He was told that his dreams were too big, but he dreamt anyway.
Asmelash Zerefu is a man with great strength and courage. The 35-year old Ethiopian has encountered several hurdles in his mission to live his dreams and become a pilot. Even though he had only watched aircrafts fly from a distance and never set foot on any, the purpose driven amateur aircraft builder continues on the path to purpose.
Fifteen years ago, Zerefu began his sojourn into the new, but totally fulfilling. He left the familiar world of academia to pursue his passion – 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. All he wanted was to become a pilot.
His initial plan was to leave the Alemaya University campus to join the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy, but then, the journey didn’t go as smoothly as he envisaged. The Dire Dawa branch of the aviation school refused to enroll him because he did not meet the height requirement. (He was just one centimeter short). That landed a huge blow to the young man’s dreams of flying but didn’t deter him in anyway, instead it made him more determined to pursue his purpose. Like we know, sometimes life throws the hard ball to us, not to destroy us; but to strengthen us.
Interestingly, the rejection by the aviation academy opened up a new vista for Asmelash and got him even closer than ever to his dreams.
“That was the turning point. That was when I decided to build my own airplane in order to fulfill my lifelong dream of flight. This was in 2001.” He tells The Telegraph.
Without any formal training, Asmelash Zerefu set about building his own aircraft; from scratch in his little part of the world. He spent more than a decade studying every (Federal Aviation Administration) maintenance book he could find, browsing the internet for existing aircraft blueprints and watching YouTube videos.
After years of intensive training Zerefu began work on what would become Ethiopia’s first ever home-built aircraft. First, he incorporated the design of the Clark-Y Airfoil Wing into his own unique plans, and installed other existing plane parts, after which he started sourcing the components, most of which he got from garbages and workshops.
“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.”
He then constructed the fuselage of his aircraft from wood, and mounted his plane on the modified wheelbase of an old Suzuki motorcycle. The complex internal latticework of the wings took a longer time to create but, once complete, Zerefu attached these too onto his creation, before he began work on the engine.
“My aircraft is powered by a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle engine,” Zerefu explains. “It is a horizontally-opposed 40 horsepower engine; 4 stroke, 4 cylinders and it can run at up to 3000rpm.”
To complete his innovation, the young man formed a laminated wooden propeller which was the last technically essential component to be added, to withstand the power of the 1,285cc engine. Zerefu then sealed the aircraft, and gave it a final coat of white paint.
“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 that was designed to fly slow, low and steady. It cost 160,000 Ethiopian Birr (£4,900) to build and is the product of nearly half of the Ethiopian’s entire life.
No one would imagine that it was all the way a smooth ride for the young change maker “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 came face to face with his greatest disappointment on 15 June this year- he had girded himself and set out for his first flight, when the propeller came crashing down, damaging the plane’s smoke exit structure. This unfortunate incident landed the young Ethiopian back to the sketch board.
Leaving no time for regrets, Zerefu went on in courage, determined to see the end of his journey. Despite being mocked by his peers, his government and even his national airline, he remains optimistic, with his eyes set on his goal to one day reach the sky.
The Ethiopian hero has a clear purpose; to attain greatness and change the narrative of his dear continent. “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.”
Find your passion and let it lead you to greatness!