Nyakop J. Chan: The First South Sudanese Female Air force Pilot

By Elbow Chuol,

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Nyakop James Chan in duty in South Sudan. (Photo: Supplied)

Dec 21, 2015 (Nyamilepedia) — At the age of five, Nakop James Chan couldn’t foresee that she would one day become a pilot, gaze down on earth with amazement, dressed in that captain costume like any other pilots who ever airlift. Twenty years later, she became one of the finest South Sudanese female air force pilot working for SPLA in the world’s youngest nation on earth.

By then a lot of things were happening, “I am short sighted. I thought I wouldn’t get corrective lens to wing”. Days ago when I contacted her, she declined claiming she was very busy. Yeah, pilots – their ways of life – very busy indeed!

For those who don’t know her personally, Nyakop is polite, kind and at a time very serious. Her younger sister Nyachuol confirmed to me how determined her sister is.

When I met her over the weekend at her residential apartment in Summit, Addis Ababa, she was like, “Heh, I know you wanted to write a good story and I am here to give it” and I was kind of, ok let us do it. Good story is great especially talking to the very first South Sudanese female air force pilot. It is a great opportunity. Isn’t it? She nodded in agreement. She offered me a drink! And then we sat for a business. I explained to her why I was writing her story. She agreed.

War, Discrimination, and determination to be a pilot; here she is, a beautiful woman with a beautiful smiles, despite all the odds in the world I can see courage in her eye; nothing is impossible.

 

In Contact With UFOs

One Winter Sunday morning in 1992 somewhere in Nairobi Kenya, now 5 years old, she heard noise and immediately ran out to see what was now becoming unbearable to her. Out of blue, she saw an airplane flying over, it was helicopter. Amazed perhaps petrified, couldn’t interpret what was flying in the air. She ran back to the house to inform her father immediately concerning the strange object moving in the sky.

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A miracle per chance! Like any other child mystified coming into contact with something peculiar for the first time, Nyakop refused to listen claiming it is an angel, a name she is used to during family prayers. According to her, angels were beautiful and moves in the sky.

Her father lectured to her about flying objects called airplanes, “not the UFOs”. They move every day and their home is “at Jomo Kenyatta International airport” which she recalled,

“I was promised to see them the next day,” she said. Her love to fly airplanes had begun to grow thereafter.

Three years later, at age of 8, her father passed on and everything about the passion of flying airplanes crumbled. “My world clogged, my dream of flying came to an end the very day I heard the news.” All her hopes tragically ended at very young age; the world where fathers make future for their kids didn’t apply to her. Nothing was going to make her fly, let alone flaying airplanes. Life wasn’t like how it used to be. The only alternative left to her was getting married when the age called for it. Like many other South Sudanese girls, marriage was the only way out of the situations of her kind.

A little girl with a promising future, her father who promised her to see the theatre where moving objects would be her world failed. Sadly, her father didn’t live to see off his child going for training in South Africa not only as a pilot but also as the “first” South Sudanese female air force pilot. Life is good.

In 1995, Nyakop went to Mukuyu Primary School in Mukuyu in Ruiru, Nairobi, Kenya. Two years later, she left for Khartoum. Unknown to her, she was back to Kenya years later and Joined Maasai Girls High school along Ngong road in Karen, Nairobi, Kenya.

In her second year in high school, her dream came back to life. “I was wondering what I am doing in school.  I don’t want to be a doctor, financier or anything else. Every night I knew I was going to be a pilot but how?” she wondered. She admitted that she was not good in mathematics but she knew in her heart that she would one day be a good pilot. Facing the uncertain future, Nyakop resorted to reading inspirational books.

It is not by chance that Nyakop would one day be a pilot, perhaps she used the logic, “Human minds to solve mankind problems; perception, Power of positive thinking advocated by some of the 21st century thinkers of our time, Dr. Norman Vincent. She has now realized nothing is impossible once you persevere.

By the spring of 2007 after she sat her KCSE (Kenya Certificate for Secondary School), no one was ready to sponsor her to further her studies in the aviation school even with B+ Grade. She flew to Juba and applied for South Sudan Air force scholarship to South Africa for training. In May she took the scholarship examination.

By June the results were out and became the only female who made it to the training center in the Republic of South Africa. She terribly cried in disbelief. It came as a shock to her. Her longtime dream has now begun to surface beyond the horizon.

In August of 2008, she left for Eastern Cape, Bhisho, 43-Air School. At Bulembu Airport with her friends, Ricky Dut, Wek Dor and Arop Bol Akot and other 8 people in the row; she was known to be the best student.

