You may have seen splendid videos of Seaplane taking off and landing in exotic locales like the United States. But have you seen many in Coastal India? Chances are slim. Now, what if we told you that a fully handcrafted microlight seaplane prototype recently completed a successful test flight in Coastal Karnataka? It’s hard to believe, but the man behind this miracle, Pushparaj Ameen, an Aeromodelling Instructor at ‘6 Karnataka Air Squadron’ recently got into the ‘India Book of Records for this feat backed by a team of 7.
If you’ve not already seen the impressive take-off and water landing of ‘Drithi’, the indigenous seaplane, here’s the viral video:
Pushparaj’s Instagram is splashed with photos and videos of model drones, airplanes, seaplane, and boats, but when SaltSnap’s CEO interviewed him, we discovered a humble personality with a very inspiring story to share. Read the full interview to understand what propelled Pushparaj’s team of 8 to complete this project. Don’t miss the photobook at the end with shots of the seaplane’s ‘end-to-end machinery-free construction process’.
Please introduce yourself, Pushparaj. Where are you from?
I am from Mulki, Hejamady Kodi. I completed my education at Vijaya College, Mulki. I returned to my native NadiKuduru at Mulki when my mother passed away in a boat crash.
You have achieved this incredible feat of creating a seaplane. What motivated you to undertake this challenging project?
When I was studying in the 6th grade, I saw NCC cadets at ‘Mangala stadium’ (sports ground in Mangalore city) fly a plane with a rope. Ever since I witnessed this scene, I was increasingly interested in creating a plane, or at least something that could take flight. I began searching for answers to my questions on how and why I could make a flying object. This aim or hobby if you can call it was born after this incident. This was followed by a long tryst with books and drawings.
One day, I chanced upon an advertisement in ‘Udayavani’ (local newspaper) about a book titled ‘Vichitra Vimanagalu’. The book was priced at a mere 40 rupees. I went ahead and purchased it to discover a ton of photographs of planes in it. One particular image of a yellow-colored plane called ‘Piper’ caught my eye.
On an impulsive whim, I replicated the image of the plane by scraping off the wood with knives and even on the ground. And then I immediately speed-posted my very first model wooden plane to the author or ‘Vichitra Vimanagalu’ (translation: Intriguing Airplanes).
This story is 15 years old but is one of the pivotal moments of my life. My package was well received by the author and a beautiful friendship blossomed between us. An Experimental Aerodynamic Engineer by profession at the National Aerospace Laboratory, he was blown away by my talent of replicating a mere photograph of an airplane into a real model, purely by hand. He introduced me to ENR (Eshwar Narayan Renuka), an airplane model company in Bengaluru, and helped me get inducted into the firm.
After a 2-year stint at ENR earning 3000 rupees as salary, I gained extensive knowledge about airplane making. I moved to Silvassa at Gujarat where I again worked on model airplanes. My career path next took me to Rajasthan and Dubai. After which I received information in 2010 regarding a model-making job at NCC, Mangalore which was an opportunity to work under the Indian Air Force. Naturally, I joined in.
What are the challenges that came your way in terms of material procurement, funding, and timeframe?
You need to understand that there was never a concrete plan to build a real, working seaplane. I have a lot of students especially in NCC with whom I expressed my desire to build an airplane during a passing conversation. My students immediately jumped at the idea and offered to help me in material procurement etc. So, in a way, they have been the spark that pushed me forward towards this goal. We decided on a simple, low-budget plan.
Initially, we completed a successful test flight of a model seaplane. Post which we started work on implementing the real-life version of the model seaplane. We brainstormed on the power requirements, wingspan calculations, etc. I have to admit that material procurement was a challenge.
We sourced good quality material from Bengaluru which used up most of the investment into this project. I have put in all my savings of 7-10 lakh rupees for procuring the right material.
On this note, I would like to highlight that we have several Aeronautical colleges and Aero Institutes in our country. But students don’t have many avenues for obtaining practical knowledge. Aeronautical certificates are earned but when it comes to model making, students don’t have the practical skillsets.
