Captain Evarest Nnaji is the owner of OAS Helicopters limited, one of
the leading indigenous helicopter chatter service companies in the
country. His career as a pilot spans over 22 years and he’s a voice to
be reckoned with in the Nigeria aviation industry. He shares with
VANESSA OKWARA his journey as a pilot, how it has opened great doors for
him to meet presidents of countries and his philanthropic activities
WHAT WAS YOUR GROWING UP LIKE?
I was born in my village; I’m from Nkanu East Local government in
Enugu State. I had my primary and secondary in my town and then
university education at University of Lagos. Then I proceeded to United
States for my pilot training. I’ve a US license and also a Nigerian
license. I made my captaincy quite early. At some point, I decided to
come to Nigeria to establish Odengene Air-Shuttle Services Limited (OAS)
Helicopter. ‘Odengene’ is my family name; it’s not a nickname
like some people think.
GROWING UP IN THE VILLAGE, HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO BECOME A PILOT?
It’s amazing! Let me tell you how it all started. During the war,
whenever there was a jet fighter hovering in my village with its
propeller noise, everyone runs to cover. For me as a young boy, I said
to myself, ‘whoever these guys are, I want to be like them and fly’.
Then at some point, I heard that there’s this place where they land
which of course is the airport in Enugu. I convinced my dad that I
wanted to see those things we were always running away from and he took
me to the airport to see airplanes. That was how the passion to fly
actually grew in me. I was like these guys flying up there threatening
everybody must be powerful guys and I wanted to be part of them. I was
just six to seven years old then.
WHERE YOU BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON TO AFFORD THE COST OF TRAINING AS A
No, I wasn’t. My family was just an average family. Of course they
could pay school fees and stuff. We were not a rich family as a matter
SO HOW COULD YOU AFFORD TO TRAVEL AND TRAIN AS A PILOT?
I could say I was self-made. I actually made some leap forward before
going to the US. I started well here in Nigeria. I had an electronic
company that was selling Plasma Television and laser disc in the
country. At some point, I closed the business when there was change
from laser disc to DVD. Then we were also selling grand pianos. Most of
the big homes you see such grand pianos today, we were the only one
bringing it into the country and we sold quite a lot. We were
representing Yamaha then.
GIVE A BACKGROUND OF YOUR TIME AS A PILOT AND YOUR FIRST TIME TO FLY.
The way it works especially as it concerns helicopters is, I had the
airplane training, private pilot license in Texas, USA and then I
switched over to helicopter. The characteristics of helicopter flying
and that of the big planes are different. There are points where they
agree, like navigation, weather, airport operations and so on. I did my
commercial license and instruments and then began to fly helicopters in
the US. I flew for quite some time in the US. When I got back to
Nigeria, I also did some commercial flights.
HOW DID YOU START OAS HELICOPTERS?
In 2005, I sold off some of my properties here in Nigeria and in US. I
bought a helicopter and shipped it to Nigeria and got it registered it
with AOC. That’s the one that enables you to operate as commercial
services. It was difficult to find a space at the airport; it was not as
developed as it is today. I had a property on the mainland, which was
looked at and found out that it was big enough to operate small size of
helicopters. They came with a lot of challenges but we were able to
surmount that because they were asking if it was possible to have a
helicopter in the city with all the electric wires. So we had to go to
New York to bring specialists so the government can see that it is
possible given the type of helicopters we intended to start with. They
are much more agile and meant to work perfectly in confined areas. We
did all that and got our approval. So the heliport kicked off alongside
the helicopter services. We have two different businesses, the heliport
and the helicopter business itself. There were two different
certifications for that and we got all that sorted out. Then we began
to fly VIPs. Then it was not as consistently lucrative as one would have
thought given the fact that you have pilots and engineers that you pay
salaries and whether they fly or not, you must pay them. We also had
insurance for the helicopters whether they fly or not and the VIP only
fly when they want. So you can’t make projections and even maintenance
was becoming a challenge. Some of the maintenance you have on
helicopters is mostly time bound. Meaning if the time to change some
certain parts reach, you must take it out and change. So we decided not
to wait until we make money to go into oil and gas, we just went into it
at some point and that’s why we are still alive till today.
WHAT ARE THOSE CHALLENGES YOU FACED WHILE STARTING UP YOUR BUSINESS?
There were quite a lot. To do business in Nigeria, you have to be like a
cat with nine lives because everything militates against you. Operating
in a third world country where aircraft and its spares are coming from
the first world far remotely removed from our environment, so being able
to bring in the spares is a huge challenge. Some of the spares are not
off the shelf; they manufacture only if you have paid for it and then
send to you.
