This story comes to you from AirKenya flight P2-853, seat 3A, from Wilson Airport to Kichwa Tembo airfield. I’m not going to write about the great adventures that I’m coming from or even the ones I’m going on to. Nicky Fitzgerald, storyteller extraordinaire, told me that everything has a story to tell if only you look close enough. I’m about to prove her right by telling you the very interesting story of the airport that’s made this adventure possible.
It's 1928 and Mrs. Florence Kerr Wilson has just heard the news of her husband’s death. She is in Kenya and desperately needs to get to England (this decade) so the boat is simply not an option. Her friend Tom Campbell Black, one of Kenya’s most famous early pilots, offers to fly her to England. This was no small offer from one friend to another — not only would it take them 14 days one way, but this offer would launch the history of commercial flying in East Africa.
At the age of 50, Mrs. Wilson strapped herself into the plane called ‘Miss Africa’ (registered as VP – KAB) and flew towards what would be the start of her legacy. She, Campbell Black and ‘Archie’ Watkins, an engineer, made the flight to England and while up in the air conceived a business together. There was no better meeting room than Miss Africa’s cockpit to forge this company and by July 31, 1929, the firm to be known as Wilson Airways was formed.
By 1932, the company was well established and the planes in its lineup included two Avro Firves, two D.H. Puss Moths and three Gypsy Moths (you likely know by now that we are great fans of Gypsy Moths at Angama — see above video for proof). When the company began, the airfield was merely a grass strip at Dagoretti Corner, kept short by sheep. Never mind the herds, the main problem was that there were only three other landing strips in the entire country. As you can imagine, this severely restricted the growth of the company.
However, the Kenyan aeronautics space was fast changing and by 1933, there were more than 50 landing strips — many of them built by Wilson Airways. By this time, the Aero Club of East Africa had been in operation for a few years with the express aim to promote, encourage and regulate aviation in Kenya and East Africa at large. The club members were doing all they could to expand the possibilities of exploration in Kenya’s famously vast skies. In an article celebrating the Club’s 50th anniversary, members were described as 'history makers, record-breakers and flyers-by-the-seat-of-their-panters' (there is more than one story to tell here, to be sure).
In no time at all, Wilson’s logbooks were filled with signatures of celebrities such as the Prince of Wales and millionaires like the Vanderbilts. High-flying travellers were now able to skip the tedious (and often extremely uncomfortable) journeys by road and fly to bush airstrips that had been cleared where the rest of their safari party would meet them. Though I have not done the seven-hour drive from Nairobi to the Mara, I know that car sickness would definitely prevent me from many rounds of Candy Crush or even writing this blog.
While not a pilot herself, by shouldering the entire financial burden of Kenya's first commercial airline, Mrs. Wilson was the force responsible for promoting commercial aviation in East Africa (so much so, she was awarded the O.B.E. in 1936). With the outbreak of WW2, Wilson Airways was forced to fold but its pilots and engineers continued to provide a sterling service with the Kenyan Auxiliary Air Unit and later with the RAF (the British Royal Air Force).
In 1962, the Minister of Commerce, Industry and Communications, Mr. Masinde Muliro, unveiled a plaque at Wilson Airport commemorating Mrs. Wilson’s services to aviation in East Africa. When she died in 1966, Mrs. Wilson left behind a living memorial in what is now Wilson Airport. We’re very grateful for her and the companies that have since sprung up bringing our lovely guests to us and many other camps and lodges around Keyna.
We must give special thanks to the Aero Club of East Africa for all the lovely pictures and their continually warm hospitality.
Filed under: East Africa Travel
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