I chose skilled, interested students with practical know-how to assist me in this project. This project was largely self-taught where we doubled up on the mistakes and errors we came across during execution.
Your team is comprised of Engineering students. Do they belong to different institutions?
Yes, they all belong to different educational institutions. I laid out the project requirements before students interested in seeing this project through to completion. I offered them a ‘work-only-no pay’ job. It’s hard to believe but there are a lot of passionate students who are willing to work without pay on valuable opportunities.
Was the seaplane built ‘pre-lockdown’ or during the lockdown?
The project commenced in 2019 but the lockdown blocked the transportation of our engine from Gujarat. Obtaining the Engine of the Plane was crucial because mounting the system is not possible without it. The Engine took 4 months to be cleared from Gujarat and finally arrived, after which the project once again picked up the pace. I admit the pandemic and lockdowns did cause the project to stall but we managed to resume from where we’d left off each time.
Was Gujarat the source of the Engine Procurement?
The Engine arrived from Italy.
You must have spent quite a bit to procure the Engine from Italy?
INR 2 Lakh, 80,000 was spent purely for the purchase and transportation of the Engine.
Did you face any challenges concerning your family and friends?
Honestly speaking, we didn’t have much infrastructure, to begin with. We live in a remote island village. The electricity supply is meager where we live. We had no tools to work with. There is no means to purchase tools around. We relied on available cutting machines. This was the biggest challenge we faced. Tasks that would take 10 minutes with the use of tools took hours to complete due to their lack.
Did you come across naysayers within your Family?
I am still a bachelor. My family has witnessed me, building models, since I was little. As such, I did not come across naysayers within my family.
Please elaborate on the financial hurdles you faced.
I accrued a personal loan of 2.5 lakhs to complete this mission. But the hunger, determination, and stubbornness I had nurtured helped me sail through all the hurdles. Even with so many educational institutes around us, the lingering question of how and why building an airplane is impossible for the student community didn’t allow me to give up. I took it up as a challenge.
I wanted to prove that we didn’t need a big institute or a large experimental lab backing us to create a miracle.
There are specific tools to check the center of gravity for the seaplane. But you won’t believe that we duplicated their utility by placing an aluminum rod on a wall to measure the center of gravity. We proved that it’s possible to manufacture and create technology without advanced tools and facilities backing us. Sure, it’s complicated because the slightest discrepancy guarantees a crash. But if we are empowered with knowledge, we can pave the way forward by any means.
Have you received any Governmental or Local Support to motivate you?
Honestly speaking, we have not received any support. Although the State Government has already sanctioned 5 Lakh Rupees 3 months ago, we haven’t seen a dime of it yet. When we enquired about it, we were informed that there was currently a shortage of funds.
Were you afraid to fly on your first test flight?
I have made more than 2-3000 remote-controlled planes in my life in 18 years. I am aware of the behaviors. However, the truth is that those were all model planes, not real-life versions. The very first time I stepped on full throttle and made ‘Dhrithi’ run, the fear was real and present. The truth is that it was the very first time in my life that I was flying a seaplane. It was my baby and I badly wanted to fly it. But the fear of crash was present.
We haven’t used a single instrument to build the seaplane (they cost at least $200) which wasn’t feasible for us. On the morning of January 19, I applied full throttle and picked up maximum speed across the water. I could feel the lift and when I pulled the elevator back about 2 inches, it slowly rose, flew for nearly 10-15 meters long, and achieved a height of 5-6 feet after which I suddenly landed.
The next day, it was the time for retests and fixtures which spanned 6-7 hours. Post which we did a 7-minute-long circle-flight.
What was the max flying time achieved?
Max flying time recorded was 7 minutes. Although it’s a short span, achieving this for an experimental aircraft is surely a big achievement.
The Experimental Aircraft Association in the US has recognized me. My pilot friends are trying to get my plane featured in their magazine.
