Sky is the limit

During the childhood years of many Ethiopians, making toy cars from scraps is something exciting. Even in the countryside, where cars are rarely seen, many children grapple barbed wires to form shapes of a big truck or a small sedan. Usually, many of these children are seen rolling their cars made of scarps on streets or float their paper airplanes in the wind.

Probably this is just the most common wish of many youngsters – becoming a pilot, when their teachers pop the question of prospective endeavor. However, not too many have the chance to come close to a plane let alone fly one. Only a few can leave up to their dream of flying of an airplane. So far, 35-year-old Asmelash Zeferu is one of those who is striving to achieve his childhood dream by flying his own aircraft.

When his attempt of flying his own homemade airplane was heard a few months  ago, many had to post their reactions on social media while those without internet access voiced their exaltation on the various FM stations. It was an absolute buzz for days and drew massive attention from all sections of society, especially, when he failed to fly. “It was a very disappointing moment but I don't give up that easily,” he says.

The disappointment occurred last year after he put on his motorcycle helmet and teed up the K-570A on a local open field in the outskirts of the city (Sendafa) for his maiden flight. After producing an unexpected friction, the propeller shattered, damaged the plane's smoke exit structure, and sent the engineer quite literally back to the drawing board. “I called it K-570A. K represents the initial of my mother's name, Kiros, and 570 signifies the number of days it took me to complete my aircraft,” he said.

After constructing the fuselage of his aircraft from wood, he put his plane on the modified wheelbase of an old Suzuki motorcycle – his own take on the all-important landing gear. In addition, the intricate internal latticework of the wings took many months to create. But, once completed, he attached these to his innovation.

Aviation manuals and YouTube tutorials were his guiding stars; every aspect of aircraft manufacture gradually imbibed in painstaking detail.

When the time came, Asmelash opted to model his plane on one used by trainee pilots in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

Some items were salvaged, others bought secondhand from the Mercato market. The 8.5 meter wing was crafted from timber imported from Australia, with each wooden panel hand-sculpted. But there was one element of the plane Asmelash could not imitate – the engine.

The design called for a Ford engine, but the amateur engineer "couldn't get [it] cheap in Ethiopia," settling instead for a four cylinder, 40 horsepower model stripped from a Volkswagen Beetle.

Having failed to fly his homemade plane in his initial attempt, Asmelash is now planning to conduct the second attempt in February. “February will be the month in which I will marry my fiancé,” he said. In a special occasion sponsored by the Chinese telecom firm ZTE and other local partners Asmelash will fly putting on his wedding tuxedo.

“We are preparing him to look like a flying bridegroom,” Sun Yue, chief marketing technical officer of ZTE, says. After the weeding and more importantly after the success; as a honeymoon trip, Asmelash and his wife will travel to places around the globe to visit aeronautic companies in China and Europe.

“I am sure, my second attempt will be successful. So that I can win our  honeymoon trip, ” he said. Despite the possibility of a second failure, he has no fear or doubt, as  this time he has identified the cause of the first failure. “It was not a major glitch that caused the failure, as I identified it. But it was  an important lesson. That is why I say I will fly the plane this time around,” he says smiling.

Having achieved this much, recently, Asmelash has secured a scholarship from a Dutch University and going to school is the next plan after the wedding. But the ambitious Asmelash, has set his eyes on a bigger prize, which is after coming back home, establishing Ethiopia’s version of Boeing. “I also hope that I will join NASA after or in the middle of my studies and my ultimate goal is to establish an aircraft manufacturing company in my home country,” he says. 

With massive international media coverage, Asmelash has emerged as a celebrity. “He has become an inspirational figure for the youth both in Ethiopia and outside Ethiopia, so that is why we want to work with him,” Yue says. ZTE has been partnering with him in a program ,“Inspirational African Youth for Technology”. As a result, the company has allocated an undisclosed amount of fund to help him realize his dream while the partnership will get him more support in the course of time. “We appreciate his efforts and determination as it will impact millions of youth in Ethiopia and the continent,” Yue says.

From a severely challenged life experience, where he encountered many obstacles, until his first attempt of flying his homemade aircraft, Asmelash has never doubted that the sky is the limit. “I have seen numerous challenges because of my thoughts and beliefs but I can never imagine it as something impossible to overcome,” he says. And the setbacks he has been facing are giving him the strength of believing that everything is possible.

This is what he  told, The Telegraph and CNN during his interview following his debut flight. Though it never took off the ground, it left him with better understanding of what he has done so far and the prospective of it. And though the amateur aircraft engineer cites the opportunity to challenge peoples’ perception of Ethiopia as his foremost motive, he chose to build the K-570A. For a man who spent his childhood living in a very modest accommodation, realizing his dream is an ultimate mission and he believes that he can make history for himself and his home country.