By Mashudu Netsianda
Growing up in the dusty streets of Highfield in Harare more than 40 years ago, Felix Chiota would gaze in awe at the sky each time an airplane flew over his neighbourhood.
At a young age, Chiota always got fascinated by the mere sight of a plane hovering in the sky. Coming from a very humble background, Chiota’s dream was to become a pilot.
When his step father, the sole breadwinner, passed on in the early 1990s, Chiota thought his world had crumbled down like a deck of cards and his dream was shattered.
However, in that bad situation, there was a silver lining as his mother managed to raise enough money for Chiota to book an air ticket and fly to the United States, marking the beginning of his journey in pursuit of a career in aviation.
Despite the financial struggles during the early stages at university, Chiota did not give up on his dream and kept his eye on ball. It wasn’t an easy journey, but determination and courage saw him pull through.
Today, he proudly owns Chiota Aviation, a flight school based in Waco, a city in central Texas in the United States of America. He employs six flight instructors on both full-time and part-time basis.
Chiota is not just a commercial pilot, but he is also a captain at NetJets, the world’s largest private jet charter company, which owns and operates a fleet of about 700 private jets.
NetJets is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, an American company owned by US billionaire Warren Buffett, one the richest people in the world.
Chiota also serves as a designated pilot examiner on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
FAA is the largest modern transportation agency and a governmental body of the United States with powers to regulate all aspects of civil aviation in that country as well as over its surrounding international waters.
This is an amazing story about a Zimbabwean pilot, who despite his humble beginnings, is now making waves in the Land of Stars and Stripes.
“My story started in 1994 when it was time for me to decide what I wanted to do to make my dream of becoming a pilot a reality. In fact, flying in the sky is the only thing that I had always wanted to do as a career since my childhood and I was determined to do it,” he said.
“I would see airplanes flying in the sky when I was living in Highfield with my grandmother and it was just so fascinating seeing
those machines roaring in the sky, and I wondered how it felt like getting up there in clouds with all eyes on you down there.”
Chiota would constantly share his dream of becoming a pilot with his mother, grandmother and aunt, telling them that once he grew up, he would pursue a career in that field.
An opportunity came for him to study in the United States when he least expected. He went to the US embassy in Harare to do a research and checking for different programmes that were offered by different universities.
“Baylor University is one of the institutions I came across and they had an aviation programme. My mother and I called the university before I travelled to the US in 1995 and it was my first time to board a plane. When I got out of the plane I had never felt like that before and I was so excited,” said Chiota.
“On arrival in the US, I didn’t know anyone and I immediately went straight to my college dormitory, and again all I had was me and my suitcase with no friends. I didn’t know how to use a microwave or dish washer and I thought a microwave was some little outdoor television and all those things I had to learn from my peers. Being the only black person for the first time in my life surrounded by a sea of Caucasians in a foreign land made me nervous, but everyone was so inviting and welcoming and they showed me around.”
Chiota said his early years in university were characterised by incessant hardships as his mother could no longer afford to send him tuition fees. At one time, the university threatened to expel him for failing to pay tuition fees.
“There were times when it was really difficult to continue with my studies as my mother was having a hard time sending money. I had to make sure I look for money to last me for at least a year for my expenses and I was real under a lot of stress. One of my tutors helped me get some financial assistance and I also applied for some scholarships,” he said.
Chiota said he faced imminent deportation as he could no longer afford to financially sustain himself.
He credits his education in Zimbabwe, which he says gave him an edge in class, especially when it came to aviation calculus.
At high school, he enjoyed Physics, History, Business, and Religion Studies classes.
Chiota was able to use his mathematical talents to tutor fellow students at Baylor University, which helped him pay for groceries, books, and other expenses.
Chiota also had to do part-time menial jobs working in a restaurant to raise money for food and tuition.
“There was a classmate whom I assisted with tutoring and he told his parents about my plight and they took it upon themselves to reach out. Their philanthropic friends also extended some help. I am grateful there were some people who assisted financially and believed in what I was trying to do to achieve my dream,” he said.
Chiota graduated in 2000 from Baylor University with a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Sciences and from Texas State Technical College (TSTC) with an Associate Degree in Aircraft Pilot Training.
After graduating, he worked as a flight instructor for five years, as well as providing contract pilot services. He began his career as a flight instructor for Aurora Aviation from December 2000 until November 2003, when he started doing freelance corporate flying and flight instruction under his own business name, Chiota Aviation.
In 2006, Chiota joined NetJets and he is now a captain with seven aircraft type ratings, flying the Embraer Phenom 300.
“In America, you start flying for small regional companies to gain some more hours and then you can move on to the big jets. I did not want to endure the due process, the company I worked for was horrible, so I left and went to a company called NetJets,” he said.
“I work for NetJets, a company owned by Warren Buffet, one of the richest people in the world. We fly high net worth individuals notably athletes, business people and actors among other celebrities.”
Although Chiota has been flying private jets since 2006, he did not give up on his dream of continuing to grow his flight school.
He owns two Cessna 172s and a Redbird FMX simulator.
“We are taking delivery of a brand new Cirrus SR20, which is equipped with a parachute,” he said.
Chiota said September 21, 2001, will remain a memorable year for him after he survived a plane crash with a student.
“I recall it was a Friday afternoon a few days after the US Federal government had just reopened the skies following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was taking a student for an hour flight lesson prior to his examination the following morning,” he said. “Unfortunately when I attempted to take off, the engine just exploded and things happened so quickly. The plane had developed a mechanical fault and all the oil had drained from the engine.”
The engine ceased and they came down crashing and both wings came off after it hit trees. Chiota hurt his back and had to undergo two surgeries after jumping off the plane when it caught fire.
“The tail snapped and we could see a trail of smoke behind us. Fortunately, we were able to get out before it caught fire. We were in an inhospitable area and had we not been wearing our shoulder harnesses and seat belts like we should, there is no way we would have survived because the oil had been knocked out somehow,” he said.
Chiota said by the time a rescue team arrived at the scene, what was remaining was just a piece of burnt shrapnel.
“I was a brand new flight instructor at the time. If you want something badly nothing gets in your way and I told myself that these are occupational hazards and that this is what I wanted to do,” he said
“So Monday morning, I was back at work and this is what I have been doing since that time. When we teach people how to fly, we also teach them emergency procedures such as dealing with situations like that one.”
Chiota said for those interested in pursuing a career in aviation, it takes being very meticulous, professional and being able to control your environment.
Chiota went to Chipembere and Blakiston primary schools in Harare before proceeding to Sandringham High School where he completed O-level. He did his A-level studies at Oriel Boys High before enrolling at the Harare Polytechnic where he studied computer science. The Chronicle