For Navigating Nigeria this week, Citizen speaks with Chukwuemeka, a Nigerian pilot who shares his story about his journey to becoming a pilot. He speaks about his motivations and challenges in navigating Nigeria’s aviation industry. He believes pilots deserve better pay, and you don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to fly a plane.

Editorial Note: Navigating Nigeria is a platform for Nigerians to passionately discuss the Nigerian experience with little interference from individual opinions. While our editorial standards emphasise the truth and endeavour to fact-check claims and allegations, we are not responsible for allegations made about other people based on half-truths.

How long have you been a pilot?

I finished flight school in 2015. So let’s see. That’s technically eight years.

That’s a complete Buhari tenure

Yeah, but then for three of those eight years after flight school, I wasn’t flying.

What happened?

I got sponsored to go to flight school by a company. The plan was that after flight school, I’d start flying with them. They had clients who were in the oil and gas sector. The company trained me to get a helicopter licence. Then oil prices dipped, and those clients weren’t producing as much oil anymore, so there was no reason to fly people offshore frequently. That meant they didn’t need as many pilots as before; it was a trickle-down effect.

I was on the ground for those three years, working in other parts of the company, which I enjoyed. By the beginning of 2018, I decided to get an aeroplane licence to be flexible with employment and open up more job opportunities for me in the aviation industry. The whole thing took about three months because I already had my helicopter licence and needed to meet some other requirements. In aviation there’s this thing called a type rating which is what allows aspiring pilots to navigate and operate larger commercial planes. It’s the standard you need to meet before operating a type of aircraft. You can’t just jump from one aircraft to another. There are lots of other technicalities and rules depending on the country, but I won’t get into them. But this was when I resumed flying aircraft commercially.

Interesting. Tell us, what were your motivations for becoming a pilot?

As a child, I was always fascinated when I looked up to the sky and saw a plane flying. I’d always wonder how the pilots did that. Then, in junior secondary school, JSS 2, I read this passage in an English comprehension book. The beginning of that passage stuck in my head. It went, “Fasten your seatbelts and announce the air hostess, please.” I can’t explain what’s so special about it, but it made me desire to fly a plane. From then on, if anyone asked what I wanted to be, I’d say pilot. Sometimes I’d switch to aeronautic engineer, astronaut, astronomer, or even astrologer lmao. I wasn’t even sure what they did exactly. I just knew I wanted to fly.

And fly, you did

During the holidays, I went to live with an aunt in Abuja. I enrolled in a youth camp. For the part about careers, we had to list ten career choices. The first seven were related to aviation, while I filled out the rest with the usual medicine, law and the like.

After school, one of my mum’s friends advised that I attend university first to have a backup in case my plans to be a pilot didn’t work out. I then pursued a closely related degree in aerospace engineering in Ghana. The first two years were tough. The engineering we did then was just so advanced. I knew there and then that being a pilot just had to work out because omo.


Fortunately, some courses dealt directly with aviation, and I excelled there. But things were tough in the beginning.

What was life like during the pandemic?

Initially, there were no flights, but more flights happened when they introduced PCR testing. I flew helicopters during that period, so it affected me a bit. I worked in Port Harcourt, and oil companies weren’t flying often. But we still did some airlifting for a few companies. So I wasn’t grounded, but flights during that period were fewer.

Let’s talk about how you navigate Nigeria. Have there been any peculiarities about flying in Nigeria that are different from flying elsewhere?

So I’ve only flown in Nigeria and the US. Still, I’ll say the lack of basic infrastructure is glaring. You’ll see some things, and you’re like, “Nawa oo, why’s this not here?” or “Why are we managing this?”

For example, runway lights. I did not know that runway lights could spoil. They’re perishable, and since they’re electrical, they could develop faults. But throughout my training, it never occurred that runway lights could go bad, and I’d have to navigate the plane without them. Nigeria exposed me to that reality. 

And we’re talking not days but months or even years where runway lights go bad without being fixed. Everyone accepts that these things aren’t working, and we’re just carrying on like that.


