Ethiopia is becoming known for its signature airline which just announced its 63rd worldwide destination. Richard Pankhurst writes that even though airplanes took a long time to arrive here a monoplane assembled in the country named Tsehai after Haile Selassie’s daughter was one of the first planes assembled in Africa.
The aeroplane was slow to make an appearance in Ethiopia, reportedly because Empress Zawditu and the Minister of War, Fitawrari Habte Giyorgis, were both conservative and opposed to the winged innovation.
The Ethiopian Government, reacting to Italian Fascist plans of conquest, decided, however, in 1929 to purchase a limited amount of aircraft. An order for two planes was despatched that year to a German firm, but delivery was delayed, it is said, by the French authorities in Jibuti, so that French aircraft could arrive in Ethiopia first.
The arrival in Addis Ababa of the very first aeroplane, a French twin-engined Potez piloted from Jibuti by the French aviator, André Maillet, was recalled many years later by an old Austrian friend, Alfred Abel. In a communication to the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, for July 1972 he wrote:
“It was on Sunday, 18 August 1929 that the first aeroplane landed in the capital of Ethiopia… At almost the same time as the French plane was being unloaded [at Jibuti] from the SS Porthos a steamer of the Norddeutscher Lloyd carried into the port a Junckers ordered from Germany…
“Naturally each crew was competing for the glory of being the first to fly into Ethiopia and tremendous efforts were made on both sides to achieve this. In the end it was the French who won the day. This was not surprising as the Port and other authorities did their utmost to assist their own nationals, and as the Germans alleged – with some truth probably, all sorts of difficulties were put in their way…”
And Abel continues:
“There was, of course, tremendous excitement in town when the day and approximate hour of arrival [of the aeroplane] became known a few days before the flight. From early in the morning on that historic Sunday, an endless procession made its way to the improvised air-strip, on foot, horse and mule, and also in cars, although there were very few in circulation in those days. Fortunately the weather was fair and the sky cloudless despite the rainy season – and the pilot must have felt immensely relieved during the last stage of the flight with visibility perfect…
“A large tent had been prepared for the Prince Regent [i.e. Negus Tafari Mekonnen], the Diplomatic Corps and other distinguished guests. The Prince remained in front of the tent scanning the sky with his binoculars, while making conversation with the French Minister, Monsieur de Reffye, who had appeared with the entire Legation staff and looked very important, though slightly nervous…”
“There were a few moments of anxious suspense when a telegraph message was brought to the Regent shortly after 10 o’clock advising that the aeroplane had been obliged to make a forced landing, having run out of petrol. However the engine was rapidly refilled…
“It was exactly 35 minutes after 10 o’clock when the plane first became visible against the south-eastern sky linsky-line, looking not much larger than a bird, but increasing in size as it quickly approached the air-strip.
“An indescribable enthusiasm seized the crowd when they sighted the plane and realised that it was not just a bird, but the real thing. Amid the jubilant shouting and frantic hand-clapping the Police and Guards were hard pressed to prevent the seething crowd from rushing on to the roped-off area [reserved for the plane]. An enormous flag was waved all the time to show the exact spot to land.
‘The plane came down, landing in perfect style, and taxied towards the tent; the engine stopped, the door was flung open and out jumped the crew (the pilot and his mechanic) looking rather tired, but proud and smiling happily.
‘’Again the guards had great difficulty in clearing the way for them to reach the tent, where they were graciously welcomed by the Prince Regent and congratulated on what in those days was, quite rightly, considered a remarkable performance. Champagne was served…
”Thus ended, most successfully, the first day in the history of flying in Ethiopia.”
Ethiopian aviation in those far off days was at first largely foreign-run. The Air Force was thus successively commanded by the afore-mentioned André Maillet and his compatriot Paul Corriger, while most of the mechanics and instructors were likewise French. The staff nevertheless also included several Germans, as well as an Armenian and a Romanian. Training was carried out at Dire Dawa and Jigjiga, as well as in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopianization in the years immediately prior to the Fascist invasion nevertheless made good progress. The chief pilot at this time was Micha Babicheff, who was half-Ethiopian and half-Russian. He was assisted by three Ethiopian pilots: Baru Kaba, who had studied in France, Tesfaye Michael, in Egypt and France, and Asfaw Ali in Dire Dawa.
An Addis Ababa airport was duly established on the Addis Ababa – Addis Alem road, a few kilometres from the capital, but was soon moved to a more convenient site at Jan Hoy Meda, an open field just north of the Menilek Palace, or east of the later Palace of Haile Selassie (now Addis Ababa University’s main campus).
The Ethiopian Government meanwhile attempted to purchase more planes, with the result that the country by the time of the invasion possessed thirteen aircraft – of which however, only eight were reportedly air-worthy.
The result of this shortage of planes was that when it came to fighting the invaders had complete control of the air, which they used for heavy bombing, as well as for the dropping of poison gas.
The most interesting of Ethiopia’s pre-war aircraft was a small 7-.37 metre long re-designed Junkers monoplane assembled in the country. Called Tsehai after Emperor Haile Selassie’s daughter of that name, as well as “Ethiopia I”, it was one of the first, if not actually the first aeroplane, to be produced in Africa. It was designed by a German pilot, Herr Ludwig Weber, who supervised its construction and flew it for an estimated thirty hours towards the end of 1935 and the first months of 1936. He left AddisAbaba, however, on 3 May of that year immediately prior to the Italian occupation of the Ethiopian capital.
This remarkable plane was specially designed for high altitude flight. It was reportedly able to climb a thousand metres from 2,500 to 3,500 metres above sea level in only seven minutes, and could come to a halt in 100 metres without any use of brakes.
This flying machine, which came to be known at “the plane of the Negus”, or King, and was reportedly registered in the name of the latter’s family, was taken to Italy as a “Booty of War”. Originally painted in silver-grey it became the property of the Italian Museo dell’Accademia Aeronautica, at Caserta, in southern Italy, where it was for some obscure reason re-painted in red, with vertical stripes in the Ethiopian national colours, green, yellow and red. The plane was then transferred to the main Museo Storico, where Ethiopian visitors were allegedly discouraged from asking questions about their country’s old aeroplane.
When Addis Ababa’s new airport was planned the architect proposed that the old “aeroplane of the Negus” should be hung in the main reception hall, to symbolise the country’s age-old desire for modernisation. Though an historic machine which should have been returned – like the Aksum Obelisk – in accordance with Article 37 of the Italian Peace Treaty with the United Nations, concluded in 1947, repatriation has thus far been denied. Ethiopia remains deprived of this part of her historic heritage.
For the subsequent history of Ethiopian aviation, the successful story of Ethiopian Airlines, readers are referred to the important monograph of Professor Bahru Zewde, Bringing Africa Together, published by Ethiopian Airlines in 1988.