Asked her how it was for the first time to takeoff, “It was scary and overwhelming to first fly alone.” This is no longer a dream or a movie but a reality taking shape in her life persuading her childhood fantasy. She narrated that in aviation school, a lot of things could be up-to-the-minute. If you are trusted by the instructor, more than 100 hours of flying are available throughout the training period.

Her instructor, Mr. Allan was very supportive, “if he saw one of the students lagged, he would give that particular student special attention.” Fixed wings of airplane, the small Blackhawk used by America air force during the World War II was now her best friend. She loved reading maps, checking compass. Keeping time was the most interesting practice of all. She told me with pride that she was known to be a great time keeper during the training.

 

Back Home to Fly!  

Practical part of the training was very hard, “demanding a lot of reading” but after a long seasonal training, she was back home to fly air force planes in defense of her country using the skills she learned in 43-Air School, and possibly motivate other females with wrong perception that piloting is man’s job.

She was the only female air force pilot, among all the 32 finalists who took the 2008 air force training examination Scholarship in south Sudan. A rare chance available at her finger tips. Her world was surrounded entirely by factor determining her future.

She came back home and work for Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA). From 2008 to 2013 when South Sudan crisis erupted, Nyakop was the only first South Sudanese female Air force pilot serving her country. People would make fun of her whether she could really fly them to Malakal or Torit. South Sudanese societal cultures where females are accorded low socio-economic status didn’t deter her from fulfilling her dream of becoming a female pilot. “What man can do….why not a woman?” she asked with pride.

She said that some people wouldn’t stop making fun of her. They would ask her, “Can you really lift me off the ground?” She felt sorry for these women who still perceive that we are in dark era where women were not allowed to consider science as something worthy their career. A skinny pretty young girl who was not exposed to fancy life but made her own life. “Until I realized no one will ever believe in me so I decided to believe in myself,” she emphasized.

In South Sudan, life for her wasn’t easy. In a country where it’s not about what you know but who you know, she had no proper assignment. She was confined, not allowed to do anything for herself, waiting for promises that never came. She started to question the direction in which her career was evolving.

She earned a salary about less than 300 USD per month for all the time she was in SPLA Air force station. Nyakop considered her career worthy all the money in the world. And she confessed, “It wasn’t about the money, Elbow. It was about me loving to be an experimental in my career. So far my country is young, no enough Air force budget.” Eight years in her career, Nyakop said she regretted nothing about being in aviation industry despite making no money out of her profession. Being a pilot was the last she would want to put aside!

Nyakop James hoped to get a commercial pilot sponsor to help her become an employee. Last summer, she tried to work with a certain commercial flght company in Dubai but that attempt went unsuccessful due to the fact that she missed out the application dateline at the time she was inaccessible to the internet.

“May be one day I will get this Good Samaritan who would sponsor my training. Get a flying company to work with and establish myself,” she consoled herself.

 

Ran to UNMISS

By 15th December 2013 when Juba was engulfed by flame of hatred, she feared for her life. When she discovered that she was Gwelweng’s subject of target in the midst of Nuer ethnic cleansing on the night of 15th December 2013 in Juba, she hurried to UNMISS and so did her friends who feared for their dear lives.

Two months later, she used one of her strong links to smuggle her out of South Sudan and later had a thigh of relieve after landing in Jomo Kenyata International Aiport, Nairobi, Kenya.

By 2014, she went back to South Africa for recurrence training but only spent a month or so and left the center for the reasons she didn’t further specify. She hopes to be a role model to young south Sudanese females who want to become pilots but meet the odds of life.

“I have a desire to help the society hopefully in future, open up a volunteer NGO to create awareness among the young South Sudanese,” she ended the interview with positive note. One could tell from her remarks that she worried about the spread of HIV/AIDS, girls’ child education in South Sudan, plus the desire of owning an aviation business when she calls home the best place to live.

Nyakop James Chan, the third child in the family six and lives together with her mother and her little sister away from the noisy and dusty area in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a country many described as fast developing economy in the world. She’s proudly the first South Sudanese female air force pilot!

 

Elbow Chuol can be reached via elbow.chuol@gmail.com

2 comments

  • Thank you ms. nyakop james for your hard work which make you to be the first female pilot in south sudan. you are true Nuer girl, that is wonderfull gift for all south sudanese.

  • Jim Monyekak

    This are the type of success stories we love to read. Nyakop is a role model to our young girls who must be given a chance to live their dreams. She make South Sudanese girls proud and proves that all is doable, if given a chance. Great