From a distance, Captain Mathew Ekeinde cuts the picture of an unassuming, happy-go-lucky fellow. But don’t be fooled. Beneath that façade lies one of the brightest and deepest minds you can possibly come across. Little wonder at the age of sixteen, he’d entered our history books as one of the youngest pilots Nigeria had ever produced at the time. And to prove this accomplishment was no fluke, he’s gone on to enjoy 34 years of illustrious flying career and still counting. He has seen it all. He has flown some of the biggest and newest brands of airplanes money can buy. And he’s made good money for himself as well. City People’s Senior Editor, WALE LAWAL, got this amazing husband of Africa’s most accomplished actress, Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, to share with us his background, his journey into the aviation sector and his modest achievements as one of Nigeria’s foremost pilots. It is a truly comprehensive interview that both aspiring pilots and the average air traveler would find absolutely enriching.
A lot of people know very little about you, sir. Other than the fact that they know you’re a pilot and you’re Omotola’s husband, very little is known about your background, can you share that with us?
I am Matthew Johnson Ekeinde. I’m from Edo state, from Sabongida Ora in Owan local government of Edo state. My parents are still alive, my dad is eighty-seven, while my mum is seventy-seven. My dad is a retired police Commissioner, my mum is a retired headmistress. I grew up in a disciplined home. I come from a family of twelve kids, six boys and six girls. We’re a big family, right? Let’s just say, my dad was very busy (everyone breaks into laughter). I was born in Lagos. I did my nursery and primary school here in Lagos, then, I went to secondary school in Emmanuel College, Owerri. I finished secondary school at the age of fifteen and went to flying school straight away and became a pilot at the age of sixteen. I got my British license and came back to get my Nigerian license and I also have an American license, that means I can fly in all these countries. I’ve been flying since I was sixteen. I’m going to be fifty this month so that means I’ve been flying for 34 years. It’s a job that I’m very passionate about and I’m one of Nigeria’s, if not Nigeria’s highest rated pilot, meaning that I have flown more different types of aircrafts than anyone else in Nigeria today.
Which of the airlines did you start out with?
I started out with Aero contractors way back in 1990. I started flying in 1986 and between that time and 1990, I was in England just flying and doing pleasure flights, trying to build experience. I came back to Nigeria in 1990 and joined Aero contractors. That’s where I spent my first four years. After Aero contractors, I went to fly privately for Chief Harry Akande, he had a private jet that was based in Chicago. I was with him for two years, then, I came back. After him, I flew for Skyline, an Isreali company that was based here in Nigeria. They were here for about five years. Then, shortly after, I went to fly for Belview air lines. After Belview packed up, I went to fly for Overland Airways, which still exists now, that’s Captain Ego Boyo’s airline. After him, I flew for Sosoliso airlines, after Sosoliso I flew for Arik, and after Arik I went to Air Nigeria. After I left Air Nigeria, I went to Pan Africa Airlines, after Pan Africa, I went to Bristol before joining Air Peace in February.
You were most popularly known with Arik Air, why was this so?
Yes, that’s true, and I guess that was because of my announcement then. I would welcome the passengers and tell them, ‘from the cock pit, this is your captain speaking. My name is Mathew Ekeinde Jnr.’ I would introduce my crew and say, ‘welcome on board our CIJ 900, Tear Rubber.’ And that was how the thing stuck and it made me quite popular amongst the passengers because all the airplanes were brand new. Arik was the first airline in the country after Nigeria Airways to buy brand new airplanes straight from the factory, not ‘tokunbo’ like everybody is buying now. Yeah, it was ‘tear rubber’ and it smelt so good.
How has it been flying almost all of your life, despite the hazards involved?
