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Faces of Africa – The 7 Day Airplane, Part 2

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Airplane Factory in Johannesburg South Africa is known for the design and production of Sling, a light aircraft. Its founders Mike Blyth and James Pitman pulled a team of ten people, five women, inexperienced in plane manufacturing and five men experienced employees of The Airplane Factory to build a plane in seven days, which they’ll fly to Europe in seven days.

It is day 4 on Tuesday and the team is ready for the task ahead. Having completed building the main parts, the fuselage, and the wings, the team starts to work on more detailed parts that require more concentration and utmost perfection. The fuel tanks are rechecked for any leaks.

The team that built Sling 5577 in 7 days

“Anyone of the rivets can leak so we gonna recheck every rivet. If it leaks it means we gonna un-rivet the whole thing,” tells Jean D’Assonville – Airplane Factory.

The wheels are placed on and the installation of the engine is carefully done. Any mistake could mean disaster.

“I’ve trusted my life to this engine on many occasions, flying around the world and if the engine stopped at any point that would have been me dead,” explains Mike Blyth, The Airplane Factory Director.

The team in their workshop attaching the wing to the Sling

One of the tasks ahead is making the canopy. Luckily Airplane Factory is one of the handful places in the world that are able to shape such a specialized canopy. This is because Jean is a specialist in that. “It will take me six hours to make the canopy,” says Jean.

It’s a critical stage of the build because if the essential parts like the canopy and the fuel tanks are not finished on schedule, then the bonding which takes a day or two will not be dry enough for the Sling to be ready before the deadline. Hence to compensate for lost time, some of the experienced members will work through the night.

Jean will work through part of the night gluing the canopy while Gareth will work through the whole night wiring the instrument panels into the Sling. Everyone is up to the speed that is required. The volunteers are doing a great job and James is very delighted. They understand what is needed for the parts they are building and this plays a key role in the progress of the project.

Gareth and Mike checking the panels

At the end of day 5, Wednesday, people are tired and looking forward to Thursday. This is because for the first time since the build started they’ll be seeing their family members who will join them for dinner at the airfield.

On day 6 things run smoothly from the morning. But a serious problem is spotted. The engine cannot run. Gareth is not happy and he admits defeat after several attempts. Everyone goes to sleep distressed that they wouldn’t meet the deadline. But Mike who is unable to sleep, wakes up at 2 am, trying to figure out what the issue could be.

Mike trying to restart the plane an hour before the deadline. The engine could not start and Mike was desperate to meet the seven-day deadline.

“I started thinking, have we ever had this problem before? I really wanted to desperately make the seven days. I’ve got an hour to go!” Mike tells desperately.

He frantically looks for the root cause and unbelievably, at the eleventh hour, five minutes to seven which is the deadline, the engine runs! He wakes everybody.

“I went home last night in total dejection. I told him we just gonna work on Sunday!” tells James, overjoyed.

“Mike and James should be very proud of this achievement. That they pulled a couple of people together, it never fell apart. They’ve got beautiful spirits and that drive and I really admire that in them,” says Nomfundo – volunteer.

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