DOWA, MALAWI —
A former radio repairman in Malawi has built a helicopter out of scrap materials. While civil aviation officials have grounded him for now, he says he is not giving up.
Felix Kambwiri has dreamed of flying since he was a boy.
He says he used to be fascinated with the helicopters his state president would fly during crop inspection tours. The helicopters would sometimes land on his school grounds, and he says that is when he decided he would one day make his own.
Now, at the age of 45, the professional welder and father of seven has done it.
The helicopter — made from scrap metal Kambwiri gathered locally — is white, with blue and red stripes. It took him four months to build.
The cockpit is big enough to fit one adult, and it uses a 125-cubic-centimeter engine he got from his old motorbike.
That engine roars to life in his garage as he turns the machine on. It shakes as if eager to lift off. Orange indicator lights flash from the cockpit and the tail. Onlookers step back to avoid the rotating blades.
Kambwiri plans to use the helicopter to avoid bad roads when he visits his home village about 30 kilometers away. Police, however, blocked his first attempt at a test flight.
Civil aviation authorities say they need to run safety checks once Kambwiri installs a more powerful engine.
So, he’s saving up the $800 needed to buy one.
Even if that first test flight fails, Kambwiri vows will not relent until he makes that helicopter fly.
And he knows it’s possible. He is a member of a small but persistent group of amateur aircraft builders in Africa. One Nigeria physics student managed to get his helicopter, built in 2007, seven feet off the ground.
While some people have told Kambwiri that he cannot possibly succeed, his small aircraft has won the hearts and minds of locals who stop by to admire it.
“My impression is that he should have a lot of money, so that he can make a bigger one, and I want to fly with this,” said a local teacher checking out the helicopter firsthand.