Rural tinkerer builds the first airplane made in Afghanistan
Sabir Shah, Afghanistan's 'Wright brother,' constructed an airplane by himself.
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After three years, Shah had constructed a microlight airplane using a propeller he made himself, a small Toyota car engine, a homemade fiberglass body, a wing made of a metal frame and cloth, and some spare gauges he bought at the market for his instrument panel. The project cost Shah a total of $12,000, a small fortune here.Skip to next paragraph
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When it came time for his first test flight, the Afghan Ministry of Defense agreed to use a military helicopter to transport Shah and his plane to an airfield north of Kabul. The trip was the first time Shah had ever traveled by air. “I was frightened a little when I was looking down,” he says, recalling the trip.
Before Shah climbed into the pilot seat, a retired Afghan pilot who’d flown jets for the Soviets and now managed the airport gave him a few pointers. Otherwise, he was relying on manuals he’d collected on other microlight aircraft.
As his plane sped down the runway, his fear momentarily faded. The flight lasted less than a minute before he set it down on the runway again.
In a total of four takeoffs, his longest and last flight traveled about a quarter of a mile – nothing compared with professional tests, but 11 times farther than the original Wright Brothers’ flight. However, that final flight ended when he crash-landed just off the runway. Though he walked away from the crash, the plane was damaged beyond repair.
Considering that it’s been 64 years since a pilot first broke the sound barrier and 25 years since a plane circumnavigated the globe without stopping or refueling, Shah’s achievement may seem hardly worth mentioning. But his accomplishment is much less about the actual plane he built and more about his creativity and inventiveness in a country where innovation and ingenuity are in short supply after three decades of war.
“Innovation doesn’t mean anything in this country,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of parliament from Ghanzi, who has been a pilot since 1973 and is now starting his own airline. “We always look at the past and behind us instead of looking forward.... He’s a young man who must have used his own know-how to build his own airplane, which should be encouraged.”
Despite the challenges, Shah says he’ll keep working. If he can find a scholarship to study abroad he will, but he doesn’t know how to look for such an opportunity and doubts it will happen. For now, he hopes his initial success will attract investors as he endeavors to start his next project, an eight- to 10-seater airplane that he hopes can be used for domestic travel in Afghanistan.