On Araya Maru’s (Col.) first ever flight, to the United States, by way of Frankfurt, for military training, the captain in charge of the aeroplane had a distinctive face he would later come to remember, long before the two would become life-long friends. It was the early 1960s, and the captain was Alemayehu Abebe, who passed away over two weeks ago on January 4, 2018, after a brief stint at a hospital.
Indeed, most paid attention to him, mostly for he was a person of colour in charge of flying an aeroplane, as he describes in his autobiography, Hiywete Be’Midir Ena Bayir, roughly translated to “My Life on Land and in Air”.
That same year, Araya took note of the pilot, Emperor Haile Selassie I had hosted over two-thirds of the continent’s nations for the Organisation of the African Union (OAU), later African Union (AU). It was hoped that the organisation would, amongst other things, encourage the independence campaigns of nations under the European colonial rules such as South Africa or Mozambique.
“Boarding an aeroplane to be flown by a black pilot engendered alarm not only on outsiders but our fellow citizens too,” wrote Alemayehu in his book, which was published in the mid-2000s, of the expectations Africans were afforded, even by themselves.
For the future pilot though, those dreams of flying an aeroplane date further back, when growing up in Chercher, formerly a part of what was the Hararghe province. Humanmade flights, by the Wright brothers, in 1903 would predate his birth by 21 years, but Alemayehu would slowly catch up.
He attended primary school at Ras Mekonenn School in Harer, and continued his secondary studies at a Catholic missionary school. An uncertain time for the world, and Ethiopia, the 1930s meant a time of extreme nationalism for Europe and Italian occupation for the East African nation. Ethiopia would be invaded and annexed, at which point, Alemayehu was forced to quit his studies and instead work at a post office until Italy was defeated in 1941.
After the war, Alemayehu moved to Addis Abeba, enrolled at a school called Kotebe and got the opportunity to study aviation. The first flight in Ethiopia had been made a while back, with the first ever aeroplane having landed in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, in 1929, and flown by a French pilot.
The first Ethiopian pilots had been the likes of Mishka Babitchef and Asfaw Ali, who would make their first solo flights about 16 years before Alemayehu would make his. The late pilot trained in aviation with Swedish instructors. Alemayehu later travelled to Sweden to train for one more year, and transfer within a year of his return to Ethiopian Airlines from the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force, the former founded by Mishika.
Back then, the flagship carrier, originally Ethiopian Air Lines (EAL), relied on Western management. In fact, the Airline, formed as a joint venture with Transcontinental Air Transport and Western Air Express, later to merge into Trans World Airlines (TWA), had non-nationals in senior staff positions. He ascribes most of the challenges to join Ethiopia’s then-infant aviation industry to overcoming cultural stereotypes, that locals should not fly, in his autobiography.
State of affairs would change very soon though. As the realisation sunk in that a quarter of the staff are non-nationals, most of them in management positions, the Ethiopian government struck a new deal with TWA that would gradually reduce the number of expatriates from 1953 onwards.
It was four years after that Alemayehu finally got his break. He became the first commercial aircraft commander, making his solo flight on the DC-3/C-47 aircraft. Another milestone came in around 1963, when he became the first captain of the newly arrived Boeing 720B’s.
A bigger milestone will come in the mid-1970s, becoming the first African to command a Boeing 707 Jet, after serving in various positions at the Airline.
“The first Black African commercial Aircraft Captain . . . has been an inspiration to many and remains an icon in Ethiopian Airlines History,“ reads the airline’s statement on Facebook, posted on the day of the pilot’s funeral at Petros Wo Pawlos church. “His legacy lives on for generations to come,“ the airline that celebrated its 70th anniversary added.
Family and friends attended the funeral, including one of Alemayehu’s pupils, and later boss at the Airline, Semret Medhane (Col.), the first Ethiopian general manager of ET. And despite reports that the funeral did not get the attention it deserved, such as a funeral procession, his daughter felt the honour he received was entirely satisfactory.
“He was surrounded by family and friends both when he passed away and at the funeral,” said Birhan Alemayehu, one of his eight children, who describes him as hard-working, amongst other traits.
For Araya, who offen refers to the late pilot as a family member, Alemayehu was more patriotic than anything else.
“On his deathbed, he kept repeating for there to be love and peace in the country,” Araya, who was with him during the four-day hospital stay of Alemayehu, at Sante Medical Centre, who was suffering from kidney problems.
The pilot was shy of a month to his 94th birthday and had retired for over three decades when he died. He left Ethiopian in the early 1980s and served in advisory and instructor roles in Uganda and Yemen afterwards. The year 1987 was Alemayehu’s last bout with aviation, concluding a career that spanned four decades – about as long as the first half of the Ethiopian aviation industry’s being.