The Presidential Jet

12Feb10

The Fokker 70 ER jet flown by the Kenya Air Force for Presidential travel is actually an ordinary passenger plane customized for VVIP comfort. The ordinary version sits 70 passengers and crew but the Presidential Jet has space for only 26. Part of the space in its cargo hold is taken up by extra fuel tanks to increase its range.

The jet was acquired in 1995 at the height of Kanu’s unpopularity. It became the object of heated and oftentimes outrageous campaign rhetoric by politicians. 1997 Presidential candidate Charity Ngilu made it her pet subject to tell campaign rallies that one of her first acts on assuming office would be to sell it and use the money to help wananchi. In one of her many tirades against President Moi, she accused him of keeping the jet in State House. (The only plane those grounds can take is a helicopter).

Selling this jet was also a Narc campaign promise in 2002. The party won by a landslide. But, of course, things change.

The jet is the flagship of the Air Force’s VIP Squadron whose other planes comprise Canadian built Dash-8 turbo props. According to Air Force sources, the idea of forming a squadron for VIP travel was first mooted in the late 1980s and was actualized on January 12, 1990 with the arrival of the first Dash 8. But the Dash 8 has limited range and it was felt necessary to increase the squadron’s reach to include continental and intercontinental flights.

“The planned privatisation of Kenya Airways,” our source said, “was also a major factor in these plans. It was going to be a lot cheaper and convenient to ferry the President in his own custom made plane than to use Kenya Airways’ Airbuses.”

Selecting the right plane was a long and painstaking process. There are many companies in the world that specialize in the manufacture of executive jets.  The notable ones are Gulfstream which makes the Gulfstream V, Embraer (ERJ 170/190), Dassault Aviation (Falcon 900EX), Cessna (Citation Excel), Boeing (Business Jet), Airbus (Corporate Jetliner) and Bombardier (Global Express/Challenger 604/CRJ 700).

In December, 1993,during a state visit to Kuwait,  President Moi was carried in a visiting Falcon 900B. The plane was photographed sitting on the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport tarmac and the media mistakenly reported that that was the new presidential jet. The defeated opposition from the 1992 elections immediately raised the hackles saying the procurement process had not been transparent.

Actually, the plane was under assessment. According to our source, an Air Force pilot got a chance to sample what the jet had to offer in terms of comfort, performance and handling capabilities. In the end, the Falcon was not considered for purchase. The Fokker 70 was selected because it stood out as the best compromise that satisfied the specific requirements of the Air Force. The main considerations were range, cost, speed, cabin size, capacity, spares, training and future support.

The price tag of about Kshs 2bn generated a lot of heat mainly because of the mega corruption deals common in the country then and now. But independent aviation experts reckon the specifications of the aircraft match the price tag and they are widely available from manufacturers’ sources.

The deal with Fokker of Netherlands was concluded on September 20, 1994 under what the Air Force codenamed Project A557 to purchase the plane. On signing of this agreement, Lt Col Steve Githinji was designated as the project officer and sent to the Netherlands to oversee construction of the plane which started on 6 October 1994. The final assembly was done on June 2, 1995 at the Fokker Schipol factory.

After the final assembly, the aircraft was flown to Woensdretcht Completion Centre in southwest Netherlands for interior fitting. The Kenya Air Force flight, technical and cabin crews carried out their training at Hoofddorp Training Centre, Netherlands between October and December 1995 in readiness for the operation of the aircraft.

The jet made its maiden flight into Kenya on 20 December, 1995. It was flown by Col James Gitahi, who sources say is still flying it.

The plane had scarcely rolled its wheels on the Eastleigh runway than stories started flying around that Kenya had bought an old plane for a big price. Some said it couldn’t be able to cross an ocean. But all this was part of a campaign to discredit an unpopular Government. Authoritative sources have told Saturday Nation that when the plane was handed over to the Kenyans in Holland, it had logged only three hours of flight since construction. It was new.

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