IRENE KOKI MUTUNGI KENYA PILOT Africa’s first captain flying the Dreamliner

Kenya Airways (KQ) has announced a first in the airline industry – that Captain Irene Koki Mutungi was promoted to be the first African Captain on the Boeing B787 Dreamliner. This makes her the first female African Dreamliner Captain.

Captain Mutungi was the first ever and only female pilot at Kenya Airways for about six years and has risen steadily through the ranks. Irene was flying as a First Officer on the 767-300ER, the second largest aircraft in the Kenya 
Airways fleet after the Boeing B777-300ER, and then became the first female Kenya Airways Captain of a Boeing 767-300ER until she finished her course for type conversion successfully and was elevated to fly in the left hand seat of KQ’s latest acquisition.
Captain Irene Mutungi’s latest professional accomplishment is a first is not only in Kenya but in the world. She now becomes the first African female Boeing 787 Captain in the world.

She looks simple and charming. But behind her attractive appearance lies a skilful and experienced captaincy badge which has enabled her to fly round the world since 1993. To her, this is not something one can gloss over. Welcome to the world of Captain Irene Koki Mutungi of Kenya Airways.

“This comes with a great sense of achievement and responsibility. You really have a lot on your shoulders and you have to be level and clear-headed to be able to carry on. I consider flying a plane as one of those things. I don’t think about it because I have been flying for a long time and it has been a part of me.”

How did she feel like flying for the first time? “Oh! It was an amazing feeling. My heart went to the women in Africa most especially our rural areas. The initial thought that preoccupied my mind was how to empower women in Africa. My experience was like breaking the barrier and crossing over into a new beginning for the womenfolk. It meant a lot not just for me but I thought about what it meant for us – the female gender – as a whole. According to her, “I did a flight to Kusumu in western Kenya, flying a Fokker 50 with a 54-seater capacity. I was the first lady in the airline and everybody was so surprised. Passengers normally get into the plane through the front rear and we used to have the cockpit door open, so passengers walking in could catch the glimpse of who was flying them. Suddenly, a guy looked in saw me, and immediately yelled: ‘I am not a guinea pig’ and that was really funny.”

“Obviously, my captain then did not take it lightly at all and he asked the man to tender an apology to me or he should politely get off the plane. The man came and apologised, saying ‘I didn’t mean it that way, actually, I am really honoured to be flown by a woman. The flight went well.’

For a job that many people have described as a male-dominated profession, Captain Mutungi has taken a conscious effort to say what a man can do a woman can do better. Thus she says: “I don’t really look at it from the gender angle but the fact that I have broken the barrier is just good enough for me.”

Her background has largely assisted her in her career and she admits that flying is in her family gene.  “I started flying in 1993 that was when I began to learn how to fly. I remember I flew with my father to London when I was eight years old and I sat with him at the cockpit almost all the way. From there I knew that was what I wanted to do. Of course, I did what I needed to do; got my grades and went straight into flying.”

As a goal-getter, who does not give up easily, Mutungi went through the right educational career to attain the peak of her chosen profession. She was at Loreta Covenant in Soga where she read Pure Science and later went into flying.
She got her first licence tagged private pilot’s licence. After this she got her Commercial Pilot Licence and later did an enlistment rating, which enabled her to fly in the dark. Then she got an Airline Pilot Licence which enabled her to become a captain. She did her PPL in Nairobi and later went to the United States of America to do most of her other training programmes to obtain the right qualifications.

On her training, the first female captain in Africa says she is trained to deal with every situation regularly. “Every six months, I go through very rigorous training. I am about going for another one. During the training, we would be given all sorts of emergency situation lessons, exposing you to difficult scenarios that one can possibly come across as a pilot, and you are drilled on how to grapple with such situations.”

Captain Mutungi has really proved herself worthy by taking her expertise to the global community. She started flying initially in Kenya and gradually moved to Europe and Asia among other places. She has also moved from flying small plane to the bigger ones.

Call her a Boeing girl; you are not far from the truth. She likes Boeing 760 and 750 and has been basically trained on Boeing all her life. She has since moved from Fokker 50 to Boeing 737 and then 767 before coming down as a commander.
“Usually, you are a first officer seating at the right side and you walk your way up the rank and then again you come down and you walk your way up again.”

Captain Mutungi believes that she has broken barriers as the first female captain in Africa, feeling comfortable with her job. “I am comfortable with what I do, the late nights, my off-days and my working hours, everything works for me. I can’t work in a structured environment although the airline industry is structured in its own way but this is where I am mostly at home and everything here works for me.”

On her first long haul, she explains that she flew to Amsterdam, describing it as a great experience. “It was great but it was so tiring because it was like an eight and a half hours flight from Nairobi. The journey to Amsterdam wasn’t too bad because it was during the day but coming back home during the night made my eyes very red and I took so much coffee.”

On how she is being received outside Africa as a female captain, she describes her experience as wonderful, noting that “people are now appreciating that women can do things just as well if not much better than men. I have not experienced any discrimination at all. In fact, passengers are more excited once they realise that it is a lady in command. They always want to come and say hello to you. So it has been great and fun all the way.”

Asked to assess airports in Africa, Captain Mutungi explains that the continent has “different challenges in different airports because of the infrastructure some have really developed like Johannesburg, where flying is easier with better instrument landing systems. On the other African airports, some are still miles away from what you can call a modern airport with the state of the art landing systems. They are still being confronted with infrastructure development like having access to minimum navigational aides. But as a whole, I think we have come a long way in Africa considering the realities on ground when I started flying.”

She adds that the continent has come a long way in the areas of safety and that more investors are now investing in the aviation industry. This, she says, has given equal opportunities for both genders to exercise their expertise. She notes that the continent is moving in the right direction.

Captain Mutungi explains that as a woman, she has her motherly nature. “I am still what you can describe as a good wife at home. I am an African woman, so I am not carried away by the career to the detriment of being a family woman. A lot of young girls have big dreams, but they actually need a real life example to say yes. I have shown them examples that they can actually realise their dreams. In fact, I have been encouraging a lot of young girls to remain focused on their career.”
How does Captain Mutungi feel when she is flown by another pilot? “I feel the way any other passenger will feel. It is like someone who knows how to drive and you have an opportunity to sit beside another driver.”

On her future aspirations, the captain says: “The sky is the limit and I am already in the sky but just now I am about to complete my Masters programme in aviation management and safety. I hope to go more into management but this would not stop me from flying because I love flying.”


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