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Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Sky’s the limit: The teens who built a plane and flew it across Africa

Ghada Abdel-Kader, Monday 15 Jul 2019
The assembled Sling 4 aircraft
The assembled Sling 4 aircraft
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A group of 20 South African teenagers from diverse backgrounds who knew nothing about aviation assembled an entire airplane by themselves.

The airplane model was a four-seater Sling 4. It was a light aluminium sport aircraft manufactured by the South African Aircraft Company.

The brilliant teenagers made the plane airworthy in only 10 days, and it has already made its first trip across the African continent, from Cape Town to Cairo. It took 3,000 man hours to complete construction of the plane, including the engine, avionics system, propellers and fuel system. 

Seventeen-year-old pilot and project leader Megan Werner wanted to use the project to send a message to people who have had disadvantages in their lives.

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Megan Werner, second from left, and her family members during their visit to the pyramids

"Your past does not equal your future," she says. "No matter what has happened in your past, instead of using it as an excuse, use it as motivation to get where you really want to be.”

Pilot Hendrik Coebzer, 18, drew up much the technical planning for the flight.

“We were very amazed and excited that project has been finished,” Coebzer said.

Safety pilot Adriaan Van der Heever, 18, smiled and said, “It was a fantastic and great feeling get to Cairo, but it is also sad to be concluding the project.”

Van Der Heever ensured that all the decision made was the right decisions. Van Der Heever said, “It was physical challenge to us and to the plane as well to test our limits and plane too.”

“All of us had flown before in many countries for short distances, but this was first time for us to fly these long distances,” Coebzer added.

During the flight, the crew landed in eight countries.

Werner, Van Der Heever and Coebzer took off from Cape Town to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania (Zanzibar), (Kilimanjaro) Uganda (Entebbe), Ethiopia (Addis Ababa) and Egypt. They arrived Egypt last Monday and will leave on Monday 15 July. Their return trip will be from Egypt to Cape Town again.

At the age of 13, Werner wrote her first book, titled 'It's up to me: 7 ways to make a difference.' The book has been translated into Russian and has become a bestseller in Russia. She has also done a lot of inspirational speaking around the world.

Werner is also founder of her non-profit organisation U-Dream Global.

Werner was team leader and came up with the idea for the project.  

“I told my parents about my project. They supported me no matter what. They supported me a lot.” 

Megan comes from a family with a history in aviation, and has had much love for flying since she was a child. Her mother, Belinda Werner, is an aircraft engineering instructor and her father, Des Werner, is an airline pilot.

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A group photo of the South African teenagers who assembled the Sling 4

Belinda said, “Of course, I was so scared in the beginning. As a mom, you want to protect your children from harm. Let children make decisions but also teach them and give them skills.”

Belinda believes that every mother needs to prepare her children for life, teach them good principles and to respect others and they will do well in life.

After Werner suggested the project, her parents spoke to top people in aviation.

“We went to the airplane company and bought whole plane kits,” Werner said.

Belinda added, “We took a lot of precautions, we did extra trainings at unusual attitudes, and prepared for emergencies like engine fire.”

The selection of 20 teenagers was not easy task. They were looking for energy and enthusiasm in the kids, and the choices were made regardless of gender, race or religion. They continued to refine the process until they chose the top 20 from 200 teens.

“Each teen had to answer a question in one minute: Why do you want to be part of this project?” Werner said.

Before selecting the kids, “We informed them about the conditions of their work. They were going to work really hard and it was going to be tough, but they had the willingness to push through,” she said.

“We didn’t force them to do anything. They were self-motivated to do it. They just wanted to be part of the project,” Werner noted.

The teens did not work the entire time, however. They also had fun in between.

Werner said that the pilots underwent several tests in the flight simulator to measure their competence. They also faced panel of judges and were interviewed to make sure they were the right choice.

“In the end, six pilots were chosen.”

The aviation standards were very high. The plane was put through several checks and test flights.

“It was pretty challenging. We had to register as an amateur-built aircraft because it was built by teenagers,” Werner said.

“We had to wait a long time but we got permission to fly plane in the end.”

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Adriaan Van der Heever (L), Megan Werner (C) and Hendrik Coebzer (R) at Cairo Airport

In the beginning, the project was funded by Werner’s father. Afterwards, a group called Executive Jet helped them find many sponsors. In Egypt, an aviation services company helped them with ground landing.

“They took us around Egypt and showed us all the nice places. They were really been amazing with us,” Werner said.

“We are going to make a documentary about the trip we made and all its challenges. Maybe in the future we will do similar projects.”

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