A lovely article written by Kevin Rushby for the Guardian tells us why, in an era of bigger and blander airports, the real glamour of travel is found in smaller airports, like Wilson, in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Learning all there is to know about Kenya’s amazing aviation history from Dino Bisletti, chief executive of AirKenya, Kevin states that “If there is anywhere in the world that welcomes the glamorous spirit of aviation, it is Kenya. Think Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (OK, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa) in a biplane waggling their wings over remote airstrips where the grass is kept down by herds of wildebeest and zebra.”
Aviation in Kenya is indeed very unique and comes with many unexpected surprises: a flat tyre because of a hungry hyena, a five-foot monitor lizard as a stowaway jumping out once the plane is airborne, getting stung by a scorpion while unloading the plane and being met by a pride of lions when throwing open the pilot door upon landing on a bush airstrip…
Wilson started life as Nairobi Aerodrome in the late 1920s as the main airstrip on the outskirts of the rapidly increasing capital of British East Africa.
Funnily enough and unknown to many, the story of Kenya’s aviation industry did not start in Nairobi, but in Rumuruti, where the rancher John Carberry had imported the country’s first aeroplane nicknamed Miss Kenya. The plane was piloted by Captain Thomas Campbell Black, a handsome twenty-something British pilot, who had a brief love affair with millionaire farmer Florence Kerr Wilson.
Seeing the great potential in flying around the high-rollers of white society who began setting themselves up with the latest airborne toys (many of them disastrously: Finch Hatton was one of several fatalities), Carberry registered “Kenya Aircraft Company Ltd” and bought a second plane, which he christened Miss Africa.
It was aboard Miss Africa that Campbell and Florence Wilson met on a four-day journey from London to Nanyuki. Soon after Campbell resigned from Carberry’s to start “Wilson Airways” with Florence who had injected GBP 50,000 into the new start-up, an enormous amount at the time!
The start of commercial aviation in East Africa in the early 30s quickly transformed Nairobi Aerodrome into the regional airport hub and Wilson Airways was flying passengers in to connect with services to London and Cape Town. Campbell was the chief pilot and the managing director of the growing company, but unfortunately the romance between him and Florence was crumbling. Campbell fell in love with another Nairobi socialite known as Beryl Markham, who he introduced to aviation and who later became one of Kenya’s most famous aviatrix.
Eventually Campbell left Kenya in 1933 and later died in a tragic plane crash while preparing for “The Schlesinger Race” in 1936. In the meantime Wilson Airways had grown to 17 aircraft, the first air ambulance and an aviation training school and was flying famous personalities, including the British Royal family.
Unfortunately for Florence, the outbreak of war in 1939 ended the success story of Wilson Airways. Her entire fleet was confiscated by the British government and, after a decade of dazzling growth, Wilson Airways came to an end.
The airport, however, continued to prosper and in 1962 was renamed as a tribute to her pioneering spirit. Florence Wilson was present when the plaque was unveiled. She died in late September of 1968 in Karen.
Nowadays Wilson Airport is one of the busiest airports in terms of aircraft movement in East and Central Africa. Cheli & Peacock’s offices are conveniently located within the airport, taking up 3 floors of Lengai House, including our purchasing department which supplies the Cheli & Peacock camps (Elsa’s Kopje, Elephant Pepper Camp, Joy’s Camp, Kitich Camp, Lewa Safari Camp and Tortilis Camp) with all the goods they need! So handy to have all these planes go out to the bush on a daily basis…