For me, I think God has been very, very faithful. He’s been smiling on me and He’s still doing so. Yes, in 34 years, I’ve had a few incidents myself, like engine failures, which is what we’re trained for. It’s not a big deal. I know passengers are scared especially during the period when we had terrible crashes and loss of lives, I know people got very scared of flying. It’s also part of our job to talk to them and make them feel very relaxed during the flight. We know when we’re going to hit turbulence. We see it on our radar and know that in the next ten to fifteen minutes, we’re going to hit turbulence. We get on the P.A. and tell the passengers that in the next 10 to 15 minutes we’re going to hit turbulence but it’s nothing to worry about because the airplane can take it. Relax, think nothing of it and ensure you put on your seat belt and remain seated. And during the turbulence, when the airplane is really shaking and people are screaming, ‘blood of Jesus!’ You get back on the P.A. and you talk to them. You tell them, calm down, it’s not a big deal, everything is fine with the aircraft. We’re still going through it, we’ll be out of it in a few moments. Remain calm, there’s no problem. You know, you talk them through it and calm their nerves. There are different pilots with different methods of addressing their passengers. It’s our job to do our best and make them calm. For me, flying comes easy. I love to fly, it is the job that I know how to do best. And I’m still not tired. Thirty- four years and I’m still always excited to fly. In fact, my wife will tell you I’m always restless when I’m on leave. Like I’m on leave presently for about three weeks now, I’ve been very restless. It’s like I feel happier when I’m in the cock pit of an aircraft. Sincerely, I believe I was born to fly. People ask me, when are you going to retire? And I say, at 50? Retirement age is 65, so I still have fifteen more years to go.
Can you recall for us any particular close shave incident that was a bit terrifying for you?
Yeah, this was with Aero contractors. It was very stormy and it was going to rain. It was just like what happened with Sosoliso when the plane crashed in Port-Harcourt and killed everyone leaving only two survivors. In fact, the same incident happened in same Port-Harcourt weeks ago when the aircraft over ran the runway, but luckily for them, there were no casualties. Unlike the Sosoliso aircraft that ran into massive drainages on the side of the runway and broke into three parts, these guys were lucky they just ran on smooth grass all the way. That was what saved them. We’ve been trained to know that if you’re flying around thunderstorm areas, stay away from it or remain on the ground and let it pass. It would probably last for 30 to 45 minutes max and it would go and then you’ll be safe. But sometimes, as pilots, we just feel that we can do it, it’s no big deal. And because we do it and get away with it, we think we can do that all the time. But this time, we were carrying oil workers from Escravos and it was really windy and the airplane could not climb. We just took off and the airplane was not going to climb. We could see big trees just coming past us, and we were like if this thing goes down, we’re dead. But, somehow, we held on for a while and the down draft stopped and we were able to climb. I was really scared. That was the first time in my career, and this is like twenty something years ago, and the last time I was really scared while flying.
After being around in the aviation industry for as long as you have been, how safe would you say most of our airplanes are?
They are safe. You know, people used to have this notion that pilots are risk takers and that they probably have this magic wand that enables them disappear once an airplane is about to crash and leave the passengers for dead, it’s all myth (laughs). Pilots are human beings just like you and I. We have families, we have children, so why would we want to die or fly an airplane that we know is unsafe, it doesn’t make any sense. I know in the past, and I will not lie, things were not done right. Thank God for the NCAA, thank God for pressure from the International community, and from the federal government to improve things and to get us to meet international standards. Things have changed. I remember when I started flying, there were hardly any supervisory roles from the authorities to enforce maintenance law, operational laws, pilot training standards and stuff. That was then. But now, you can’t mess around. They do random checks. They do breathlizer checks. They come to the cock pit unannounced and get your breathlizer and all the crew go through alcohol test. If they find out that you have, even close to the limits, your license is seized for one year and that’s it. You have to go for alcohol rehabilitation. They now do that a lot because pilots are known to drink heavily, some smoke heavily. So, it’s very safe right now. The airlines before now used to cut corners, trying to manage this and manage that. But not anymore. Even the engineers now, that way back in the day would’ve signed up an airplane and say, lets manage it, they now know that if they sign up an airplane that is bad, and it crashes, they not only will lose their license, they’ll be taken to jail. And that’s the standard all over the world, so nobody wants to take that risk. That’s why, nowadays, most aviation companies will not put pressure on any pilot or engineer to sign out an airplane or take out an airplane that is not good. No matter the pressure, most pilots will rather resign. It’s just like telling me to accept an invitation to commit suicide. It doesn’t make sense. They are pretty safe now, they’re well maintained. Where the spare parts are not available, they ground the airplane.
