By Billy Rwothungeyo
As aviation enthusiasts around the globe recently toasted to the first commercial flight of the world’s newest passenger airliner — the Airbus A350XWB (Extra Wide Body) –, somewhere in Nkumba parish along the Kampala-Entebbe Road, a group of young men was trying to put the final touches to the prototype of a small aircraft.
Today (Friday), the creation will be unveiled at an official launch at Nkumba University.
Dennis Muluuta, the spirited leader of the 25-member team — none of them with any aviation background — explains why they are building the prototype.
“We are undertaking this project to prove that although many youth across the country have failed to get jobs, we can still make a positive contribution to society. We also want to promote linkages between learning and research,” says Muluuta, who heads the Trust Investment Joint Group.
Interestingly, the aircraft prototype has a political leaning — the group is building it under the theme Fly NRM 2016: Moving Uganda Forward.
“We also wanted to show our love and loyalty to our party (NRM). We want to show that our party is still flying higher,” Muluuta explains the thinking behind the name.
The group urgently needs a helping hand, and Muluuta says they have been pushed to the limit financially.
He claims that they have already spent sh18m on hiring equipment, paying for electricity and hiring labour, but that they need more money to work on building the prototype.
“The money we are using is from members who make monthly contributions. Personally, I recently borrowed sh5m from a bank to sink into the project,” says the bachelor of sciences in environment management graduate from Nkumba University.
The prototype being assembled under a mango tree, is 23ft long, about 5ft wide with a wingspan of 26ft. It is about 6ft high although the tail stands at about 12ft. A small staircase that one has to carefully scale leads to the cockpit.
The pilot’s seat is improvised, more accurately, uprooted from a car. The landing gear is yet to be fixed, but a “small” car spare tyre serves as the nose wheel.
The debate on legroom has been one of the hottest topics among the flying public, but in this prototype, you just have to put up with what is available.
Why NRM colours and logo?
So what do they want to do with this “plane” come the 2016 elections? Do they hope that the President will fly in it?
“We hope to move around with the plane in the different parts of the country to accompany the President on the campaign trail. But this will depend on whether we get permission from the authorities concerned,” says Muluuta. He adds that the wings will be dismantled to enable the prototype be towed along the roads.
Muluuta says his group has for the past four months tried to fix a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni in vain.
“We are a group of serious young people and we want to share our ideas and visions with the President. Some people have even laughed at us, asking us how this prototype will benefit the party, but we are not giving up.
“I am sure with support of the Government; we shall be able to get a plane flying in our skies in a not so distant future,” says Muluuta.
What next after the prototype?
George Walugembe, an industrial art graduate from the same university and a member of the team, says after the prototype, they will move to building Uganda’s first aircraft that can fly.
“I believe we can make an aircraft that can taxi using its own engines. We only need to get the jet engines. We would need to get engines and improve on design and material used in building the body,” says Walugembe confidently.
Walugembe says while they have used steel to build the prototype, they will use lighter materials such as aluminium to build the “real” aircraft. Modern planes are built with lighter materials such as lightweight carbon composites, carbon-fibre boosted polymer to burn less fuel.
The most expensive part of homebuilt aircrafts are the engines. Ultra-light aircraft engines on eBay vary from as little as $2,900 (about sh8.5m) to as much as $2m (about sh5.8b) for jet engines for big aircrafts.
History of home-built planes
Aircraft built by amateurs in garages and in the case of Muluuta and his friends, under a mango tree, is not new.
In the US, homebuilt aircraft have been in existence for as long as the aviation industry itself. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, the two American brothers credited for having built the world’s first successful aircraft, built their plane from home, not in a factory.
Such aircraft is cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the equivalent of Uganda’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as “experimental amateur-built”.
In the US, to get a homebuilt aircraft the license to fly, one needs to first have their creation classified under the experimental category. Thereafter the pilot needs to get a private licence.
These licences are usually applied for by the builder before they finish building their aircraft. Thereafter, the plane is inspected by the FAA before test flights are given the green light.
Countries such as Australia, Brazil and New Zealand have similar standards. There have been pockets of homebuilt aircraft builders in Africa.
However, this trend is bigger in South Africa where there is a fully fledged Experimental Aircraft Association.
The first attempt at a homebuilt aircraft in Uganda was in December 2011 by Chris Nsamba as reported in the Daily Mail, one of Britain’s biggest newspapers. However, that project has since stalled.
Views about the project
Uganda’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) welcomes the innovation. The authority’s public affairs manager, Ignie Igundura, advises the group to closely work with them in the next phase of their project.
“I wish they had started working with us from the start. We are willing to advise them on what materials they can use to build the aircraft, how to find gravity and how to balance the plane among other things,” he says.
“When they get to the next level, we shall assign an officer to closely work with them,” Igundura adds.
NRM deputy spokesperson Ofwono Opondo says he was not aware of the Muluuta project.
Ofwono, however, adds that NRM has many volunteer groups which are outside the official structure of the party. We do encourage this kind of volunteerism, provided that they are not breaking any law in the country.