Nigeria’s magnificent young man and his flying machine

Mubarak Muhammad Abdullahi, a 24-year-old physics undergraduate in northern Nigeria, takes old cars and motorbikes to pieces in the back yard at home and builds his own helicopters from the parts.

”It took me eight months to build this one,” he said, sweat pouring from his forehead as he filled the radiator of the banana yellow four-seater which he now parks in the grounds of his university.

The chopper, which has flown briefly on six occasions, is made from scrap aluminium that Abdullahi bought with the money he makes from computer and cellphone repairs, and a donation from his father, who teaches at Kano’s Bayero university.

It is powered by a second-hand 133 horsepower Honda Civic car engine and kitted out with seats from an old Toyota saloon car. Its other parts come from the carcass of a Boeing 747 which crashed near Kano some years ago.

For a four-seater it is a big aircraft, measuring twelve metres long, seven metres high by five wide. It has never attained an altitude of more than two metres.

The cockpit consists of a push-button ignition, an accelerator lever between the seats which controls vertical thrust, a joystick that provides balance and bearing.

A small screen on the dashboard connects to a camera underneath the helicopter for ground vision, a set of six buttons adjusts the screen’s brightness while a small transmitter is used for communication.

”You start it, allow it to run for a minute or two and you then shift the accelerator forward and the propeller on top begins to spin. The further you shift the accelerator the faster it goes and once you reach 300 rmp you press the joystick and it takes off,” Abdullahi explained from the cockpit.

He said he learned the rudiments of flying a helicopter from the internet and first got the idea of building one from the films he watches on television.

”I watched action movies a lot and I was fascinated by the way choppers fly. I decided it would be easier to build one than to build a car,” he said pacing the premises of the security division of the university which he uses as hanger for his helicopter.

He hoped — and still does hope — that the Nigerian government and his wealthy compatriots would turn to him and stop placing orders with Western manufacturers.

So far, however, government response to his chopper project has been underwhelming.

Although some government officials got very excited when they saw him conduct a demonstration flight in neighbouring Katsina state, Nigeria’s Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has so far shown no interest in his aircraft.

”No one from the NCAA has come to see what I’ve done. We don’t reward talent in this country,” he lamented.

Abdullahi does admit that his first helicopter lacks ”some basic facilities like devices for measuring atmospheric pressure, altitude, humidity and the like”.

In a country with Nigeria’s abysmal air safety record officials may be loath to gamble on one student’s home-made helicopter.

But Abdullahi, undeterred, has started work on a new flying machine, which, he says, ”will be a radical improvement on the first one in terms of sophistication and aesthetics”.

Currently just a spindly metal frame in the back yard, the helicopter will be a two-seater and Abdullahi calculates it will be able to fly at an altitude of 4,5m for three hours at a stretch.

It will be powered by a brand new motor — albeit Taiwan-manufactured and destined for the Jincheng motorbike so common on the streets of Kano. – Sapa-AFP

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Aminu Abubakar
Aminu Abubakar
Aminu Abubakar is a journalist based in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, where he grew up. He worked for local newspapers before joining Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 2000 as a freelance correspondent covering northern Nigeria.

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