Fear of heights doesn’t affect piloting – Captain Nnaji
When did you join the aviation sector?
I HAVE been doing business since 1986 but I joined the aviation sector as a pilot 27 years ago. However, my company, Odengene Air-Shuttle Services, began commercial flights in February 2006.
Was being a pilot your childhood dream?
I have always wanted to be a pilot right from a tender age but I didn’t know how to achieve the dream. When I became a pilot, I began to see it as something I could invest in and I came back to Nigeria to establish OAS Helicopters.
What did you study at university?
I studied Political Science at the University of Lagos. But you will agree with me that what you study in the university is not always the same as the profession you eventually practice. I later obtained my first pilot licence in 1997 in the United States of America.
How did you feel the first time you flew an airplane?
It was exciting, though I know certain people think it is frightening. Even if you fear heights, you can still be a pilot and do well. Climbing a story-building and looking down is different from being in an aircraft. The fear of heights doesn’t affect piloting in any way. Naturally, I am scared of heights but once I get into the airplane, it feels different. I cannot explain that and I have lots of pilots who share the same view.
Did your parents support your decision to become a pilot?
My case was different, as I made myself a pilot. I had already become a successful businessman before I went into aviation. My parents couldn’t have afforded the money required for me to become a pilot. But when I became a businessman, I thought I could afford it and I applied to study in America.
Why did you return to Nigeria to establish OAS Helicopters?
When you have yet to practice business elsewhere in the world, you will think it is the golden thing to do. But in some other countries that we idolise, the opportunities are limited and you can’t completely exercise your freedom. Once you realise this, you will appreciate your country.
I had established a business in the US but I realised that I couldn’t do a lot of things because I wasn’t a citizen there. Also, I have always known that I would return to Nigeria to practice. Nigeria is my country and people are always willing to support you one way or the other. In a foreign land, you may not get their support even if you have the money. You can also be antagonised there.
What have been the challenges of operating in Nigeria?
The major challenge I faced setting up in Nigeria was funding. Setting up a business like this in Nigeria requires intensive capital because you must have a maintenance facility also. In a developed country, you can always use other companies’ facilities to maintain your aircraft. But when you are setting up a helicopter company and you have to think of having a maintenance facility too, it requires a lot of money.
To be honest with you, we don’t have a big market for what we do in Nigeria. What we do is big but it is for the high earners in society. Helicopters take people to places where there are no airports or other means of transportation. It is a little segment of the population that patronises us. This doesn’t mean Nigeria is not a big country.
How have you been able to stay in business?
When we started, we actually thought we would have lots of VIPs moving around in helicopters due to the flamboyant lifestyles of Nigerians. But we soon realised that it wasn’t as lucrative as we thought it would be. The solution was to go into oil and gas earlier than expected. My thought at the onset was that, after growing big in air transportation, we would go into oil and gas.
How often do you fly as a pilot?
I try to fly to remain current because I still have more years in me to practice. The last time I flew was in November last year. I flew to Enugu, Abuja and some locations in Bayelsa. People who wanted to go to certain places they couldn’t access by road or other means hired me. I was available and they knew me; so, they insisted I went with them.
How do you handle an emergency situation while flying?
Every pilot is trained to handle emergency situations. If an emergency is well handled, you don’t have to raise the alarm because you will only frighten the passengers. The airplane is like every other thing made by men and the system has created emergency procedures for everything that could go wrong. When the situation is out of hand and you need to land where you are not supposed to, then you can relate with the passengers. However, a pilot is trained to handle emergency situations and tell the stories later.
Are you satisfied with the state of the aviation industry?
I am satisfied with the industry. Of course, every industry is struggling with the economy right now. But if you look at where we are today, we are better than where we were years ago. There is now a bit of stability in the industry and we have more professionals.
Do you think Nigerian pilots are as skillful as those in the developed countries?
I tell people that once you are a pilot, you can fly anywhere in the world. The training is the same anywhere.
Also, as Nigerians, we are in an advantageous position. English is the only language of the aviation sector and since we are an English-speaking country, it makes it easier for our pilots to fly anywhere in the world. Once you don’t speak English, you can be any other thing in the world but not a pilot. Communication is very key because you need to be able to describe where you are in the air.
Nigerians are flying all over the world. Once you apply for a job as a pilot and you are found competent, a foreign country will do all they can to have you. You don’t even need to struggle to get a visa.
How wealthy are you as a pilot?
I will not talk about myself. But once you are a pilot, you will not be poor again. You can even make more money flying in other countries than in your own country. If you make your mark overseas, they will not underpay you because you are a Nigerian, or a black man.
Where do you see OAS Helicopters in five years?
In the next five years, I know we will be bigger than what we are today. We have worked hard and we have done a lot.
What did you learn from your father that has helped you today?
One thing I learned from my father, which was amplified by other peoples’ experiences, is the spirit of not quitting what you think is right no matter the challenges. When I grew up, I read the history of Honda and it amplified that. Although my father wasn’t a rich man, once he set his mind on something, he got it done.
How would you describe your childhood?
As a kid, I was cool-headed and unassuming. I didn’t always attend parties. I had my primary education in my village in Enugu before moving to Owerri, Imo, for my secondary education at Madonna High School.
How do you balance work and family?
It is all about properly planning your schedule. As a boy, I made plans and I tried to keep to them. I plan my schedules for every day, week, month and year. I try to follow these schedules even though I don’t meet up with them every time.
I have been married for more than 32 years now, and I have a son who is a pilot. He works with one of the popular airlines in Nigeria.
How do you relax?
I swim, run, practise taekwondo and read.
What is your favourite food?
I don’t think I have a favourite food but I enjoy having a good meal. I like English food a lot, though I wish I could eat more of our native food.
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