Circling back to naysayers, did you come across any in your friend’s circle?
Of course. A lot of my friends have said that I would die in this experiment. A few even asked me whether I had lost my mind. A lot of people were adamant about the impossibility of the task. Some people even went on to call our project downright fake. But there was no shaking my dream to fly.
If I should be honest, I’ve faced demotivation throughout the 18 years of my career. A few more months weren’t going to dull my determination.
Mangalore is surrounded by sea. But it’s surprising that there are still no seaplane manufacturing units here. What do you have to say about this?
We met a lot of Government representatives, MPs, and MLAs. We even put forward the proposal for a hangar, and space for a workshop. We requested tools. We pitched forward our resources, and our expertise, as well as our team of young, knowledgeable students.
Here I want to highlight the issue of increasing floods. Mangalore and its surrounding islands are at risk of being flooded. We are already working on a special boat to mitigate this problem. 95% of the construction is already complete. We need more time to complete this. Even without funds, we are moving forward with the project by taking more loans. It’s a special boat with only 5 inches skimming the water. The coast guard and government departments do not possess the boat needed to rescue drowning people. My mom passed away in a similar boat capsize incident. So, I feel deeply for this cause.
If the Coast Guard makes up its mind, they can replicate our boat as a simple, lightweight, low-budget solution. We can save lives in 10 minutes over the NDRF which will take 24 hours to do the same. Our coastal area is truly very neglected.
We cannot wait for the Army and Air Force for rescue efforts, every single time.
What is your plan regarding scaling up?
We are ready to settle even for a shed for workshops and research to cater to our students. You won’t believe that we currently have 8 plans that we are working on. These are all ‘world-record-ready and defence-ready plans. Our plans are not restricted to planes only. Advanced prototypes have already become successful.
Do you plan to approach Venture Capitalists?
I have approached MLAs but they simply ask us to wait.
No, I’m referring to Venture Capitalists.
I’m not aware of private funds. Sadly, we can make 100 planes, but we are not up for begging for funds. People in power are not ready to listen to us because they presume, we are only interested in asking for money and don’t even give us 10 minutes of their time. Recently, a wealthy businessman saw what we had to offer. Even after explaining in detail our efforts, he left with just his blessings to give us. I was heartbroken. I even asked for upfront help on my loan. It’s very disheartening to see that people ask me about my caste and give me later dates and times when the topic of fundraising is put forward.
We want to cover inspiring stories like yours which are often neglected.
I want to state confidently that all my students, team, and everyone with passion in this field have equal knowledge and expertise. Whether they are a man, woman, or belong to any caste or religion. Everyone is equally bestowed. Girls are equally competent. There is not a shred of difference between passionate learners.
We have formed Viyaddrony Research and Development Association, a Section 8 company for research purposes only.
Have you heard of crowdfunding?
Yes, we crowdsourced through Keto and received 72,000 rupees. It was spent for loan repayments.
Have you applied for a patent?
I believe that a patent is useful only once the product is launched.
You have limitless opportunities. You looked just like the Wright Brothers in your test flight video.
I will share all the photographs with you. You are sure to be blown away. All I want to say is, the possibilities are 100% present and limitless.
Your vision is unique and one that only you can fully fathom. Nobody else can emulate what you have achieved. It was a pleasure talking to you Pushparaj. SaltSnap extends its full support and wishes you all the best in all your endeavors.
One last question, should we mention your team? I believe they are your support system?
Are you kidding me?! My team is bigger than me. This has been 100% teamwork.
Thank you for your time, Pushparaj.
Thank you, keep in touch.
- Abhishek Kotian – Mechanical Engineer & a professional drone pilot.
- Shayani Rao – Mtech in Aeronautical Engineer.
- Vinaya U – Trainee Pilot.
- Utsav U – Aeronautical Engineer.
- Reshma Bangera – Master of Commerce.
- Vasuraj Ameen – yacht captain
- Ashwini Rao – Bachelor of Psychology.
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