That’s really nice to know. If you were asked to make a pick and say which of the airlines that you have worked with in the past left you with beautiful memories, which one did you have the most fun with, which would be your pick?
I enjoyed Sosoliso. I enjoyed Arik in the first three years before everything started going haywire. The owners then were trying to do things professionally before they now thought that after three years we know enough, and of course you can see the results now. I enjoyed Sosoliso a lot, but unfortunately, that incident that happened shut them down. And I enjoyed Virgin Nigeria until Jimoh Ibrahim came with his wahala and shut down the airline. Yeah, those three airlines, I really enjoyed them.
Would you say we have more people coming into the industry now than before? And why is it so expensive to get enrolled in a flying school and become a pilot?
Well, it’s because aviation field is very expensive. Cost of training is very expensive. You get to pay instructors a lot of money for training. Right now, if you want to be a pilot, it costs approximately $55,000 U.S. dollars. Thank God for some state governments, three years ago if I remember correctly, who trained pilots and engineers and picked all the bills. Kano state, I think, trained about 25 pilots and engineers while another state trained some certain amount of pilots too. I think this Niger Delta amnesty thing that the Jonathan administration put in place also got funds and trained over 40 pilots and engineers. That helped a lot because we had a lot of foreigners in Nigeria flying in the past 20 to 30 years because we didn’t have a lot of Nigerians who were trained pilots. They need to because the older pilots are retiring and it will take approximately a minimum of four years for new pilot who’s just graduated and is working to become a captain, on the average, five years. So, if they don’t start now to fly, before you know it we’ll be short of captains.
How would you rate the performance and conduct of the fresh pilots these days?
Hmm…fresh pilots, it’s just like you who’s being a seasoned journalist for a long time, you know the ropes. If you have a young journalist now just fresh from NIJ, of course, he doesn’t know the ropes, he expects you to mentor him. So, it’s the same thing. When they come in, they have the basic pilot knowledge, so when they come on board we get to train them and show them a few tricks. But they’re not bad of course, because for them to be trained and given a certificate, that means they have passed all the tests. Let me tell you, to be a pilot is not funny. There are three stages you have to pass. When you pay into a flying school, before they start anything at all, you have to go for your physicals, which is your medical. Now, if you are colour blind, you can never be a pilot. If you’re diabetic, you can never be a pilot. If you come from a family with history of heart attacks, you can never be a pilot. There are some diseases, terminal diseases that, if you have them, you can never be a pilot, no matter how hard you try. So, you have to pass your medical, after that, you’re going to do your ground school and there are about fourteen aviation subjects that you have to pass. And in aviation, the minimum pass mark, unlike the Universities where in some courses you can get a pass mark with 45% or 50%, aviation is 75%. It’s no joke. If you fail, you retake it again. And you only have three chances, if you don’t make it the third time, you’re out. So, that’s fourteen subjects you have to pass with a minimum of 75%. We’ve had people that have gone through the medical, gone through the ground subjects, they come to the flying aspect and they get scared and walk away. Yes, they did because by the time they take you in a small airplane, a two- seater or four seater plane, they take you up there, do some aerobatics and show you how it is and some people, when they look down from the window and see how tiny people are on the ground, they get scared. We had few cases where, some people, after their first screening flights, by the time they land, they pack their bags and walk away. They can’t do it. It’s not easy.
Is that one of the reasons why they pay you guys so heavily, much more than other professions out there?
Yeah, sure (smiles). Pilots earn what I’ll describe as a decent pay. It’s not enough, but it’s decent (we all break into laughter). I mean, if you are taking home a minimum of 4 to 5 million naira a month, and even more, as you go higher, it’s not bad. For the new guys that are just coming from flying school, the minimum pay is one million naira. So, once you come out from school, you’re already a millionaire. I mean, if as a twenty or twenty-two year old, your monthly salary is already one million naira and above, then you’re already a millionaire. I think the youngest pilot we have now in Nigeria is about 19 years old, and he’s a millionaire. So, it’s not that bad, but I’m saying it can be better.