Any significant change requires a certain level of madness, so the saying goes. If you want to tower above the rest then you ought to be unique in whatever you do.
This seems to be working for Standard Eight dropout Felix Kambwiri of Madisi in Dowa who is setting himself apart by building a one-seater helicopter from improvised materials.
Even without formal education in aviation or engineering courses, Kambwiri has been able to improvise and build a helicopter. At the moment, he says, the major test is to take it into the air.
The 45-year-old says he has nursed the dream since the early 1980s when he was a pupil at Ayimalandiwo Primary School, now Namwiri Primary School. The then president Hastings Kamuzu Banda would come on a helicopter when conducting crop inspection tours.
Kambwiri was amazed at how the plane could land and take off without use of a runway. All it needed was a helipad.
“I felt that such an aeroplane was very ideal for under-developed areas such as my village,” he says.
He thought that even if he owned one he would not have challenges flying it. Since he could not afford it, he had to assemble one.
When he dropped out of school in 1987, the dream lived on. To make ends meet, he went to Lilongwe to pursue an informal three-year training in electronics maintenance majoring in fixing broken radios.
“I then went back home to do some farming, after which I bought my first radio in 1991. In 1996 and 1997, I learned tailoring,” Kambwiri says.
In 2005, while working as a tailor and fixing people’s radios, he underwent a two-year welding training at Mponela.
Today, Kambwiri serves as a pastor for the Baptist Church in Madisi after graduating from Life University.
The ambitious helicopter project started in 2015 when he worked on a frame to which he fitted a bicycle carrier, mounted an engine and a set of two propellers.
“When I started the engine, it would glide around the workshop. I said to myself ‘this could develop into something’. I have never relented ever since. When people saw this thing and asked what I was doing, I would tell them I was building something for shelling maize or groundnuts. I knew that if I mentioned the helicopter, some would discourage me and I never wanted that,” explains Kambwiri.
He says the first engine was small, but he decided to have a bigger one from a SAN LG motor bike which can carry over 400kg.
As soon as he mounted the new engine, he was convinced that his dream of making a helicopter would one day become a reality. This was towards the end of December, 2015.
“In January this year, I started making a new body of the helicopter because the first one was more slanted in front and much smaller, so much that my head would touch the roof,” he explains.
By the end of January, the body was done and he could no longer lie to the people. Everyone in the village knew that he was making an aeroplane.
“The helicopter now had a propeller whose four blades were rigid. I spent sleepless nights wondering how it could be made to take off, ascend into the sky, maintain altitude and then descend again and touchdown using propellers,” Kambwiri explains.
It was not long when an idea popped up that the propeller blades could be made to stand flat, tilt upward in one direction or the other direction thereby cutting the air in such a way that it could propel the plane forward. The plane could also cruise at the same altitude, ascend to the sky and descend. He fitted his helicopter with another propeller which was smaller at the back to steer the plane either left or right and be able to go to desirable destinations.
The plane has space for its pilot only. It is fitted with a dash board which displays the speed/gear that the plane is in when operating.
The reason Kambwiri opted for a motor bike engine is because its cooling system does not require a radiator but just air. To facilitate the engine cooling, he has left two holes by the side of the plane towards the rear part and the same holes can also be used to replace the chain if it goes off the sprocket gear.
Kambwiri’s wife, Annes, is not surprised that her husband has made the helicopter because he has always been doing things beyond his perceived capabilities. Annes stood by her husband even when some people were discouraging him.
“They said the project was sheer madness and waste of resources and time. I believe that everything is possible with God. After all, this is not the first time my husband has made something a little sophisticated. He has been making tobacco bailing jacks, maize meal parts, ox carts and several other things,” says Annes.
She says although her husband has never been in an aeroplane before, she is hopeful that he will soon fly in his own.
“I am sure that I shall fly in my husband’s airplane one day,” says Annes.
Principal flight operations inspector in the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), Hastings Jailosi, says it is commendable that a Malawian has, against all odds, come out to tell the world that he can actually manufacture a helicopter.
Jailosi says at this stage, what authorities can do is support him accordingly so that his innovation is not in vain.
He, however, says he cannot test his plane without involving some authorities to look at and address the legal implications, especially when the plane is going to have people on board.
Says Jailosi: “When you construct something like that and it will carry some one on board, there are so many legal procedures that you have to follow.
“For example, if a company, let’s say Boeing, constructs an aeroplane, they go through several tests until such a time when the manufacturer is happy and confident that such a plane can be sold. So in this case, I do not know who will do the test because here in Malawi we do not do aircraft testing.”
He suggested that Kambwiri should contact the DCA for guidance, “even if it means linking him with other organisations outside the country.”
Kambwiri is optimistic that his helicopter is going to fly and his family is going to fly in an improved version of the same.
More importantly, he believes he is going to become a manufacturer of helicopters locally!!