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Webster Otugha,a bright boy who rose from nothing to become the most celebrated KQ pilot

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Growing up in Kendu Bay, in the then Kosele district, Webster, as he is fondly called by his associates, was the best pupil in his primary school, Sony Complex in Homa Bay county. He served as a playwright for a drama that wowed all and sundry from within his school and without, and raised his reputation in the village.

He won admiration from teachers thanks to his stellar performance in class and drama. He always topped in class and his future looked great, but something seemed to stand in his way: poverty.

“I always wanted to go to Starehe Boys Centre and School because it covered the expenses of bright but needy students,” he said.

However, when he sent in his application to enrol at the school of his dreams, he was turned down. He was not an orphan and that struck him out. Then his favourite teacher, Antipus Magero (now the late), who badly wanted him to make it to Starehe, went the extra mile.

“I remember after the initial rejection from Starehe, he spoke with the then principal of Asumbi Girls’ School to help me get to Starehe, through the Catholic Church’s help. Before then, he had gone to the ministry offices in Nairobi and had my first high school choice changed from Starehe to Mang’u.”

As fate would have it, Webster qualified and joined Mang’u High School in 1998 in Form 1, and selected aviation as one of his technical subjects.

“I chose to do three sciences, geography and aviation because they were what I needed for the job. Now that I had come this far, I wanted to follow this aviation dream and quench my thirst and that of those who believed in me,” he said.

In 2000, a Kenya Airways Airbus plane crashed in Abidjan. That crash was a blessing in disguise for Webster, who was thousands of miles away in Thika, Kenya. After the crash, the company (Kenya Airways) bought a replacement plane and invited students of aviation from high schools in Kenya for an experience flight.

“The teacher chose students based on their performance in the subject in the previous term. Some from the Aviation Club were also chosen. For me, I was chosen because I was a senior official in the club and also good in the subject,” he said.

As though nature was constellating to communicate a message and confirm his future, a year later, he had an almost similar experience. This time, Kenya Airways decided to do away with the France-manufactured Airbus fleet and introduced the American-made Boeing fleet. Once again, KQ invited students of aviation from select high schools and Webster was on the list.

“This experience was more exhilarating than the former one because we were treated as guests. The Minister of Transport and other high-ranking government officials were there at the handover ceremony. Then we were also there, soaking in every bit of that beautiful moment,” he said.

Webster says this was the experience that made him settle for flying in the vast territory of aviation.

“I asked to go into the cabin and I was allowed. There, I talked with the captain and the first officer. They were both wearing blazers with four golden stripes. I looked at my school blazer. It only had two stripes. I said, ‘Someday, I will add two more stripes.’ The fact that the first officer, Irene Mutungi (now a captain) was a lady encouraged me even more.”

Back in school, Webster had accumulated fee balances that ran into thousands. Sometimes when things stretched too far, he worked to help his parents pay the fee.

Regardless of his permanent presence in those with fee balances, he says he only went home to fetch fees once in his four years in school.

In 2001, while in Form 4, something he regards as a miracle happened. His then class teacher, Belden Ochieng, forwarded his name to a certain bursary kitty, and that paid his first term and KCSE registration fee fully.

Despite his tough financial background and the stress that that brought, he managed to score a mean grade of A-minus, with A plains in mathematics, physics and aviation. He then started teaching high school kids in Nairobi.

“I was teaching them sciences and I was paid Sh100 per hour. In a month, I was paid Sh2,000,” he said.

He applied for a degree programme in mechatronics at JKUAT because there was no local university offering aviation back then, he said. Meanwhile, he tried to go seek an internship at Kenya Airways while awaiting to join university but he was denied a chance. However, a year after he completed high school, Kenya Airways was looking for young people to train as pilots.

Time passed by and no response came. He chose to try his luck in the Kenya Air Force, which was also seeking recruits.

“I went to Kosele for the physical exercises. I was fit and agile, and so I passed all of them. Just when I was about to be given the green light to progress to the next phase, another officer called me and said I had a skin disease, and he struck me out. Just that way, a heat rash on my neck thwarted my dreams of joining the Air Force. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

Months later in 2003, a call came from Nairobi, requesting him to travel to Kenya Airways for interviews. He had been shortlisted. He travelled to Nairobi hastily and did a series of three interviews, which he passed.

After the interviews, he was required to bring his academic certificates, including the KCSE one. It was held in school as a result of his fee balance.

“I went to the principal, who was a new one now, and asked him to give me the certificate I take it to the company they verify and then I return it. But he was good enough and he wholeheartedly gave me the document,” he said.

Since then, Webster has flown for 11,500 hours cumulatively. He has risen through the ranks and now he is a captain, flying Boeing 737-300, a cargo plane, and Boeing 737-800, a passenger plane.

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