HomeBusinessAirZim’s first black pilot relives colourful career

AirZim’s first black pilot relives colourful career

CAPTAIN Alex Makanda (AM), one of the first three black airmen to fly Air Zimbabwe, has had a colourful career.

He has had the experience of flying former president Robert Mugabe more times than any other pilot.

This was in addition to flying VVIPs and landing in bush runways to supply armies with war requirements.

After the bush expeditions, Zimbabwe’s legendary pilot, who retired in 2015, found himself flying on intercontinental routes, landing and taking off at some of the world’s best airports.

Our business editor Shame Makoshori (SM) had a discussion with him last week. Here is how their conversation turned out.

SM: Take me through your journey into aviation.

AM: I finished my ‘O’ Levels in 1972 and during those days there were very few things for people to do.

It was either going to the war or you would go out of the country.

So, I found myself out of the country and then from there we joined the war in 1976.

So, we were sent to Ethiopia to the flying school.

But we were not the first ones there.

The first to be recruited were engineers and we followed.

There were six pilots.

The engineers were a little bit more. Yeah, we were trained as pilots for Ethiopian Airlines

SM: So were they preparing you for AirZim?

AM: I think so because it was not military, that was for sure.

It was just civilian training.

They were preparing people in various sectors.

It is not everyone that went to war that carried a gun.

People went for different things.

Some people went to Libya, Romania, all friendly countries.

So, we found ourselves in Ethiopia learning to fly planes there and graduated in 1978.

There was nowhere for us to go. Zimbabwe was not independent.

The leadership of Zanu PF asked the Ethiopian government if we could be absorbed into Ethiopian Airlines and for two years we worked there until 1980 after independence when we came back.

SM: So, tell us about your two years at ET.

AM: That was really an eye-opener. We were flying a DC3.

Unfortunately, the DC3 that we were flying that time was being used by the airline as a military aircraft hired by the government to do military work.

So, we were actually in a war situation and this is the same war that we were talking about.

We were also in a war there because we were put there by Zimbabwe.

We used to carry supplies for soldiers with the DC3’s, ammunition and everything.

There was war everywhere.

So, in the meantime we were also getting valuable experience in flying the aircraft because this was flying into bush airports, not international airports.

SM: So, you finished there and came back to Zimbabwe in 1980?

AM: We were not the first pilots, there were white pilots there. But then The Herald at that time came looking for us and flashed us in the newspaper Zimbabwe Black Pilots Back, Raring to Go.

That’s when we realised we were making a bit of history.

SM: So what did you see when you went into AirZim for the first time?

AM: When we started it was three of us.

It was myself, Charles  Samuriwo and Chris Chenga.

For some reason we ended up starting to fly when there was two of us.

Charles had gone into the offices, he went into administration.

Now he is a businessman in South Africa. He is doing fine.

We went into the airlines just the two of us.

We were flying the Viscount. Then it was all white people at the airline so you can imagine that situation.

It wasn’t easy for them to accept us.

SM: So, at what point did you start flying the Boeing aircraft?

AM: After the Viscount I started flying the B707 and after that I flew the 737, a new aircraft in Zimbabwe. From there I flew the B767.

I was very lucky to fly both of them brand new because we went for training in Seattle, America, where they are made.

We actually saw the aircraft being put together until they rolled it out and we flew it back on the delivery flight and we showed it to (then) president Robert Mugabe, It was like a new car. It is always nice.

It was a proud moment showing the president a national asset and then I did it again the following year when I brought the other one.

So the first one came in 1989 and the next one came in 1990.

SM: Did you fly the president yourself?

AM: Yes, I first flew the president in 1981 going to Gaborone.

It was a proud moment for me then.

I had to fly him again now as a captain on all the aircraft  that I flew.

I used to boast that I have flown the president more than anyone else.

I think  the people at the top offices when they get used to you they just call you to fly them.

SM: We are talking about 33 years?

AM: Yes, there was a break somewhere in the middle when I went somewhere else but still in Zimbabwe. So, at Air Zim I spent about 20-something years.

SM: So, generally which destination did you fly?

AM: I remember the London flights. We used to do three flights a week to London, then the China flights, the Germany flights, Frankfurt flights, the Kuala Lumpur flights, the Harare to Athens.

Sometimes Harare-Frankfurt and so forth, with good load factors.

Something happened to the airline and we don’t fly to all those places anymore.

SM: Which have been your favourite airports?

AM: I like all the African airports: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Nairobi, Addis Ababa – those African airports are interesting for me.

I think maybe because they are African airports.

I have had plenty memorable flights. Every flight is a good one.

Every time you get people to their destinations.

Every time we touched down in London I thanked God for delivering people to their destination.

SM:  What was your worst day in the office?

AM: Yeah, but that was a long time ago when we were still in Ethiopia.

We were landing in a bush runway. I was still a student.

The captain touched down and they had trouble stopping the plane and the captain made a decision in the end that if we went straight it would crash into the people.

They decided to turn it away from the people and crashed it into the bush. So we came out running.

But we were alive, no injuries. We were carrying fuel for the army helicopters.

  • Our business writer Chiedza Kowo compiled this report.

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