After flying half way around the world, five students from the International College of Aeronautics near Lagos, Nigeria, are in Mexico, Missouri, learning to build airplanes of their own.
Solomon Adio worked in the U.S. for more than 35 years as a pilot and maintenance engineer before he decided to start a flight school in his native Nigeria. He said that when he returned to open the school, he realized one critical problem: there were no airplanes.
Adio created a curriculum at the International College of Aeronautics (ICA) in Nigeria, based around building aircraft and began enrolling students in his program, Aircraft Building Engineering Technology. The program works in collaboration with Lagos State Polytechnic - Ikorodu. He said it took a long time for people to believe the students -- and civilians in general -- could actually build their own airplanes.
“The concept is, if you teach them how to build, they will fly what they build,” said Adio. “And once they fly what they build, then they can fix what they've flown.”
The program aims to teach aviation and maintenance skills while also creating employment opportunities for young people in Nigeria.
“We cannot continue to chase jobs that do not exist,” said Adio. “We have to create new job opportunities.”
Adio decided to purchase an airplane kit from Zenith Aircraft Company in Mexico for his students to build. Rather than attempt to put it together in Nigeria, though, he decided the best learning opportunity would be for the students to travel to the U.S.
Students were eligible to make the trip if they had completed the first two years of Adio’s program at the ICA. Five students -- David Opateyibo, Fausat Idowu, Aliyyah Adio, Michael Fakuade and Abdul-Hafeez Onisarotu -- made the trip with Adio. They will live in Mexico until September while they work at the factory to fully construct their own two-seater airplane. They will then ship the finished plane back to Nigeria and put it into use as both a training tool and a functional airplane.
“This is the first of its kind in the country and we're probably gonna be doing exhibition flights all over the country first, get more people interested in it,” Adio said. “Now (the students) can start to get orders from other people to build airplanes for them. It will be exciting, something everybody's looking forward to.”
Sebastien Heintz, owner and president of Zenith Aircraft Company in Mexico, said discussion with Adio about bringing students to town began several years ago. Originally only a workshop was discussed.
The workshop eventually grew into a four-month stay where the students would assemble their own plane using parts manufactured by Zenith Aircraft Company.
“I think it's a fantastic learning opportunity for them and they've been doing a great job here at our factory,” Heintz said. “They decided to come out here and learn as much as they possibly can while they're here about the tools and the skills and the processes involved in building their own airplane.”
Abdul-Hafeez Onisarotu, 20, grew up watching planes flying to and from the airport near his home in Nigeria. He still remembers watching the planes and thinking “I want to fly on day.”
Onisarotu recently graduated from the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a specialty in aircraft maintenance. He joined Adio and his team at Zenith Aircraft Company in May to put his skills to work.
“I can maintain them, I'm learning how to build them right now, then in the future I'll learn how to fly,” Onisarotu said.
Though he has been in the U.S. for two years now, he said he enjoys how different Mexico is from the the other towns he has visited. “Everyone knows each other,” Onisarotu said, “just like a small family.”
Aliyyah Adio, 18, chose to participate in the program after being inspired by her father, the director of the ICA in Nigeria. She said she particularly enjoys learning the mechanical side of aviation.
“I never knew what was inside of the airplane so I was very excited to know the different parts and using different tools,” Aliyyah Adio said.
She has enjoyed it so much, in fact, that she will be attending Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia, to study aviation science and management. Aliyyah Adio is also an avid dancer and knows exactly how she wants to combine the two activities in the future.
“I see myself flying in an airline and doing my dancing in between,” she said. “Just a dancer and a student pilot, that's all.”
Heintz is happy to have the students use Zenith Aircraft Company’s tools, airplane kit and physical space as their classroom and is eager to see how the partnership could continue.
“As a promoter of aviation, I love to work with folks like that because, again, I think the future of aviation will come a lot from outside the United States,” he said.
As for Solomon Adio, he said he is looking forward to providing more affordable options of aviation in Nigeria and hopefully aiding youth unemployment in the country.
“Nigeria has a population of over 180 million people,” he said. “If you can just get 10 percent of them to fly, that’s 18 million people to fly airplanes. There’s a future there.”
The group has a GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/aviationstudents to raise funds for their stay in Mexico and for the cost of shipping the completed airplane back to Nigeria.