The man who built an aeroplane on his Mumbai rooftop

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Mumbai

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Amol Yadav's plane was displayed at an air show in Hyderabad in March last year

Seven years ago, Amol Yadav announced to his family and friends that he would build an aeroplane on the roof of a boxy apartment building in the teeming Indian city of Mumbai.

Incredulous friends and family members asked the young pilot how he planned to bring the plane down once it was complete.

"I really don't know," he told them.

Mr Yadav, who flies twin-engine turboprop planes for a living, is nothing if not obstinate.

The five-storey building, home to his 19-member joint family, didn't have a lift, so they lugged factory lathes, compressors, welding machines, and an imported 180kg (396lb) engine up the narrow stairwell to the roof.

Braving sticky summers and torrential monsoon rains, Mr Yadav and his motley crew - an automobile garage mechanic and an expert fabricator - worked under a tarp shed on the unkempt 111.5 sq m (1,200 sq ft) roof, less than half the size of a tennis court.

In February last year, his six-seater propeller plane was ready.

It is, according to Mr Yadav, the first such aircraft built at home in India.

The engine, he claims, is powerful enough to make the plane climb up to 3,920m (13,000ft); and the tank can hold enough fuel to cover a distance of 2,000km, cruising at 342km (185 nautical miles) an hour.

On the rooftop, however, the plane strained to fit in, its tail stretching over the parapet wall and protruding into the smoggy sky.

"Now we had to take the plane down from the top of the roof and show it to the people," Mr Yadav, 41, told me recently at his residence.

Image source, Courtesy: Amol Yadav
Image caption,
The single engine propeller plane strained to fit into the rooftop

The government was hosting a massive Make in India show - named after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ambitious initiative aimed at making the country a global manufacturing hub - in Mumbai.

When Mr Yadav sought permission from organisers to show his plane, they refused, saying there was no space available. His brothers scampered to the convention ground in Bandra in west Mumbai, and spotted some space where the plane could be displayed. They chatted up security-men, trying to impress on them the "importance of displaying a homemade aircraft".

"So we decided to dismantle the plane overnight, gatecrash the show and show it to the world," Mr Yadav says.

On a balmy evening, Mr Yadav and his family dismantled the plane.

They removed the engine, wings, tail and fuselage. Then they used an electric crane they had made on top of the roof to lift the parts and lower them to the road, where two trucks awaited. A heaving crowd of neighbours waited with bated breath.

At some point, the crane developed a snag and the nine-metre fuselage that was being lowered hung precariously in mid-air.

"I nearly had a heart attack. We thought the crane would collapse and the fuselage would fall on the street. And then, after a few minutes of suspense, the crane began working again, and all was well", says Mr Yadav.

The disembowelled aircraft was swiftly packed into the trucks. Around midnight they rumbled down the empty city streets, the fuselage towed by one of the vehicles, to the exhibition ground, some 25km away.

Image source, Courtesy: Amol Yadav
Image caption,
A car towed the plane for tests at an airfield in Maharashtra

There, the security men waved them in, and the crew assembled the plane in three hours as Mr Yadav and his technicians barked out orders.

When the show opened in a few hours, the interloper plane stood in a vacant space near a pavilion and began drawing a throng of curious onlookers.

A local newspaper and a news channel picked up the story. The throng turned into a flood of visitors taking selfies with the plane. India's aviation minister came visiting, as did senior officials and a bevy of businessmen.

And with that, Mr Yadav's plane became homeless as quickly as it became famous. The roof was no longer a viable option.

Indigenous plane

Over the next 15 months, the plane lay in crates in a neighbourhood temple, was taken to an air-show, and stood in a container truck outside the international airport in Mumbai. This May, it was moved into Mumbai airport itself, where it is parked next to a private Airbus belonging to a fugitive billionaire.

Mr Yadav says he's now ready to commercially build India's first indigenous planes. Investors have shown interest. The local BJP-led government has promised him 157 acres of land to set up a factory to make 19-seater aeroplanes.

India has only 450 commercial aircraft, and domestic air traffic is growing at a steady clip. Mr Yadav believes his factory, backed by investors and the government, could build small planes which would further boost regional air connectivity and provide jobs.

There's one major hitch, though, that stands in the way of Mr Yadav's dream of becoming India's first modern home-grown aviator.

Image source, Courtesy: Amol Yadav
Image caption,
The plane was dismantled on the roof and lowered down by crane

Despite requests from the local government and MPs, and pleas from Prime Minister Modi's office, India's airline regulator has been dithering for the last six years over registering the rooftop plane, and certifying it as airworthy.

"They keep on changing the rules to frustrate me," says Mr Yadav. On its part, the regulator says that civil aviation authorities need to "develop design standards for design and development of amateur-built aircraft".

'Made mistakes'

In many ways, Mr Yadav epitomises the spirit of survival of the city he lives in. "You duck and weave, grab opportunities, licit and illicit, to survive," author Gyan Prakash once eloquently wrote of Mumbai.

In 1998, Mr Yadav had bought a six-cylinder petrol engine belonging to a truck used by the Indian army for 10,000 rupees ($154; £115) and tried to make his first plane. But he abandoned it soon because he "made a lot of mistakes".

Next year, he picked up a second eight-cylinder petrol automobile engine and some 50 second-hand books on aviation from a flea market and bookshops, and read about how to make planes. He then built a shed on a construction site, and spent four years building a six-seater plane. He tested it on a road near his neighbourhood.

Image source, Anushree Fadnavis/Indus Images
Image caption,
The plane is now parked at the Mumbai international airport
Image source, Ansuhree Fadnavis/Indus Images
Image caption,
Mr Yadav is now back on the roof, working on a prototype for his next 19-seater plane

In 2004, he travelled to Delhi, and met a senior minister to help him register the plane.

"He's built a plane. Let him test it," the minister told an aviation official, at his home.

"But he will go up in the air and crash it, sir," the official said dismissively, as Mr Yadav remembers the meeting.

End of story. The plane lay at the construction site and thieves stripped it of its parts.

In five years he was back again, building a plane - his third - on his roof. Now's he returned to the roof which overlooks low-slung tenements and marshes, building the prototype of the 19-seater plane which will take him a year. He has spent about $800,000 of his own, and his family's money, and has sold properties and pawned family jewellery to fund his dream.

"In India, innovation by commoners like me is not taken seriously. You know, I think I would make aviation history in India, if they allow me to take the plane up."

Pictures by Anushree Fadnavis and sourced from the Yadav family