A Bush Pilot Who Always Longs to Return to African Skies

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The vastness of Africa requires all kinds of transportation. People fly into main hubs, but the most time-efficient way to get around is hopping on to small bush planes. These aircraft are used to provide both planned and unscheduled passenger services to remote areas, touching down on shorter and sometimes dirt runways.

They are an essential part of getting tourists to safari camps, serving as the connective tissue from major airports into the wilds of Africa. Kirsty Henderson, 27, is a pilot for Wilderness Air Botswana. She flies for the company partnered with noted safari company Wilderness Safaris, which has a variety of camps in Botswana around the Okavango Delta.

Wilderness Air began in 1991 with one aircraft based in Botswana servicing two camps in the delta. The company today is operating over 26 aircraft and employing over 40 pilots, flying to Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

For Henderson, flying over the bush is a return of sorts, as she did a scenic flight over the Okavango Delta with her family as a child. She “completely fell in love by how beautiful it is.”

Originally from Cape Town, she completed her private pilot’s license at Stellenbosch Flying Club. After the aviation bug had bitten, she decided to make a career out of being a pilot. “I went to 43 Air School in Port Alfred, where I completed my Commercial Pilot License with a Multi-Engine Instrument Rating, Grade 3 Instructor rating and ATPL subjects,” said Henderson. “A few months later, I was lucky enough to find a job as a Grade 3 Instructor at Lanseria Flight Centre at Grand Central Airport in Midrand, where I worked for two and a half years and also gained my Grade 2 Instructor rating.”

After doing some flight instruction, she was hired as a bush pilot by Wilderness Air in August 2016, starting out by flying the GippsAero GA8 Airvan, eventually upgrading to the Cessna C208B Caravan.

Kirsty Henderson (pictured) carries tourists to the remote corners of Africa as a bush pilot.

The scenery she flies over every day, as well as resting up at some of the world’s finest lodges, are some of the fringe benefits of the occupation. “This is one of the main reasons why I fly for Wilderness Air Botswana as it is such a beautiful country,” said Henderson. “I also really enjoy flying the (Cessna) Caravan as it has the most amazing capabilities and is perfectly suited to our operation. I love that every day is a new challenge and no two days are ever the same. The people in Botswana are also very friendly and welcoming, and it doesn’t hurt that as a pilot I sometimes get to spend nights in some of the most amazing lodges as part of my work.”

Henderson recently was promoted to safety manager, helping the airline maintain its standards when flying over remote lands to get passengers to and from the lodges safely. “I was looking for more of a challenge and to broaden my aviation knowledge,” said Henderson.

She’s also passionate about helping mentor the next generation of female pilots. “Our company currently flies Children in the Wilderness, which is an organization that aims to educate the local children about our camps and the animals, as well as a little bit about flying,” she said. “It is very important in order for us to have more pilots in the next generation. There are also some great ladies in our company that try to promote ladies in aviation in order to encourage more young females to become pilots … I will get involved where I can as I think it’s important for girls to know that this is not just a male-dominated industry anymore.”

Henderson cites a quote by Leonardo da Vinci that perfectly sums up her passion for flying: “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will long to return.”