By Prudence Minayo
Wilson Airport is one of the busiest airports in East and Central Africa in terms of aircraft movement. The airport is named in honor of the woman who pioneered aviation in the region. Florence Kerr Wilson owned Wilson Airport before it was taken from her during the World War II by the colonial government and made part of the Royal Air Force.
Here is the story of Florence Kerr Wilson and how she founded Wilson Airport as told by WoK.
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Florence was born in 1879 in Blundellsands near Liverpool to a wealthy shipping family. She married William Herbert Wilson and they relocated to Kenya where they took up farming after World War I. Major Wilson passed away in 1928 leaving Florence a very wealthy woman.
Founding Wilson Airways
In 1929, Florence made a business trip in UK. Rather than traveling by sea, she used an aircraft with Pilot Tom Campbell Black and flight engineer Archie Watkins as the crew. It is reported that Tom was a charmer who had perfected the skill of seducing wealthy women. The two began an affair and Mrs. Wilson invested £50,000 to start Wilson Airways. Tom Campbell and Watkins became the crew members as she bought a Gypsy Moth as their first aircraft.
This was a single passenger, open cockpit aeroplane. As the head pilot, Captain Black oversaw mail deliveries all over British East Africa and transported passengers to different destinations including Mombasa, Kisumu and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. He was the first pilot to fly from Nairobi to Mombasa and back on the same day. Mrs. Wilson learned to fly and by 1930 had gotten her licence and carried out survey flights.
The first permanent airfield in Kenya was in Dagoretti near where Junction Mall is located. It was named the Ngong Landing Field and the Maasai would graze their cattle there, which at times had to be driven off for planes to land. Mrs. Wilson opened the first office of Wilson Airways here and Tom became a pilot and Managing Director. The business grew and Tom began an affair with Beryl Markham, a Nairobi socialite who had been married thrice. In 1933, he left for England leaving both women behind and marrying actress Florence Desmond in 1936. He passed away on September the same year in an air crash accident.
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The aircrafts in Mrs. Wilson’s stable grew to 17 and the airport was moved to Lang’ata. Her clientele grew to include rich businesspeople, safari groups and the royal family. She also started Kenya’s first air ambulance rescue service and an aviation training school. Thanks to Wilson Airways, Wilson Airport became the region’s hub.
Unfortunately, it would all come crashing down following World War II. The airfield, aircrafts and all the pilots were seized by the colonial government. The airfield was renamed Nairobi West Aerodrome. She had no power as her company became part of the Royal Air Force and its subsequent incorporation into the Kenya Auxiliary Air Unit. After the war, the airport continued being successful but it was no longer in the hands of Mrs. Wilson.
Renamed to Wilson
The incoming government sent the Minister of Commerce and Communications, Masinde Muliro to rename the airport in honor of Florence Kerr Wilson. In 1962, she was present during the unveiling as the airport was named Wilson. She died at her Karen home six years later.