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Talking to Kalenga Kamwendo

Captain Kalenga Kamwendo in the cockpit during air school training.

NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
READING Sidney Sheldon novels and playing video games in one’s spare time does sound a lot like the average 20-year-old’s pastimes. Flying aircraft that transports people between towns does not make 20-year-old Kalenga Kamwendo rather remarkable.
While to many of his peers, the idea of one day flying planes remains a fanciful image, Kalenga has made that his reality. He did it simply by believing he could.
Born not so long ago to Thomas and Mailes Kamwendo in Kitwe on the Copperbelt, the idea of flying for a living only struck Kalenga a couple of years before he finished high school.
“Actually for the longest time I wanted to be an engineer like my daddy, but it should have only been around grade 10 or 11 when I thought pilots looked pretty cool,” Kalenga shares.
To aid the pursuit of this new found passion, he started researching and getting into the nitty-gritty of the aviation industry.
The more he explored, the more interested he got until it reached the point where he was interested in doing nothing else.
He was at least strong in English, Maths and Physics, the three subjects that were a prerequisite for him to learn to fly.
Kalenga was also fortunate that when he shared his dream with his parents, they did not clip his wings or tell him to get a little closer to the earth and reality. They never for one minute put him down.
“My parents are the most supportive people and are the main reason I am where I am today,” Kalenga acknowledges. “Not only have they been financially supportive but they also push me to do better every day and until they see I have reached where I told them I want to be, they will continue pushing me.”
And so, even though getting into a flying school would prove financially challenging, when the time came for Kalenga to be enrolled, Mr and Mrs Kamwendo decided that he was worth the sacrifice.
His primary schooling years were spent at Nkana Trust School and later he attended Mpelembe Secondary School before graduating in 2011.
For years, he had no idea what moving houses and settling elsewhere felt like until he joined a flying school. Now he spends much of his time viewing the earth below while suspended in the air.
“Kitwe has been my life,” he says. “That is where I was born. I lived in the same house and didn’t even know what shifting was like.”
At the age of 17, once done with school, it was time for him to learn to fly. In flight schools, there is a joke shared which is actually a true reflection of the reality.
Before breaking into laughter, Kalenga cracks it: “They say welcome to aviation school. You are now officially broke.”
In as much as flying school strained his parents financially, they were more concerned about seeing their boy go after his dream.
Kalenga was successfully enrolled at a reputable flying school called Forty Three Air School located in the little town of Port Alfred in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
When he got there, he was the youngest in his school by far and the fact that he looked at least 15, did not help his cause, he admits.
Some of his schoolmates passed comments about how the school was now accepting high school kids in mocking reference to him.
Compared to his flying schoolmates, he was relatively young and could easily have felt that he needed more time to grow his feet before trying on the shoes of a pilot.
Yet Kalenga remained untroubled and would not let them get the better of him. After all, if he was to indeed make it, he would need to toughen up.
“There was all sort of talk going round and making friends was a bit difficult because they were all much older than me,” he recalls.
He kept the resolve that if his schoolmates were doing it, so could he and for him age was nothing but a figure.
“I kept telling myself, if they can do it so can I until it became, I am doing it, why aren’t they?” Kalenga remarks.
He believes age is really the factor which helped him and had he gone to a flying school when he was older, he would have been complacent.
The lecturers at Forty Three Air School were experienced pilots, so they knew exactly how Kalenga felt in the students’ seat.
There were some really tough ones who had formerly worked in the army, but Kalenga and his colleagues knew that tough love and not cuddles is what would get them flying aircraft.
The Forty Three Air School chain is known to get a lot of good pilots out often which makes Kalenga feel the school is doing something right in pushing its students towards being the best pilots they can be.
He stayed at Forty Three Air School for a year and three months. This was the length of time it took for him to complete his commercial pilot licence with instrument rating.
The legal age for one to obtain a commercial pilot licence in Zambia is 18 and Kalenga was that very age when he got his in 2013.
Prior to this, he had obtained his private pilot’s licence at the age of 17 and was ecstatic when it happened.
Soon, he was moving from office to office in search of a job. He returned home but his age and boyish looks did not help him much. He looked like he quit school too early.
“It’s not a fun process to embark on when you are 19. I had to go looking for a job at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport and I could tell by the way some of the receptionists looked at me that they didn’t feel it was my place,” Kalenga says.
Overall, it was a tedious process for him but eventually something somehow came through.
Four and a half months ago, Kalenga’s breakthrough came when he started flying commercially for Proflight Zambia, a job he says has completely transformed his life.
“Proflight really have helped me in more ways than they know. They think they have just hired another pilot but for me they have completely transformed my life,” Kalenga states with an unflinching confidence that masks his true age.
He says Proflight is one of the few companies in the southern African region that will get a fresh pilot like him from 200 hours to 2,800 hours in no time.
Though still young, with a struggling beard, Kalenga is the personification of determination. He is sharp with a contagious sense of humour and a smile to melt hearts.  He realises that he is lucky to be living his dream as a young Zambian.
At his uncle’s home in Lusaka’s Salama Park, out of his uniform and dressed down in a vest and baggy basketball shorts, no one would ever guess that Kalenga actually flies an aircraft for a living.
He has accumulated 494.8 hours in the air so far while flying the 14-seater Cessna 208 Caravan. Someday, likely soon, he wants to fly the Airbus A380.
For now, he can boldly tell anyone that the sky is no longer his limit.


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