To locals in a rural area of the Thodupuzha district in Kerala, Saji Thomas' desire to build a lightweight aircraft all by himself had seemed like a wild one, especially for a school dropout. The facts that Thomas is deaf-mute and his family had economic constraints further convinced neighbours and relatives to discourage him.
Perhaps it helped that he could not hear them. April last year marked the successful testing of Saji X-Air, a two-seater ultra-light aircraft he assembled in his backyard for roughly Rs 14 lakh, as against the market price of about Rs 25 lakh for a similar aircraft. Since then, those who mocked him have been silenced, the 44-year-old signals with a smile.
The journey until then was slow and laborious, prolonged by day jobs and financial shortages. It took him five years starting in 2009 to construct the aircraft. He kept costs low by using recycled materials and cheaper alternatives.
For instance, he carved propellers out of locally-sourced mahogany instead of metal. Layers of polish give the wooden blades greater speed, he notes. The shock absorbers come from a scooter. During the test flight in Tamil Nadu, his machine flew effectively but stayed below the 20 feet mark, as it is yet to get a licence from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
Thomas' schooling was discontinued because the family found it hard to afford special education. He was in his teens when he first saw an ultra-light aircraft, flying over his village to spray pesticides on rubber plantations. That early vision led him to collect old books from an aviation museum in Delhi and make a runaway trip to Mumbai to meet a pilot he had befriended in Kerala.
Before these aerial experiments, Thomas worked as a television repair man. He also took up photography assignments for weddings and local events.
Canvas and precisely engineered materials for his X-Air had to be sourced from the United States. The engine he picked up from Bengaluru. As early as the 1990s, he had created a skeletal model of an aircraft. The one he built next used spare parts from motorcycles, but could not fly. A third design was not completed for lack of money.
His technical understanding grew while working at a local engineering college, assembling and repairing old aircraft used for research there. In 2008, he met SKJ Nair who vetted his design and arranged for its maiden flight at his flying school. According to Nair, Thomas' instrument panel and its arrangement is superior to what one finds in the Rajahamsa X Air, which inspired the Saji X-Air.
His physical impediments did not directly affect the aircraft dream but Thomas does need assistance to check if the engine sounded right. That is usually when Mariya, his wife of 15 years, steps in.
His recent achievements have turned him into a local hero. Thattakuzha village is now known because of him, says Mariya, beaming. We meet in Mumbai, where he was interviewed for a film by a documentary channel.
Support for his expensive pursuit appears to be coming from some who appreciate his determination. His son Joshua expertly handles a laptop that was gifted by an Indian American recently. Before that, all research and correspondence was managed through a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone.
Thomas is now looking to get his aircraft licensed and work with an aircraft firm to sharpen his skills. Until that job comes along, he will likely continue his resourceful experiments, under shamianas supported by banana trees.