter pilots adapt from the basic controls of the Bulldog. The Airforce also flies and maintains the Fokker 100 Presidential jet bought in 1995.
The newest aircraft owned by the Kenya Airforce today are the Harbin Y-12 light transport planes bought from China in 1997. The Y-12s replaced a fleet of piston engine Dornier Sky Servants.
The flying of old aircraft is not the only issue plaguing the Airforce. The Moi Airbase (MAB) in Eastleigh is a disaster waiting to happen. The airport was built by the British long before independence, at a time when its current location formed the eastern limits of Nairobi. Today, Nairobi has expanded 20 kilometres east of Eastleigh and the Moi Airbase is now regarded as “inner city.”
Airforce pilots have to negotiate corners past skyscrapers as they descend to land at Moi Airbase. At the opposite side of the runway, Kenya Airforce planes find themselves flying above rooftops of city suburbs as soon as they leave the runway.
What is even more worrying is the fact that trainee pilots using Bulldog aircraft are trained at Eastleigh. It is just a matter of time before somebody makes a mistake that could result in another big disaster.
In 1992, a Buffalo transport aircraft with at least 40 people crashed into Kaloleni Estate. More fatalities included people in their homes. The aircraft had taken off from Eastleigh but the pilot decided to turn back on detecting engine problems. The Buffalo flew over Nairobi city centre before crashing in Kaloleni. If the crash had occurred in downtown Nairobi, casualty figures would have been much higher.
A number of smaller incidents have occurred since then. A few years ago, a boy standing on a garbage heap near the runway was hit and killed by a low-flying jet fighter. The fighter jet lost control and crashed but its pilot survived.
Aviation experts recommend the relocation of Moi Airbase from its current site to avoid impending disaster.
Meanwhile, the Kenya Airforce is purchasing second hand fighter jets from Jordan.
There are many reasons why the Airforce is unable to buy new aircraft to match developments in aviation. Government procurement rules have made the procurement process extremely tedious. Interested players within political circles have also made military purchases tricky. A good example is the status of the Kenya Navy ship, the KNS Jasiri, which is currently rotting in Spain because of disputes between the Kenya government and the ship’s builder
Controversies over military purchases are worsened by big world powers such as the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China. A major power can punish a country like Kenya merely for buying weapons from a competitor. Wherever you choose to spend your military budget will determine whether you are treated as a friend or foe by the big powers. It is that serious.
Another reason for malaise within the Airforce could simply be inertia within the government. Kenya’s leadership is filled with people who beleive in recycling old systems that have outlived their usefulness. The adage “old is gold” certainly does not apply to technology.
Clearly, it will be quite some time before Airforce pilots get to fly modern aircraft. This may affect their competitiveness when they are looking for jobs after military service. It is the equivalent of a pilot saying that he/she is an expert in the Boeing 707 or the DC-3. Which airline flies such aircraft anymore?