Rural tinkerer builds the first airplane made in Afghanistan
Sabir Shah, Afghanistan's 'Wright brother,' constructed an airplane by himself.
Afghanistan’s rural Ghazni Province usually appears on the news radar only to herald a tragedy: Five Polish soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb days before Christmas. A group of armed men accused a widow and her daughter of adultery in November and stoned the pair before shooting them in front of their home.
In other words, it’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find a hobbyist aviator in his backyard building what he describes as the first airplane ever designed and constructed in Afghanistan.
Yet, over the past three years Ghazni-native Sabir Shah managed to fashion a one-man “microlight,” aircraft at his family home using instructions from the Internet and parts from the local market.
While impressive compared with a Wright Brothers’ creation, the plane is far from a marvel of modern aviation. But Mr. Shah hopes it’s enough to inspire government support or private investment in Afghan aviation.
So far though, aside from modest, but passing interest from a few government officials, he’s received little attention. Most Afghans, including his own family, have called him crazy and told him to get a regular job. Still, Shah remains determined to create a business building airplanes for Afghanistan.
“I believe that if you want something, you can get it,” he says.
Shah is an unlikely candidate to be Afghanistan’s aviation advocate. A high school graduate with no pilot training nor aeronautical engineering background, he’d never even traveled by airplane when he started building one.
For Afghans wishing to learn how to fly, the options are extremely limited. The country has a fledging air force, but there are no other practical opportunities for pilot training. The Ministry of Transportation and Aviation offers flight classes, but ministry officials admit that few students actually take the courses because Afghan airlines almost exclusively hire foreign pilots with better training and more experience.
After high school, Shah considered going on to college. Yet even though public universities are free, his family couldn’t afford losing the extra pair of hands.
Given his circumstances it’s easy to understand why people were skeptical when Shah announced his plans to build a microlight airplane after seeing one featured on a documentary and doing a bit of Internet research.
“I didn’t have money and there was no one to help me,” says Shah. “Everyone was saying, ‘Have you studied about airplanes? Do you know anything about airplanes?’ I would say, ‘I have got some recommendations from the Internet.’ Nobody believed I could build it.”
Undeterred, Shah continued his research and worked a series of odd jobs to save up money for parts and equipment. As he progressed, friends and family donated money. An uncle in Australia gave him a vital $2,000 donation and even Afghan Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili contributed $1,000 when he learned of the project.
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.
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.