While Ethiopian Airlines started commercial operation in 1946 with American aircrews, the first four Ethiopian pilots began their training with the airline on May 23, 1951. The trainee pilots who had no previous exposure to mechanical vehicles showed outstanding performance, though trained on the metal SAAB Safir, considered too complex for basic training. Alemayehu Abebe was one of them who subsequently became the first Ethiopian captain in 1957, making his solo flight on DC-3/c-47 aircraft when he was 32 years old. At a time when both the management and flights operations were dominated by Americans, who most of them felt the locals had no business flying, Alemayehu’s hard work and determination paid off, making him not only the first Ethiopian pilot, but also the first black African. He added another aviation milestone to his career when he became the first African to fly the Atlantic solo in 1962, with Boeing 720Bs that the airlines just acquired.
As he recounted it in his memoir, “Hiwote Bemidir Na Bayer” (My Life on Land and Air) which came out in 2005, Alemayehu said he and the other prospective pilots had to overcome insurmountable odds and barriers of prejudice from the American management,that he said was unwelcoming and holding them back. “The Americans management resisted to the idea of allowing locals to fly, relegating us to support positions. We presented our plight to the Airline’s board, but there was no solution. We were told that all technical issues were the American’s jurisdiction, and it was not possible to challenge it. Since the Americans were well aware of this, they made it an instrument of threat. They had also argued since most of the passengers were foreigners, they said they had no faith in black pilots and mechanics, a point of view unfortunately was also subscribed by our own officials,” he wrote.
“I understood early that the solution was not to fall into accusation and blame, but rather to excel in aviation field and to demonstrate a comparable intellectual and technical expertise to them,” he said. “I had graduated first in my class in the training mission. All of the captains I flew with confirmed that I did excellent job and was qualified to sit for an exam to earn the licence. But the bosses were not happy about the thought of me and other Ethiopians being captain. They came up with lame excuses such as saying our technical abilities were not yet developed and we had not yet won the passenger’s trust,”
In the face of such challenges, Alemayehu quietly developed survival strategy to achieve even more in the field of aviation. “It became more and more clear that I needed to develop not only technical skill but also emotional strength, moral capacities, patience and integrity to transform my dream into reality. One of the things they did was to put me in ling trainer school for the second time. Even though I proved my capacity flying through dark night and bad weather, I was again made to study at TWA technical school in the United States with beginners.”
Perseverance was one of his pillars, and it eventually led to becoming the first Ethiopian captain and came to service the airlines for thirty years. “After becoming a pilot, I did not encounter any problem except shock and fear from passengers because the pilot was not white. In the 1960 while most African countries were not yet liberated, it was not common to see a black pilot, not only for foreigners but also for Ethiopians,”
By any measure, Captain Alemayehu, who died on Thursday, January 5, was a pioneer in the history of Ethiopian aviation but also that of African. He was born on Marc. 25, 1925 to his father Abebe Desta and his mother Tirunesh Gobena in Chercher worda of Hararghe province. He began primary education the Ras Mekonnen Elementary School in the town Harar, in which Amharic and French languages were taught. He did the rest of his primary education at the Roman Catholic mission school in Harar until it was interrupted during the Italian occupation 1935-1941.Eager to support himself, Alemayehu landed his first job in the post office. After the liberation, he came to Addis Ababa and attended high school at the Addis Ababa Medhanialem School, known then as (Balabat (Nobility school). After graduating high school with high distinction, he was one of the few students selected to join the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force’s flying school, just established with the help of Swedish instructors. He attended primary training at Debre Zeit and headed to Sweden for advanced training for a year. Upon his return, he was promoted to Wing Commander with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. In 1951 when pilots were released from the Air Force to the Ethiopian Airlines, Alemayehu became among the the first group pilots along with Semret Medhane, who later became the first Ethiopian to assume the post of General Manager in 1971.
Alemayheu is survived by eight children and four grandchildren.