in Features / Airports

How Wilson Airport landed a place in history

Posted 23 August 2017 · Add Comment

Ninety years ago, the idea for Kenya's famous Wilson Airport was first mooted. Githae Mwaniki has been looking over its history and current status.

The idea of developing Wilson Airport was agreed in late 1927, when those wanting to set up the aerodrome agreed on the site in Langata. This was after the group of operators led the drive to move from the previous operational airfield in Dagoretti Corner.
The first flight from the new aerodrome was completed in July 1929.
The pioneer operators were Wilson Airways and Imperial Airways. The airfield, then known as Nairobi West Aerodrome, was fully approved by the authorities in 1933.
The airfield served as the main airport, not only for Kenya but also the east African region, at a time when the only other active airfield was in Kisumu.
Imperial Airways and Wilson Airways pioneered commercial routes, operating Nairobi-Cape Town in addition to Nairobi-Kampala (Uganda) and Nairobi Dar es Salaam (Tanzania – then Tanganyika).
Wilson Airways began operations using a DH60G Gipsy Moth registered as VP-KAC. The founder of the airline, Florence Ker Wilson, had seen the need to develop air transport within east Africa and had the capital to start up and sustain the airline’s operations.
Initially, most of the operations were charters. Later, scheduled services were introduced and more aircraft were added to the fleet, which peaked in 1938 with 17 aircraft, including DH89A Dragon Rapides and Percival Vega Gulls.
Wilson Airways served a range of clientele, including members of the British Royal family, prominent European personalities and safari groups.
The airline also pioneered the initial air ambulance service in the region, in addition to setting up the first commercial flight training school. As such, the enterprising spirit of Mrs Wilson, then often referred to as ‘Florrie’, meant the airport had become the hub for regional and general aviation in east Africa.
Operations grew exponentially until 1939, when World War II forced Wilson Airways to cease operations. The airfield and the entire Wilson Airways fleet and pilots were taken over by the then British Colonial Government as the facility was converted to become a Royal Air Force base.
During the war, construction of Kisumu and Mombasa Airports was completed and they were initially dedicated to military operations.
It was only after the war ended in 1945 that civilian operation returned to Nairobi West Aerodrome, with the resumption of commercial operations.
Wilson Airways’ operations were later taken up when the new East African Airways was formed by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 1943.
In 1962, the then colonial government renamed the aerodrome Wilson Airport in honour of Florence Wilson in a ceremony that was presided over by the then Minister of Commerce and Communication, Masinde Murilo.
Mrs Wilson was present at the unveiling. She passed away six years later at her home in Karen. In the mid 1950s, construction of the new Nairobi Aerodrome had taken place on a new site in Embakasi, to the north of Nairobi.
The aerodrome was opened by the then Governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Barring, in 1958 as the new international airport for the east African region. This left Wilson Airport to continue to be dominated by the host of domestic airlines and general aviation operators.
In the late 1960s, during the administration of the newly independent Kenyan Government, the airport was managed by the then Department of Aerodromes, based at the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
The airport’s operations grew exponentially until the early 1990s, after which management was taken over by a new parastatal set up by the government – Kenya Airports Authority (KAA).
The parastatal was formed by an act of parliament with the mandate to develop and manage all airports and aerodromes in Kenya.
The Aero Club of East Africa has had a major role in Wilson Airport, as its members formerly contributed to a majority of the aircraft movements at the facility.
The club also organised spectacular air shows in the late 1980s to 1990s that showcased the value of the airport to the region. In addition, it holds priceless memorabilia of Kenya’s aviation history.
The airport still retains its charm, even though most of the light private aircraft that dominated the facility moved to Orly Air Park, a private aerodrome 22km from Wilson Airport.
Wilson Airport, referred to by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) code as WIL and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) code as HKNW, serves both domestic and international traffic, with operations dominated by light aircraft, which serve the tourism, health care and agriculture industries.
The airport has an elevation of 5,536ft, boasts two asphalt runways measuring 1,462 and 1,540 metres respectively, and has fuel delivered by bowser supply.
It has an average traffic of around 183,000 take-offs and landings annually, and accommodated 480,000 passengers in 2016.
Currently a wide range of domestic carriers use the airport to serve a range of destinations within Kenya and the surrounding region. These include East African Safari Air Express (Fly Sax), Air Kenya Express, Safarilink, Skyward Express, and Freedom Airlines, all of whom serve destinations including Maasai Mara, Lamu, Ukunda, Malindi, Lodwar, Lokichoggio, Wajir, Mandera and Kilimanjaro.
Other operators who use the facility include a range of flight training schools, relief operators and helicopter operators.
The future of Wilson Airport has been a subject of much debate. Even though the airport is a strategic facility for the country and has been a key contributor to KAA revenue, there has not been significant investment to upgrade the infrastructure and airport facilities. Aircraft operators face acute congestion, especially in terms of parking space and passenger terminal, hangar and office space.
The other challenge faced by the airport is the massive illegal encroachment of airport land by real estate, especially on the flight paths, that led to a security and flight safety hazard. The encroachment has meant that land for airport expansion has been utilised and a proactive land management plan needs to be implemented if the current and future status of the airport is to be guaranteed.
The KAA management is working to implement a revised master plan for the airport. It aims to rehabilitate all runway pavements and aprons, including construction of a new apron to hold decommissioned and long-term aircraft, so as to free up more parking slots near the ramp terminal area.
Also, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) is currently constructing a new $1.7 million control tower, which is scheduled to be completed by early 2018. The current 50-year-old tower does not have an effective 360-degree view.
The revised master plan for the airport indicates that that a new passenger terminal will be constructed on the northern side, as opposed to the initially proposed southern side, but the actual implementation plan has yet to be outlined.
Due to the critical nature of the airport to Kenya’s domestic and regional aviation, the KAA and all relevant government agencies need to prioritise implementation of the revised master plan, especially the new proposed passenger terminal, apron and concessions management. It must also take decisive action on all land encroachment so as to safeguard the airport’s future.

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