A group of 20 South African teens has built a Sling-4 airplane and six of them are flying the plane on a 10,000 -kilometre trip to Cairo and back while making stops in nine countries along the way.
What does a group of six South African teens have in common? A lot, you might think. But in none of those thoughts would it readily come to mind that they could be flying solo from Cape Town to Cairo on an aircraft put together piece by piece with their very own hands.
No, this is not something off of a Hollywood film, it is really happening. And as a matter of fact, that aircraft has already successfully made its first stop in the Southern coastal town of Luderitz in Namibia as part of an itinerary that would also see it touch down on Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia, all the way to Egypt. And then take a whole different route on the return trip with several other stops scheduled.
How did this come about? Well, it took three weeks of work from twenty talented teens whittled down from an initial list of over a thousand students. And it looks like it was all worth it in the end — the 12,000-kilometre haul from South Africa to Egypt which is expected to take six weeks is well and truly in their sights. It took some doing, though, but the youngsters really did step up to the plate.
It all began in 2018 when a 16-year-old Megan Werner thought up U-Dream Global and positioned it as a non-profit organisation and aviation outreach initiative which would foster the aspirations of young people and encourage them to embrace innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship as vital ingredients for the development and transformation of the African continent.
Megan, who is the daughter of a licensed commercial pilot, has always had a fondness for flying and once she had set up the non-profit, she brainstormed about the most audacious way to make a statement and create awareness about her platform. And that was when the idea of building an aircraft and actually flying it hit her.
As she couldn’t possibly get it done all by herself, it became even more of an appealing prospect for kids her age to join her on the project. Thus, work began. First, there was a need to put a team together and once word got out across high schools in South Africa, the reception from students was overwhelming — basically, every school kid wanted to be part of the team.
They signed up in their thousands but knowing that “too many cooks can spoil the broth”, twenty teen students from diverse backgrounds were selected to work on the assignment. And so, the project kicked off in earnest.
It takes around 3,000 man-hours to assemble a basic Sling-4 plane but with 20 committed kids bringing 40 eager hands on deck, the whole thing was wrapped up in all of three weeks. This was not without some guidance and supervision, though. And those came from the Airplane Factory, a group of U-Dream Global mentors, and five team leaders from Denzel Aviation.
The teenagers built the Sling-4 plane from a kit manufactured in South Africa by the Airplane Factory. The kit came with thousands of small parts that had to be put together. The engine and avionics were fitted by specialists, but the building was all done by the kids.
And now, six of those teens who have also been able to ace it at flight school and obtain flying licenses of their own will be sharing flying duties as they pilot the plane from South Africa to Egypt and back. Having already proved their mettle on an initial test flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, they have recently gone one better by taking on international airspace and bringing the plane to a smooth landing on the tarmac of the airport at Luderitz.
Megan Werner, now 17, says the purpose of the initiative is “to show Africa that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.” It is in view of this that the aircraft, which has a flying range of six-and-a-half hours, has been scheduled to make stop-overs in nine countries in an effort to also inspire the youth in those countries and highlight the viability of the aviation industry for younger generations.
“Looking at the plane, I am so proud of myself. I can’t believe what we’ve done. I feel like this is my baby. I cherish her,” an excited Agnes Keamogetswe Seemela, who is a 15-year-old from Munsiville in Gauteng province, tells the BBC. “I was involved in putting together the centre fuselage, as well as the horizontal and vertical stabilisers. I also helped a bit with the wings.”
“It flies so smoothly and the views were breathtaking,” she said of its maiden voyage, from Johannesburg to Cape Town, ahead of the official start of the trip.
She added; “At first, people in my community were shocked – they didn’t believe me when I told them I helped build a plane which we will be flying from Cape Town to Cairo. But now they’re actually very proud of me.”
And they should be. The little girl from Gauteng, together with Megan and four others, have managed to obtain pilot’s licenses in spite of their stiff academic commitments, and history is well and truly being made as the teens touch the skies in their self-assembled, silver-coloured aircraft, proudly emblazoned with the map of Africa.
“Getting a pilot’s license is equivalent to completing a degree – doing so when I had to study for my mid-year school exams wasn’t easy,” says Megan, who at the time had her school-leaving exams in October to revise for, alongside her flight preparations.
“It’s just awesome to see how inspired people are by what we’ve done,” added Megan. “It gave me goosebumps.”
As per their flight plans, the return journey should see them make stops in Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, and Botswana as they take on a different route.
To keep minds at ease even as the aircraft has already passed safety checks by top aeronautical engineers, a second Sling-4 plane manned by professional pilots will be flying close by and keeping an eye on the teen flyers. As a plus, the support pilots will also get to speak to other teenagers during the course of the trip. These teens may be a long way from home but they are right where they should be.