When he was a child in Ethiopia, Asmelash Zerefu dreamt he would one day fly a plane. Jonathan Wells talks to the prospective pilot about the struggle to get his plans off the ground
By Jonathan Wells
His social media pages are plastered with praise for the Wright Brothers, and inspirational quotes such as Mandela’s “Everything seems impossible until it is done” and Thomas Edison’s “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” punctuate pictures of his own attempts at aviation.
Suffice to say, Asmelash Zerefu is a man with great belief. The 35-year old Ethiopian has suffered countless setbacks in his mission to become a pilot, and despite still never having even set foot on a plane – let alone fly one – the amateur aircraft builder refuses to give up on his dream.
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Fifteen years ago, Zerefu decided to leave the world of academia behind in order to pursue his passion of flight – despite scoring a GPA (grade point average) of 3.8 out of 4.0 at high school, and being accepted onto university courses for both Public Health and Civil Engineering.
The prospective pilot planned to leave the Alemaya University campus to join the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy, but encountered his first major setback when the Dire Dawa branch of the aviation school refused to let him enrol. “I was turned down,” Zerefu tells me. “I did not meet the height requirement. I was just one centimetre short.”
A heavy blow to Zerefu’s dreams of flying, many men would have been deterred for good after such a rejection. But not Asmelash.
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“That was the turning point. That was when I decided to build my own airplane in order to fulfil my lifelong dream of flight. This was in 2001.”
And, since his rejection from the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy, Zerefu has dedicated his whole life to the realisation of his aerial ambitions. Too short to become a commercial pilot, the Public Health Officer set about building his own aircraft; from scratch, in the ninth poorest country in the world.
Zerefu has applied his considerable intellect to the meticulous development of his plane. He spent more than a decade poring over FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) maintenance books, trawling the internet for existing aircraft blueprints and learning the craft of plane building from that font of all knowledge: YouTube.
And then, following ten years of planning, the day arrived that Zerefu had to begin construction on Ethiopia’s first ever home-built aircraft. After incorporating the design of the Clark-Y Airfoil Wing into his own unique plans, and tailoring other existing plane parts, Zerefu began the long and arduous task of sourcing the components and materials he would need to construct his very own magnificent flying machine.
“I collected from garages and workshops, and Merkato – which is Africa’s largest market – in Addis Ababa. I used first and second-hand materials to build my aircraft.”
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After first constructing the fuselage of his aircraft from wood, Zerefu mounted his plane on the modified wheelbase of an old Suzuki motorcycle – his own take on the all-important landing gear. The intricate internal latticework of the wings took many months to create but, once complete, Zerefu attached these too onto his creation. It was then that he turned his attention to the engine.
“My aircraft is powered by a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle engine,” beams Zerefu. “It is a horizontally-opposed 40 horsepower engine; 4 stroke, 4 cylinders and it can run at up to 3000rpm.”
A handmade and conditioned laminated wooden propeller was the last technically integral component to be added, that, at 15 pounds, was built to withstand the power of the 1,285cc engine. Sealing the aircraft, and giving it a final coat of white paint, Zerefu was left only to name it.
“I call it the K-570A. K representing my mother’s initial of her name, Kiros, and 570 signifying the number of days it took me to complete my aircraft. The A is for Aircraft.”
The completed K-570A is a two-seat, open-tandem parasol light aircraft. Designed by Zerefu to fly “slow and low”, it cost 160,000 Ethiopian Birr (£4,900) to build and is the product of nearly half of the Ethiopian’s entire life. “I came across many, many challenges to build my aircraft,” he says. “People surrounding me considered me mad, and it took many trials and errors to build it. Financial problems were another limitation in making my African aviation innovation possible. But despite those difficulties and obstacles I am close to fulfilling my dream.”
Zeferu’s largest disappointment occured on 15 June this year after he put on his motorcycle helmet (safety first) and teed up the K-570A on his local airfield (an actual field) for her maiden flight. After producing unexpected friction, the propeller shattered, damaged the plane’s smoke exit structure, and sent the engineer quite literally back to the drawing board.
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But it is this perseverance that characterises Zerefu. For a man who has been doubted and stymied by his peers, his government and even his national airline, he retains an extraordinary amount of optimism, and continues to progress in his endeavour to one day reach the sky.
He has recently been in contact with René Bubberman, an aviation expert of the NVAV (Dutch Experimental Aircraft Association) – and the lead guitar player of an Austrian disco band. Bubberman suggested Zerefu shed some of the K-570A’s extra weight and, thanks to this advice, the aircraft is fairing better than ever. Zerefu frequently takes his newly improved invention taxiing to test its power. “The performance keeps getting better and better,” the prospective pilot reveals.
Zerefu’s tenacity and bulletproof resolve is that of a true visionary. Before the year is out, he plans to don his helmet once more and, this time, take the K-570A to the skies. “I want to fly 10 metres above the ground. By doing so, I will the first person in African aviation history who has built an aircraft able to fly high up in the sky. I would like to appear in international media, and promote Africa in terms of science and technology.”
And though the amateur aircraft engineer cites the opportunity to challenge people’s perception of Ethiopia as the foremost reason he chose to build the K-570A, his boyish excitement betrays him. Asmelash Zerefu – a man who spent his childhood living in a ravaged region of constant conflict between military regiments and liberation fronts – just wants to realise a lifelong dream.
A dream that took one step closer to becoming reality yesterday when Zerefu was offered a fuly paid scholarship to the Inholland University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands to study Aeronautical Engineering.
Hand-drawn pictures uploaded to Zerefu’s social media pages encapsulate the youthful sense of adventure he has somehow managed to retain and, with a Dutch degree and a bit of luck, hopefully these pencilled pipe dreams will very soon become reality.