Suleiman Hamud is fortunate enough to be living his dream. He became the owner of a licensed flying school at just 24.

But it has not been an easy journey to the skies for a man who terms his background humble.

The CEO of Skylink Flying School, which is based at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, opened the specialised training facility six years ago. He started the business with two other young pilots – Dilipkumar Kerai and David Sipoche, who were 29 and 31 at the time, respectively.

Chosen few

In the years since Skylink has been opened, it has fought off stiff competition from established flying schools to attract a growing number of Kenyans looking to be career pilots or to fly part-time for recreation. The country currently has 19 flying schools licensed to train pilots.

“Demand for our services has been rising steadily,” Mr Hamud told Business Beat, adding that he believes Skylink is demystifying the perception held by many Kenyans that a career in aviation is for a chosen few.

The school’s fleet has grown from just one aircraft at inception to 10. The number of pilots it trains has also increased to 80 a year from 30 when it opened for business.

At least 30 per cent of students are from the region, particularly Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hamud, who is the first born of five siblings, says his interest in being a pilot dates back to his years in high school. He was so keen on flying that his mother sold her car to pay for his private pilot licence (PPL), which costs hundreds of thousands of shillings.

After completing his training at CMC Aviation (now DAC Aviation) in Nairobi, he was retained as a ground instructor.But his sights were set on getting a commercial pilot licence that would qualify him to handle commercial aircraft. The licence, though, cost millions of shillings and required several hours of rigorous training. At the same time, Hamud had been selected to study for a bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Nairobi.

His parents were unable to afford the fees, so he saved his salary judiciously to pay for his degree and a commercial licence. In 2008, he qualified for both.

At work, he rose up the ranks to became a chief ground instructor and deputy chief flight instructor. It was while he was at CMC that he was struck by the demand for flight training services, which he felt was not being adequately met.

Hamud discussed this gap with fellow pilots Kerai and Sipoche. They decided to take a risk and pool Sh7.5 million from their savings to purchase an aircraft to lease to their employer. The plan, however, flopped when CMC declined the offer. Not easily deterred, the three decided to raise Sh25 million to open their own flying school in July 2010. They got Sh15 million from what they had saved of their salaries, and got a Sh10 million bank loan.

“Our strategy was to offer quality flight training services at a more affordable rate than other players in the market. We wanted to reach more Kenyans and demystify the myth that a flying career is only for the elite,” Hamud said. Skylink’s training for a PPL costs Sh650,000 compared to other schools that charge about Sh800,000, Hamud said. The training takes four months.

A private commercial licence, on the other hand, costs Sh2.4 million against a Sh3 million fee from some other schools. The training takes seven months. Practical flying lessons cost an average of Sh15,300 per hour. For those interested in becoming pilots, Hamud advises that they plan their finances and work hard.

“For instance, parents and their children who are keen on a pilot career can start saving early so as not to be overwhelmed by the fees.”

Training session

Hamud added that running the business has been difficult, largely due to the prohibitive taxes levied on aviation fuel, as well as high landing and parking charges. He said, for instance, a one-hour training session requires 25 to 35 litres of aviation fuel, which costs about Sh7,350.

Hamud hopes that the Government will review taxes in the aviation sector to enable it to grow and create jobs for more Kenyans. But he is positive about the future as the sector in Kenya and Africa continues to expand, boosting the demand for pilots.“Skylink is looking to expand to regional countries where there is strong demand for flight training, but there are few or no quality flying schools,” he said.