NOW THAT YOU ALSO OPERATE IN THE OIL AND GAS SECTOR, HOW’S THE
Its better and hope is up. The process of securing oil and gas business
takes a lot of time. In fact there’s a bid I started since 2013, we
have not concluded it and we are hoping to conclude it this year, that
six years! It’s challenging but it’s doable. Nigerians are quite
supportive. To me we have the best support system anywhere else in the
WHAT’S YOUR SCORE CARD FOR THE AVIATION INDUSTRY IN NIGERIA TODAY?
If you ask me, I will say it is doing well in Nigeria, especially with
those we have at the helm of affairs right now. I believe we have learnt
our lessons from the ignominious pasts. I think there has been an
improvement; you can feel it. It is a challenging industry but there is
certain progress if you ask me. The accidents you talk about are not
only in Nigeria but have been all over the world. I believe we have
learnt a lot from our past mistakes. I don’t think those in authority
will waste time in taking action. So if I’m to score it, I will just
say there has been steady improvement.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN THE AVIATION INDUSTRY?
I’ve been in the industry since 1997 that is 22 years. To have it as a
business, we are 13 years.
WHAT ARE THOSE QUALITIES THAT HAVE HELPED YOU TO GET TO WHERE YOU ARE
To be a good aviator, whether as a pilot or investor in the industry,
you must be a scientific-minded person. You must have your beliefs in
practical realties; no assumption. You must understand that it is based
strictly on science. You must also have patience. One thing that has
kept me in the industry will be the fact that I love the industry.
It’s not a place to go and make quick turnovers. It’s a place for
those who are passionate about the industry. The money will come at the
right time but it comes with long term planning.
WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO YOUNGER ONES THAT LOOK UP TO YOU AS A ROLE
This industry is very encouraging, it enlivens your spirits; it makes
you to see the world. If you walk diligently, you will definitely
succeed. I’m not talking about investing in it; I’m talking about
being a pilot. It’s one profession, that if you do well, you will no
longer be poor. Even when you don’t want to fly again, the experiences
you would have gathered will help you to render some services in the
industry. As a pilot, I don’t think there’s a profession that can
give you as much as $10, 000 per month anywhere you are in this world.
Some are even earning more than that. Once you have your license, you
can fly anywhere in the world. And even get a job from any part of the
world with the internet at your fingertip. Once you are able to make
your mark, you are not going to be poor again. It also helps you to
meet people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet and interact with them.
WHAT HAS BEING A PILOT DONE FOR YOU AS A PERSON?
It has made me to meet the presidents of countries. I’ve gone to a
country and I said I wanted to see the president. Yes, it not that
simple but because of the people I flew into that country, I said I also
wanted to see him and I did. Almost all the big pastors in this
country, if you want to see them, it might take you one year to get an
appointment to see them but I’ve met virtually all while flying them
and they prayed for me while I was flying them. This includes the
biggest of the biggest in this country.
WHAT’S YOUR MARRIED LIFE LIKE?
I’m married. I’ve four wonderful children and they are all grown
now. I’ve a son who’s a drone specialist and the other one is a
pilot; he flies for one of the airlines here in Nigeria. They all
schooled in Texas but have fully returned to Nigeria. My eldest daughter
runs her own business and the second daughter is an architect.
HOW DO YOU RELAX?
I do some hard exercises. I’ve a black belt in Karate. That line of
exercise is what I enjoy doing. I’m also a very good swimmer. I love
watching football only when Nigeria is playing. If you ask me, the
greatest thing I love to do is to fly. My license is still active as a
pilot; I just love to fly.
WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF AS A POLITICIAN?
Yes! I’ve contested before and I’m still going to contest again. I
ran for Senate for my state in 2015 and I made a very strong showing. It
gives you the opportunity to do things which ordinarily you wouldn’t
be able to do. It gives you that platform where you could have a larger
opportunity to touch a lot of people. That is the way I see politics and
not to go there to make money for yourself.
I was in PDP but later changed to UNPP. Today, I’ve friends in PDP and
I’ve friends in APC. So I’m not in anyone right now. I’m just
focused on my business. I didn’t contest for any position in the last
election. I have a big contract coming up and that is what I’m
WHAT WILL YOU LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED FOR?
In my state, if you mention my name, people can attest to the fact that
I help people a lot. I’ve helped a lot of people to go to school. I
believe it is better to give people education than to give them money.
That is how I’m known in my place. I believe in human capital
development, so they can stand on their own. Education is the best way
to make people to become who God has created them to be.
WHERE DO YOU SEE OAS HELICOPTER AND YOU IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
OAS is a star rising. Between now and the next five years, people will
look at OAS and think there was a magic wand somewhere. It’s all about
planning. Right now, we have huge contracts coming and they should be in
the bag anytime from now.
Body and Soul Editor, Columnist,
New Telegraph Newspapers
1a Ajimobi Street, off Acme road, Agidingbi, Ikeja, Lagos
Excerpt from my interview with Vanessa Okwara of Telegraph newspaper –