In an open aircraft hangar in Mexico, Missouri, five Nigerian students are hard at work building an airplane.
Solomon Adio — wearing a pressed, white pilot’s uniform and a wide smile — stands back to watch. His eyes are filled with pride.
Adio has worked for years to make this moment possible. He has spent countless hours on long-distance phone calls and in meetings with government and business officials.
He did it all to ensure these five students could have the opportunity to build their own airplane. That is the first step toward his larger goal of expanding Nigeria’s aviation industry and creating jobs for the country’s unemployed pilots.
A pilot problem
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, saw the end of a five-year recession in 2018. For the first time in years, Nigeria’s economy is on the upswing. That extends to the aviation sector.
The industry’s gross domestic product grew by 10.2 percent in the first quarter of 2018, compared to about 1.5 percent in the first quarter of 2017. Despite this growth, the industry still is not big enough to support all of Nigeria’s pilots.
After spending fortunes to train as pilots and aircraft engineers, many of the country’s 544 licensed pilots and 913 engineers are jobless. Abednego Galadima, president of the National Association of Aircraft pilots and Engineers, estimates the number of unemployed pilots and aircraft engineers to be around 600.
A major reason for this is the inability of pilots to accumulate the requisite flying time. According to Adio, students need to fly 250 hours to graduate. But a pilot who hopes to fly commercial planes is required to have at least 1,000 hours. That cost falls to either the airline or the pilots themselves. Because it is so expensive and difficult to gain experience, airlines are far more inclined to hire foreign pilots.
This is the problem Adio wants to solve.
Rather than relying on the airlines for experience and jobs, Adio wants to make it easier for Nigerians to build and fly their own planes.
“I want students that graduate from my school to be able to go out and create their own businesses,” Adio said. “The aircraft they’re building can be adapted for all sorts of businesses, like tourism, agriculture, search and rescue, border patrol, all sorts of things.”
Building their own planes also allows pilots to accumulate enough hours of experience to fly for an airline.
“They could rent it out to other pilots as well,” Adio said.
After working in the U.S. for more than 35 years as a pilot and maintenance engineer, Adio decided to start a flight school in his native Nigeria. He created a curriculum at the International College of Aeronautics near the nation’s capital of Lagos, and he began enrolling students in his program.
The next step was finding the perfect airplane for students to build. It had to be small and easy to build, but also extremely durable and capable of flying long distances. Finding the right plane would be crucial to the long-term success of the program.
He eventually decided on the STOL CH-750 model produced by the Mexico, Missouri-based Zenith Aircraft Company, partly because of the company’s customer service.
“Every time we called, they were always there to answer questions,” Adio said. “They are very kind people.”
Zenith has been producing airplane kits since 1992. It was founded by aircraft designer Chris Heintz. His son, Sebastien, now owns the company.
“With our kits, we take that desire to build an airplane, and we make it possible,” Sebastien Heintz said. “It literally is just a big model.”
Zenith airplane kits can be shipped anywhere in the world, but Adio wanted to bring his students to the U.S. for stricter regulatory oversight, which he said the Nigerian aviation industry currently lacks.
“The government regulations do affect what we’re doing,” Adio said. “In Nigeria, there is no regulation for this kind of thing. They just don’t have it because no one has really done it before, so there’s no reason to regulate.”
The U.S., however, has an extensive framework of policies, regulations and certifications around building aircraft.
“In the U.S., you can get an air ordinance certificate for this kind of aircraft,” Adio said. “So the government told us, if we bring that back from the U.S., then they can work off that to create regulations and grant us a reciprocity certificate.”
‘This is a start’
Fausat Idowu, Michael Fakuade, Abdul-Hafeez Onisarotu, David Opateyibo and Aliyyah Adio, who range in age from their late teens to their mid 20s, arrived in Mexico in May and returned to Nigeria this fall.
Adio said he is already planning to bring another group of students. He hopes that his program and the students who complete it will inspire a change in how the country thinks about aviation.
“Already they are motivating other students to be a part of this program,” Adio said. “Our hope is, if they can learn how to build airplanes, hopefully Nigeria can start their own manufacturing industry. This is a start.”