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Tomiwa Olatunji sat in a classroom with about a dozen other students, all dressed like pilots in white shirts and navy blue trousers. At the back of the room, a plastic foam model aircraft stood on a table, finished with wirings and wooden parts.
The project was the first for Olatunji and four of his classmates who started at the International College of Aeronautics in Nigeria’s Lagos state in July. The group collaborated on the model’s drawing and construction and on sourcing for the materials around Lagos.
“They teach us to apply what we’re taught into a model plane or a real aircraft,” said Olatunji, who dreams of building and flying planes.
The college, which opened five years ago, is located inside a two-story building at the Lagos State Polytechnic school in Ikorodu. Aviation training in Nigeria is mostly limited to commercial piloting and to people who can either afford an expensive flight school or go abroad to study.
A U.S.-based Nigerian pilot started the two-year diploma program as a way of bridging the financial gap and bringing innovation to Nigerian aviation training—including by allowing students to help build a short-distance airplane.
In the flight operations classroom, seven students sat in a circle as they listened to a licensed commercial pilot teach about cross-country flight planning. Other departments in the college include aircraft management and engineering, aviation management operations, and robotics.
The college has partnered with three U.S. aviation schools, which recognize its diploma. Partnerships with Lagos State Polytechnic and the Nigeria-based airline Aero Contractors allow the college access to their facilities.
Students who complete the program can either continue in specialized aircraft-building or flight attendant programs, or go on with their certificates to a partner institution in the United States to complete bachelor’s degrees or obtain other licenses.
Bukola Adenowo, a second-year student in the aircraft management department, decided to attend the college as an alternative to studying in the United States. She says many people react skeptically when they first hear of the college: “Most people say it’s not possible, not authentic, it’s probably a scam.”
In contrast to other aviation schools in Nigeria that cost as much as $41,000 annually, the International College of Aeronautics charges a $413 fee, currently subsidized to $235. Joshua Ajibode, one of the commercially licensed pilots who leads the flight operations department, noted that piloting students need a minimum of about 250 flying hours to gain their license, but need 1,500 hours to qualify for a job with a commercial airline.
That gap has left more than 300 Nigerian pilots unemployed, despite a high demand for their services in the country. “There’s nowhere to build experience,” noted Solomon Adio, the college’s founder. “It’s one of the problems we have, and that’s why many jobs are taken by expatriates.”
For Adio, part of the solution is to build Nigerian aircraft. Nigeria imports its planes, and most of them are expensive to fly. In September, five of the college’s students who traveled to Missouri along with Adio completed building their first short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft at a U.S. partner, Zenith Aircraft Co.
Adio said the long-term goal is to build a fleet of Nigerian aircraft at the college. “It will make it cheaper to fly and affordable for the students.”
He also expects the aircraft will allow students to branch into private aviation, which he says will create more jobs. The college is already in discussions with potential aircraft buyers, including government agencies, emergency services, and police.
Students would also be allowed to use the aircraft their class builds to launch business enterprises. “It’s very innovative because we’re not just training students to get certificates. We’re training them to be self-employed.”
The college has extended its innovation to the robotics department. In 2017, Lagos state Gov. Akinwunmi Ambode said the government would fund a locally built drone production program run by the college and State Polytechnic for aerial security surveillance.
Despite the growing interest, the college has had its challenges. Peter Ezediuno, an administrative staffer who also passed through the program, said many people have no knowledge of aviation besides commercial piloting and flight attendance. The college opted to appear on radio programs and distribute flyers, and the students also tell their friends about the school.
Since the college is building its own aircraft, it’s also working through understanding the certification procedure in Nigeria. The college is already working with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, but the aircraft will likely get certified first in the United States. “The reason is there’s no regulation [in Nigeria] to guide what we’re doing,” Adio said.
The school has inspired people like Oluwatimilehin Apolola, a second-year student in the flight operations department. Apolola already completed a degree in communications technology and worked in a Nigerian bank before pursuing his longtime aviation dream.
He plans to go to Spartan College, a U.S. partner school, to receive his flying license before returning to Nigeria to work. “The knowledge I’ll get over there in the States, I’m going to bring it back here to Nigeria … and if it’s possible, let them introduce [aviation] into the curriculum from high schools.”