No doubt very few khaki-clad safari goers give much thought to the charming Wilson Airport, Alison Mitchell shares it's sweet story and the love affair from which it blossomed
Everybody knows Wilson Airport.
Charming, quaint and somewhat eccentric is what most people think about Nairobi’s second airport. Time seems to stand still here as travellers gather in the red-cladded departures lounge to await the small plane taking them on what will surely be a trip of a lifetime. What is less widely known is the story of how this little airport came to be.
It was on a Kenyan Aircraft Company plane, known as Miss Africa, where the handsome Captain Thomas Campbell Black and wealthy widow Florence Kerr Wilson had their first encounter. Campbell was well known for his airborne flirtations and would win many hearts as he taught ladies how to fly. The love affair blossomed and, with the help of a healthy cash injection from Wilson, in just a few months Wilson Airways was born. Campbell was in his element as Managing Director and Chief Pilot, in love and still infatuated with flying. Wilson Airways delivered mail all over East Africa and the little airline flourished.
Wilson Airways opened its first office at the junction of Ngong and Naivasha Roads, later moving to Nairobi West Aerodrome on the outskirts of town. It was from this office that Mrs Wilson watched her first plane, known as ‘The Moth’, land in what was then still a grazing field.
The romance was sadly short-lived as Campbell soon fell for another Nairobi socialite and abandoned poor Mrs Wilson who had to run Wilson Airways alone. Campbell left Nairobi and went on to become a star in the international air race scene and married a famous English actress before being tragically killed in an air race crash just a year later.
Mrs Wilson struggled running the company alone but timing helped due to the start of commercial aviation and the increasing popularity of the hunting safari. Wilson Airways flourished and grew to a fleet of 17 aircraft. Her clientele were the high rollers and wealthy travellers, including the British Royal Family.
Sadly the outbreak of World War II in 1939 terminated her decade of success and Wilson Airways came to an end. Mrs Wilson’s dream was over, her entire fleet confiscated by the government, her pilots incorporated into the Kenyan Auxiliary Air Unit and Wilson Airways became the Royal Air Force.
The airport continued to prosper during and after the war, however it was only in 1962 that Nairobi West Aerodrome was officially renamed Wilson Airport as a tribute one fine lady’s pioneering spirit. Mrs Wilson was there to witness the unveiling and died in Karen six years later.
So when next you pass through Wilson Airport en route to Kenya’s beautiful wilderness, spare a thought for Mrs Wilson and her romance of years gone by.
If you’re ever there over lunchtime, stroll across to the Aero Club. Decked from top to toe in flying memorabilia, the club is a real tribute to the golden age and the glamorous spirit of aviation in Kenya. And the hamburgers are delicious.