Unlike the experimental aircraft assembled in other countries, this one built at a cost of Rs 7 lakh wasn’t a `kitplane’. Named `Drithi’ which stands for courage, the seaplane was true to her name. But for the Italian engine, the entire plane was made from scratch in a tarpaulin hangar rigged up on a coconut plantation in Nadikudru, in Udipi district. Drithi was `Atma Nirbhar’ to a fault. After its January 19 maiden successful flight, the seaplane did about ten successful flights, soared to about 50 feet over the river Shambhavi, before it ended up as an unreported casualty of cyclone Tauktae.
Nadikudru is a triangular-shaped river island, nestled in a crook along the Karnataka coastline, lying aft the Arabian sea and about 30 kms north west of Mangalore. Downstream its river Shambhavi tourist groups guided by instructors work their oars in rented kayaks chasing an adrenaline rush. But on a quiet winter morning on January 19, the river turned into a runway, while the fronds of palms along the river bank doubled as wind socks to indicate a light breeze.
Pushparaj Ameen, an aero-modeller, but now a full-time paddy farmer waded into the backwaters to find a spot to assemble the six components of his home-made sea plane. Tailing the 38-year old was his team, a motley group of eight, all in their twenties, all first-time plane makers. Made with aviation grade aluminum, extruded foam and epoxy resin coated fabric, the minimalist seaplane had a skeletal fuselage, two wings, two floats, an engine and stabilizers. Before each flight, the team carried the six components to assemble the plane in the river shallows.
In about 20 minutes, the team attached the floats and wings to the fuselage, which was mounted on front with a gasoline-fired `Simonini mini 2 evo’ , a made-in-Italy two-stroke single engine that generates 33 hp (Horsepower) at 8000 rpm (rotations per minute). The smallest of the cars run on about 100 hp engine, but the Simonini engine’s ponypower is enough to fly an ultralight aircraft, planes that weigh less than 115 kg. This one weighed 99 kg.
Ameen took boarded the plane, strapped into his seat, checked the only two controls the seaplane had, that is, rudder and elevator for basic movements. Unlike conventional aircraft, the Drithi’s wings had no ailerons__flaps along a wing’s trailing that afford differential lift to executive a turn. She also had no navigational instruments. No airspeed indicator, no altimeter, no direction gyro, no artificial horizon, nothing. It an aircraft was ever employed to showcase the word rudimentary, this was it.
“I am not a trained pilot. My heart was pounding fast,” said Ameen. Before this he had never piloted an aircraft. But he had decades of experience as an aero-modeller. His team stood by the river bank, eager spectators waiting for the first test flight. Ameen pushed the throttle, the engine spurred shattering the quiet of the morning and the seaplane sped forth, balancing on its floats. “In less than 20 seconds, Drithi had crossed 100 metres. By now, the aircraft was on full throttle, I could feel the lift on the wings,” he said. “Since I have experience flying remote control aircraft I know aircraft behaviour. With those concepts in mind, I manoevered,” he said.
Ever-so-slightly he pitched the plane’s nose up and the floats lifted off water as the aircraft soared, tentatively, like a fledgling on its maiden attempt to fly. Seeing it airborne, the team let out a roar of delight. “I had butterflies in my stomach. I thought the plane had climbed very high. I left the throttle, adjusted the rudder and elevator and landed. Our first flight must have touched 10 feet,” he said. The aircraft was airborne for about five seconds during its maiden flight.
In the next 16 weeks, the seaplane operated about 13 test flights and the aircraft soared to about 50 feet, keeping its track over the river, never to venture on land, said Ameen. And then, all of a sudden it was over. In May, cyclone Tauktae destroyed the aircraft and left it beyond repair. ” It would cost Rs 4 lakh to repair it, but I don’t want to. I have other plans,” said Ameen.
“My dream is also to meet PM Narendra Modi once,” Ameen said. He hoped his seaplane, as “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” airplane building project would make that happen. But the team heardly received any recognition. There are other disappointments too. “Karnataka government announcement a reward of Rs 5 lakh as token for achievement. The amount was sanctioned in February, but till today I haven’t received it. Now they tell they don’t have funds.
