Pakistani entrepreneur builds country’s first private aircraft

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Cross-posted and adapted from the original version published on on June 26, 2013.

“That, my friend, is the very first airplane made in Pakistan by a certified, private aircraft manufacturer,” Faisal Naveed Asif, CEO of Scaled Aviation Industries, proudly stated as he pointed in the direction of the aircraft hangar behind me.

As I turned around with anticipation and saw an all composite two seat, three propeller aircraft, gleaming in the sunlight coming in through the hangar vents, a feeling of pride overwhelmed me. It was immediately followed by profound respect for my host entrepreneur and his long and inspiring journey from a dream to reality parked right in front of me.

I first met Asif a few weeks ago on a judge’s panel at a business plan competition in a local university. Before the event, when Asif introduced himself as the CEO of the only private-sector, certified, aircraft manufacturer in the whole of Middle East and South Asia, I was immediately impressed and decided that I must tell this man’s story.

Asif is soft spoken and very down to earth but, underneath that modesty, he hides a brilliant mind trained by years of working with the Pakistani defense sector, particularly the Air Force, on top of his excellent academic credentials. When giving me an overview of some of the innovative aspects of his manufacturing process, his eyes lit up like those of a father telling the story of his own child’s achievement.

From dream to reality

Asif’s journey started back in 2001 when he announced to his family that he was going to quit his work in the defense sector and develop aircrafts in Pakistan. The initial reactions were not very encouraging; he recalls that one of his uncles quipped that he couldn’t produce a stable, four-legged chair in his furniture factory, let alone build an airplane. His friends even thought he had gone mad.

A burly fellow, Asif was coming downstairs the morning after telling his family his dream and one of his family members jokingly remarked, “Look, here comes the aircraft.” Then and there, he made up his mind to prove them wrong.

One of the first things Asif realized after embarking upon this journey was that the industry is littered with clearance requirements even before he could file for the formation of a company that manufactures aircrafts. The bureaucracy, red tape, security clearances, No Objection Certificates (NOCs), and the wild goose chase between departments and ministries did nothing to deter him.

With a will of steel, he persevered and managed to kick off his manufacturing operations in 2006. After about six years of bootstrapping with his own capital and some debt financing, Asif managed to produce his first test flight-ready aircraft in 2012. More importantly, his factory gained the capability of producing dozens of planes of varying capacities every year, making it a potentially viable business.

Each plane costs less than many high end cars on the road and is more fuel efficient than a standard four door sedan, says Asif.

Along the way, however, he had to make some compromises; two of the most sensitive parts of the aircraft – the engine and the instrument panel – could not be built in Pakistan because of very stringent laws, a lack of economically viable manufacturing facilities, and an absent partner ecosystem. He managed to import those parts only after getting clearance from the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to Pakistan signing on to the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act which provides annual non-military financial aid to Pakistan.

After completing another review after the government realized he could actually build an aircraft, Asif obtained the necessary permissions for his plane to start logging airtime. Although the whole experience of running from department to department has left him bitter, he always manages to sneak in a satisfactory smile when recalling the bureaucratic horror stories. He proudly tells the story of when he turned down an offer by a Gulf prince to come and build his factory in the Middle East. He was offered anything he could want along with state citizenship, but he refused and chose to realize his dream in Pakistan.

The day I met Asif, he had scheduled a flight for his aircraft and was waiting for his pilot buddy to arrive. When he did and readied the plane, I was offered a ride.

At first I hesitated, knowing full well that this plane was the first of its kind, and the very first off the factory floor. As a software engineer by training, I know that it’s normal to put software with known bugs into production in order to meet project constraints.

“What if this plane had bugs,” I asked myself? “What if it went up and never came down,” I thought. But then I was reminded of Asif’s meticulous planning, his entrepreneurial zeal and determination to build a first-class flying machine. I said yes.

As I flew over Lahore in Asif’s two-seat "Storm Rally" aircraft, the exhilarating feeling of flying in Pakistan’s first privately manufactured aircraft remained in the back of my mind and I couldn’t help but sit in awe of Asif’s spirit, feeling proud to be associated with him by virtue of being a fellow Pakistani.

Muffled among the much louder stories in the media about injustice, intolerance, terrorism, corruption, energy crises and the like, whispers like these of ingenuity, inventiveness and excellence sometimes come to the surface. A shy entrepreneur from Quetta dared to dream big and fought against all odds to build Pakistan’s very own, privately manufactured aircraft.

I flew in it, it’s real, and it was amazing.

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