At the crack of dawn, as the orange rays of the rising sun peep from behind Mount Kenya, the rotor engines of a blue-colored helicopter come to life and the bird lifts off to some distant location in Kenya’s expansive north.
This is the Nayunki airstrip, the home base of Tropic Air, one of Kenya’s best-known helicopter companies. In 25 years of operation, the company has taken up a number of high-profile projects that have turned it into a household name in Kenya and beyond.
“Tropic Air started out as an accident,” said Founder and Managing Director Jamie Roberts. “I was working as a crop-dusting pilot across Kenya. I did this for about 11 years. After this, I started flying miraa (khat) from Nanyuki to the Kenya-Somali border on a Cessna 206 aircraft. Around that time, the tourism industry in Kenya was picking up.”
Roberts explained there were scheduled flights from Nairobi to the Nanyuki airstrip, where passengers were picked up in tour vans to tour the Laikipia and Samburu regions.
“I saw an opportunity in this as tourism in Kenya, and more so in the northern circuit of Kenya was growing exponentially,” he added.
That was the beginning of the journey toward what is today one of the most successful helicopter and fixed-wing companies in Kenya, serving a host of industries including tourism and conservation, oil and gas exploration and documentary photography and videography.
“At the moment, we are the largest helicopter air tourism operator in Kenya,” Roberts said. “We have over the years extended our services across the region in neighboring Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. We are also serving Chad.”
While the Laikipia and Samburu wildlands of northern Kenya are regarded as the East African outback, the natural beauty of the landscape and the teeming wildlife have over the years attracted tourism development in the area. However, Tropic Air takes credit for opening up the region to tourism development by creating access to stunning views found in the most remote parts of the region.
Eston Whitfield, Tropic Air’s chief fixed-wing pilot, said the company has opened more than 40 locations within the expansive Laikipia and Samburu regions.
“I have to say that this part of the country is incredibly beautiful,” he said. “As a company, we are not only tasked with flying our clients from one point to another, but to also showcase the majestic beauty of these lands.” The operator, therefore, flies its aircraft as low as possible when weather permits, he said.
“Our air safaris are more of an experience than a mere flight from one location to another,” added Whitfield.
Roberts admitted that taking up air safaris is not cheap, but said it is one of the best ways to not only cover vast distances, but also affords his clients an opportunity to see and do more within a very short period of time.
“Normally some of our clients are pressed for time and are in Kenya and in the region for only a short period of time,” Roberts said. “Oftentimes, these are wealthy businesspersons and politicians with limited time, yet they want to experience more of the destination within a given time. Flying with us ensures that they not only do that, but get utmost privacy, exclusivity and above all, get to do so safely in well-maintained aircrafts.”
Aside from maintenance of its own fleet, the company is also licensed to maintain both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for other clients that include high-net-worth individuals and corporate aircraft in Kenya.
Tropic Air currently operates four Cessnas: 208B Grand Caravans and one 208. It also owns six Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3s. “We chose to operate the Airbus mainly because of its performance at high altitudes and high power,” Roberts said. “These are suited for the region and have served us very well. The Airbus, for us, is the best and most reliable aircraft. Aside from performance, it is highly suited for our business because of their cabin configuration that has forward-facing seats which affords our passengers better views in flight.”
Company growth has placed the Nanyuki airstrip on the map. Today it is one of the busiest in the country in terms of aircraft and passenger traffic. The Kenya Airports Authority has taken note and proposed to upgrade the airstrip by constructing a taxiway and a 1.4-km runway.
As the tourism industry grows in Kenya, Tropic Air is also looking at adding two additional aircraft to its fleet once the airstrip is upgraded. Plans are to add two Pilatus PC-12s that will mainly serve transcontinental safaris within Africa. The single-turbine-engine aircraft can fly up to 280 kt, according to Roberts.
The addition of these aircraft will not only underline Tropic Air’s position as the leading air-tour operator in the country and the wider East and Central Africa regions, but enhance its position as a trendsetter in the air tours industry in Africa, he said. RWI