GOBEDE // It has never taken off, and could well be a death trap, but a home-made helicopter built in Malawi is drawing crowds captivated by its creator’s determination to succeed against all the odds.
Felix Kambwiri, 45, has spent the past four months building his dream machine out of scrap metal and fibreglass in his garage in the village of Gobede, 90 kilometres north of the capital, Lilongwe.
Clambering inside the one-seater cockpit, he swings the door closed, turns the key, pumps the pedals, and the 125-cubic centimetre second-hand engine roars into life as orange lights flash impressively.
The rotor blades, which nearly touch the workshop’s walls, rotate at a furious speed, as the whole chassis starts to shake violently – but take-off remains elusive.
“I would like just to fly for even five minutes to show that I am serious about this and that it is not a joke. This helicopter can fly,” said Mr Kambwiri, a professional welder.
“Every day I receive many curious visitors who have heard about me.”
He built the helicopter to his own design after failing to find any books to help fulfil his life’s passion.
But he has been warned that he should not undertake any test flights until the civil aviation authorities have completed safety checks.
“Police regularly come here to monitor progress and make sure I don’t fly without permission,” said Mr Kambwiri, adding that he hoped to be airborne by June.
“I can understand their concern is about my safety, and that of people who might come in their hundreds on the day I fly the helicopter.
“I will not take risks. I will wait until I am ready. I cannot allow anyone to take the risk for fear of an accident.”
The helicopter is painted white with red and blue stripes, and has plastic windows, landing skids and a second rotor blade on its tail.
Mr Kambwiri, who left school at 16, has spent about US$350 (Dh1,285) on the project, including $100 on its converted motorcycle engine, which he hopes to upgrade if a donor comes forward with extra funds.
“Although I did not go far with school, I have tried my best. I want to show the world that we Malawians can do something and are intelligent,” he said.
“Some people coming here say I have gone mad, that this helicopter will kill me, or cannot fly because I am not educated.
“My imagination about building a helicopter grew when I began welding as a job,” said the former tailor and radio repairman. Among those who come to inspect his progress are students from the local school who peer into the workshop as Mr Kambwiri and his team of assistants, including an electrician, tinker with wiring.
His ambitious plan dates back to when he was a boy and saw Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the president at the time, flying around Malawi to get to campaign rallies and to visit remote villages.
Mr Kambwiri, who is married and a father of seven children, also credits his enthusiasm for flight to watching war movies and listening to radio shows.
Despite initial concerns, his wife, Annes, said she supported his efforts.
“I was frightened when I first heard that my husband was developing a helicopter because he had never done it before,” she said.
“Later I accepted it, because everything is possible through God.”
* Agence France-Presse