Self-build project in Ethiopia Where a small plane inspires great hope
Asmelash Zeferu is nervous. He stands in front of his self-made airplane. Made of cloth, wood, screws. With a car engine as propulsion. It should take off, right away. Then he would have made it, would have left everything behind him. Only the sky. Asmelash is not a pilot, not an engineer – he’s a nurse from Addis Ababa.
Apart from him, there are only cows and two children, with dried snot under their noses. The kids say hello, Asmelash doesn’t say hello back. The propeller does not fit on the engine. Asmelash puts his hand to his sweaty forehead, thinks. But it does not help. Asmelash gives up. "Tomorrow then", he says. He is used to nothing working.
Bold dreams despite great poverty
In one of the poorest countries in the world, this 36-year-old man is unwaveringly living a dream: Asmelash wants to fly. After school, he wanted to become a pilot for the state-owned airline Ethiopian Airlines, after all the largest in Africa. Addis Ababa is important as a hub for the national economy, flying means future in a country that holds little for a young man’s future. But Asmelash is too small. One centimeter of body length denied the 1.69 meter tall man his dream. "And that’s why I built an airplane myself", he says. Asmelash Zeferu did not resign himself to it. He resisted fate. And became a star in his country with it.
First there was a report on Ethiopian television, then invitations to talk shows, Asmelash was photographed and shown off. To this day, no one questions whether his plane will ever fly. It is about something more important. Asmelash shows his countrymen: Although I have nothing, I can do anything. He’s a bit like jungle camp winner Menderes Bagci, a man of the people you love because he’s no more than anyone could be. A man with a big dream.
Bulli engine as drive
Asmelash’s plane is a two-seater with the front engine of a VW Bulli. Youtube videos taught him the basics of aircraft construction. Over three years of tinkering now. He has invested around 10,000 dollars in his plane, a fortune in a country with an average annual income of 350 dollars.
In 1985 Asmelash saw an airplane for the first time. There he sat on the dry ground of a foreign village. In the mid-80s, a famine tore the country apart. Five-year-old Asmelash was looking at the sky at the time. The planes with the red cross, they saved him and his family.
He started with paper airplanes, which he still keeps in a shed today. Above the headboard of his bed hangs a list of things to accomplish. Worldwide attention, it says. Complete the K-570A, the official name of his aircraft. "This is the prototype" , he explains. If he built it, he proved it: Anyone can build an airplane with the simplest of resources. "And if I can do it, I’ll go into serial production."
"First it has to take off"
Asmelash doesn’t plan to fly long distances, not yet: "First, it has to take off; at the beginning, ten meters of altitude and a distance of several hundred meters are enough for me." He wants to know how the plane behaves in the air. How it lands, on a pair of motorcycle wheels, on a suspension built by himself. Asmelash is confident: "This will work out."
The screw fits, the rotor sits. The whole village has come. Asmelash positions the plane, a runway is not visible. It goes a little downhill. The inhabitants of the village retreat. Asmelash turns the ignition key, the engine rattles, spits, groans. White smoke rises. Then the rotor turns, the new propeller, it holds everything together. Asmelash raises his thumb, then a horrible sound. The propeller falls to the ground, the engine stalls. It does not work. The disappointment in the faces of the villagers gives way to indifference. You go.
"Then tomorrow", says Asmelash. And screws on. When the plane flies, he says "I’m going to join Nasa and become an astronaut". His country loves him for that too; Asmelash’s dreams are boundless. "Then I want to go into space."