THE HURDLES AND VICTORIES
Aernoautical engineer Shayani Rao, from the team said: “You can see on youtube and other online resources that generally during the maiden flight there is always some problem, some damage. Some part or component that didn’t work as expected, a ring breakage here or a technical issue there. But our maiden flight was successful and so were the rest, which is not a mean feat because we designed, built and operated the plane without even the basic facilities.”
To begin with, the team had no workshop or hangar. “We built the plane in the backyard of his house, in a tarpaulin-roofed tent exposed to elements, rigged up among coconut palms,” she said. “Nadikudru is a coastal region, about half a kilometre from the Arabian sea. For five months the place gets torrential, tropical rain and the tarpaulin would often collapse,” she said. So keeping the aircraft components dry, especially the 35 m long fabric skinned wing was a tough task. Procuring raw materials during the pandemic was another hurdle.
Though Ameen had readied the design earlier, the fabrication began in November 2019. “Each and every material procurement has a story because it has come from different parts of India. For instance we sourced extruded foam from Bangalore. But we had to select from 50 different types of foam keeping in mind the design of the aircraft. The extruded foam available in the market was for purposes like insulation, the sellers had no idea about its use in aircraft building,” she said. Then there was the issue of tools and infrastructure. “For the first time in India an aircraft was designed and built to safely carry a person with no research to fall back on, no infrastructure, no help from government. We had Ameen’s vision of what the aircraft design would be like. But to execute it we had no sophisticated tools, we worked with screwdivers, cutters, the basic tools that a garage would have. When one talks about aircraft building in today’s times, one thinks of 3D printing technology, specialized tools,” she said.
Once the components were built, the team carried out basic testing. The fuselage was balanced along a fence to determine its centre of gravity, the top portion of the wing was pulled with force by one while the others held on the to the bottom to do the wing loading test, the floats were tested near the mangrove grooves. The team always assembled the aircraft on the river to ensure that the mangroves were left undamaged, Ameen said.
THE CHILDHOOD DREAM
For Ameen, the process began with realizing a childhood dream. “When I was in sixth standard , the NCC cadets had done a model aircraft flying show in Mangalore stadium. That is when I decided that one day I will build and fly an aircraft,” said Ameen. Then as a teenager he came across a book called “Vichitra Vimana” by K S Raman. It had information and specifications on different aircraft models. “That changed my mind and I was completely into aero modelling. I created a static model, a Piper Seneca made from local wood. I am from a rural area and I don’t have access to sophisticated tools or high level facilities. I sent it to Raman Sir. He was interested in it and he asked me to work in ENR model in Bangalore, an aeromodelling company,” he said. In 2010, Ameen was appointed on contract as an aeromodelling inspector in NCC sixth Karnataka air squadron in Mangalore. His meagre salary went from Rs 10,000 to upto Rs 18,000, he would supplement income by helping engineer students with their projects. Then he was laid off in 2019 and decided to take up his dream project.
THE TEAM AND THEIR DISAPPOINTMENT
Among the other members of the team were Abhishek Kotian, mechanical engineer and a professional drone pilot, Vinaya U, a trainee pilot, Utsav U, an aeronautical engineer, Reshma Bangera, a commerce post-graduate, Vasuraj Ameen, a yacht captain and Ashwini Rao, a psychology graduate. The whole effort didn’t receive the kind of attention it should have, the team feels.
Rao said: “The maiden flight of the aircraft was in January 2021, in the next five months there was no support from any government or recognition. In a single place like Mangalore every year, thousands of students earn their engineering degrees. But there are no job opportunities and no interest in the field, especially, for aeronautical engineering. Then they eventually join some software company, not because they are interested in the field, but because there was no option”. Because there was no facility to keep the aircraft components safe, it was damaged in the cyclone. “Financial help and support from the state and central government is very much needed in this field. We are asking for workshop, sophisticated tools, exposure and support,” she said.
Ameen wanted to provide youngsters with hands-on experience, practical knowledge on aircraft making. But the dream has come at a heavy cost. “Financially I am in dire straits. I invested the entire savings from my meagre earnings.” All that remains now are memories of flight and videos, pictures of the incredible plane making process along with a realisation that such experiments rarely receive backing from the government.