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    Buganda made helicopter is ‘about to fly’
    Written by Moses Mugalu
    Wednesday, 10 August 2011 21:55

    Test flight: Ronald Kagugube starts the engine of the ‘Bugandan Helicopter’

    On a sunny mid-morning, Ronald Kagugube, one of the architects of the ‘Bugandan’ helicopter, emerges from his single-room house and assures us that it will soon have test flights.

    Bare-chested, Kagugube standing in front of the silver structure, declares, “this is real close, and very soon we’ll hit the skies.”

    It’s July 25 and I and a colleague, Samson Baranga, are in the middle of the slummy Lufuuka Zone in Namasuba from where three self-styled mechanics set factory to make Uganda’s first helicopter. Kagugube, 33, his colleagues Moses Ssentalo, 29, and James Ssendi, 34, don’t have any qualifications in aerodynamics.

    Actually, none of them completed formal education. Ssendi dropped out of school after senior six, while Kagugube and Ssentalo are both senior four drop-outs. But their dream to make a chopper has propelled them to buy and read many physics, mechanical engineering and aerodynamics books over the last eight years.

    “We have acquired knowledge from these books and enhanced our creativity to come up with this,” Kagugube explains, as he points at the structure.

    Squeezed in a narrow corridor between low-end residential houses, the dream chopper structure, measuring approximately 2.5 metres high, is held firmly on the ground by iron bars that act as its skids. A Nissan pick-up engine, fixed between the main rotorcraft and tail boom, runs the helicopter’s energy system.

    In the cockpit, there’s one seat, the start key component, accelerator, gear and lift-off levers. The accessories are either used car or motorcycle parts. The tail boom, which connects the rotorcraft to the tail rotor, is made of both motorcycle and car universal joints. The engine is also supported with a motorcycle diff and cement mixers’ chains.

    “We improvise by using cheap, available materials because we don’t have the capacity to get the ones used to make aircrafts,” says Ssendi.

    In fact, the area looks like a scrap yard, littered with all sorts of old metals parts. When asked why they use a simple pick-up engine instead of a jet engine, Kagugube explains: “Even Boeing gets engines from Rolls Royce, so we can also improvise.”

    Kagugube says that after 17 years of experimenting, their dream is within reach.

    “People should not take this for a joke; we’ve come a long way to get to this stage and there are many successes,” he says.

    From childhood fantasies of making toy helicopters, the trio has since 1992 made several practical experiments, some of which turned into near fatal accidents. For instance, their efforts in 2009 to fly turned disastrous when the engine burst into flames before take off and the fragments hit Ssentalo’s legs. He sustained severe injuries and was hospitalized for six months.

    But the accident simply inspired Ssentalo to further pursue his dream.

    “This is a correction of the errors from our past experiments,” he says.

    Kagugube recounts their first major breakthrough in 1998 when they exhibited a helicopter model at Masaka grounds. It had a rotor system but no tail boom so it couldn’t fly. Five years later, they teamed up with Katwe Youth Group to exhibit an improved version of the ‘pilot-less’ chopper at Lugogo. It had all the systems but no control mechanisms. Between 2004 and 2007, they switched from using electric to fuel power to run the helicopter’s systems.

    Ssentalo shows us the science books and a chart of their ‘Eight Laws’ that they widely consulted to achieve the breakthrough.The books include Basic Aerodynamics, Basic Helicopter Aero Fabrication, Mechanical Engineering &Craft Course No.500, Physics for Today & Tomorrow, Physics Made Simple, and Advanced Level Physics.

    Their guiding ‘Eight Laws’ include Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion, about acceleration and force; Albert Einstein’s law on conservation of energy; Daniel Bernoulli’s principle on upthrust, and the Newtonian law on gravity and Archimedes’ principle on fluids.

    Ssentalo acknowledges that ever since they started following science laws, they have had successes in as far as control mechanisms are concerned and the next [final] stage should be take-off.

    Death trap?
    With such rag-tag assembling, aviation experts in the country have dismissed the ‘Ugandan’ chopper as a death trap. But Kagugube and his colleagues beam with confidence that their project will succeed.

    “We only need some money to buy a better engine, rotor blades, communication gadgets, digitalized meters and safety equipment to minimize risks,” he said. It would require up to Shs 9m for the parts on the local market, he added.

    Kagugube, however, agrees that like any other scientific project, there’s always some risk. Both Ssentalo and Ssendi appeal for support, whether financial or moral, from willing partners including the government, to help them finish their project. Asked to quantify their efforts and resources spent on the project thus far, the trio says it is difficult because “each of us has been putting the little available for all these years.”

    Francis Babu, a flight captain, backs the trio’s efforts.

    “They should be given a chance and supported in what they are doing,” Babu said.

    Ssendi reveals that they were also inspired by the late Venancio Ssenoga, who used to host the ‘Science n’Ebifa Mubwengula’ show on Radio Uganda in the 1990s.
    Previously, there have been other Ugandans who have attempted to build aircrafts.

    Jaberi Katongole Ddungu, an engineer, led a group of other Ugandan scientists in the 1970s but their plans didn’t augur well with the then president Idi Amin, who thought they were making it for the Americans to topple him.

    Last December, The Observer reported that another Ugandan aerodynamics engineer, Chris Matovu Nsamba, was building an aircraft in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb.



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