In Lagos, we have two runways; 1-8 left, which serves domestic flights, and 1-8 right for international flights. Both can serve either flight, but they were sorted that way because of their proximity to their respective terminals. You couldn’t land in 1-8 left at night for a long time because there were no lights.

So you’d have to land on 1-8 right then take a long taxi and then park near the domestic terminal for people to get off. Eventually, they fixed the lights. For the first week, things were working fine. The centre lights were fine, the headlights were fine, touchdown zone light was good. Next thing, half of the centre lights broke down, and the rest followed. Now nothing works. When you’re about to land, you have to start scanning for markings on the runway which are very faint because there’s no light.

I can land without the lights, but what would it take to fix and maintain the existing ones? We have international carriers landing every day, coming from places like Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow, and they see the state of our airports, which is pitiable. Meanwhile, when we go there, we see everything is in good shape.

We can’t go to some airports at night in Nigeria because they don’t have lights. We call them sunset airports because, after sunset, the lights go out.

There have been reports of potholes on runways. Have you experienced those?

Most of those have been fixed. Sometimes you see them when taxiing, and you must avoid them, but they fix them occasionally. So it’s not a permanent solution, but they fix them after a few weeks. I know I saw a notice about potholes in Enugu, but I have yet to experience one personally. I landed in Enugu yesterday and actively searched but didn’t find it, thankfully. Lagos and Abuja have frequent maintenance schedules where the runways are closed for resurfacing. The runway in Ilorin, though, whew. Sometimes you hear weird sounds and see cracks and grass growing on the runway.

What changes would you like to see in Nigeria’s aviation industry?

Generally, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) can do better with basic infrastructure. Sometimes you see some structures at airports, and you’re like, “Ok…but what purpose does this serve?” Some airports don’t have approaches, clear markings or adequate lighting. For example, there was a time I went to Port Harcourt. We were sitting on a ramp, waiting. All of a sudden, everywhere went dark. I was confused. They just took out the power, and we couldn’t see anything. 

Pilots should get better pay. We think in dollars. A lot of training, travelling and so on are done in dollars, but we get paid in naira. And the naira isn’t even enough. Everything has finished by the time you convert to naira to meet your needs. When you compare what you earn by dollar conversion to your counterparts abroad, you’ll realise you’re not earning anything.

Have you considered relocating?

Oh yeah. That’s on my to-do list. I’m just trying to settle a few things first. Better pay and a better quality of life factor into my decision.

What advice would you give anyone who wants to go into aviation?

I get that a lot. People generally think you have to be Stephen Hawking to be a pilot. You have to be smart, but you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking smart to fly a plane. 

One of my university lecturers, a flight engineer, said that you must be daft to be a pilot, lol. He’d say you’d be fine if you could read pictures.


But for real, you need to have the aptitude for it. You also need to work hard and want it. When I say “want it”, I mean it’s not just something you can skim through. It will show if you’re not putting in the work.

I know brilliant people that couldn’t cut it as pilots. It wasn’t because they weren’t smart. They just didn’t get it. You know how some people can’t dance no matter how they try or can’t move to a beat? Being a pilot is sort of like that. You have to have the aptitude for it. You have to want it and work hard. That’s the motivational side of it.

The other thing I’ll say is that flight training is expensive. Some can afford it, so no problem for them. But if you can’t afford it, you want to finish your training quickly. Because that would mean you’re paying less. Usually, flight school charges by the hour when you’re renting their aircraft. Your training is on you. You’re not giving that power to anyone, not even your instructor. 

I mean, you have to be on top of it. You have to say, “This is what we’re doing today. I need to learn this before the next time.” That is, you’re putting in the work before putting in the work. That way, you’re not spending extra hours because extra hours mean extra flights, which means extra time. All that will add up because you’ll pay for accommodation, flights and fuel. I met some people in flight school still training after two years. Like, why?

So put in the work before the instructor comes. Stuff you can do on the ground, do it on the ground. Don’t wait till you get in the air. Own your training so you’re not spending more money than you need to.

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