One of the side effects of colonialism in Africa has been a belief among many black Africans that training by whites, especially in technological fields, is always superior.
Ethiopian Airlines, the only African carrier with an all-black staff, used an unusual method to overcome this African prejudice when it tried to get other airlines on the continent to send personnel for courses at its training center.
"To break the ice," the general manager, Capt. Mohamed Ahmed, said, "we offered free training to British Airways" if the airline would send apprentice mechanics to the school in Addis Ababa.
Although it may seem odd for one of the world's poorest countries to offer free technical training to the country that started the Industrial Revolution, Mohamed thought African airlines would send their personnel if they saw that Ethiopian school was training whites.
British Airways accomodated him in a different way--by sending personnel from black African countries where it had management contracts, thus giving its stamp of approval and "melting" African resistance, the general manager said.
The school, the main airline training center on the continent, and the airline, which is making a profit, together make an African success story.
Aside from training almost 1,000 Ethiopians, the school has turned out 32 pilots and almost 300 aircraft mechanics from 17 other African countries. It also has a management training program.
The government-owned airline does maintenance of jets for Kenya and has management contracts with Zambia Airways and the separate airlines of pro-Western North Yemen and Marxist South Yemen.
American private enterprise has also shared in the success, since Trans World Airlines ran Ethiopian from its inception in 1945 until 1975 when the African airline told TWA that its services were no longer needed.
The last foreign pilot, Robert Moon from Texas, left in 1979. Most other African airlines remain heavily staffed with foreign pilots.
The technical training program began three decades ago before Ethiopia had a university and at a time when there were only 10 high schools, with 1,700 students.
"You can question whether that was the best way to spend money on development" in such a backward country, the American-educated Mohammed said, an indirect acknowledgement that the airline served as a status symbol and method of showing the flag for former emperor Haile Selassie.
"Different countries make different development decisions, but the success of the airline showed it worked here," he said.
Although Ethiopian ranks only fifth among African airlines with 75 million passenger miles last year, it has the most extensive transcontinental route structure with five flights a week connecting east and west Africa from Nairobi to Abidjan. It took about 10 years for the route south of the equator to make a profit, Mohamed said, and now he is planning a second route north of the equator to Dakar, Senegal.
Most African airlines shun developing such routes, meaning that it is often necessary to fly to Europe to make connections between two African countries.
During the peak of Ethiopia's 1977-78 war against Somalia, the airline's domestic schedules were badly disrupted by the need to transport troops. Flights in Eritrea, where a guerrilla war is continuing, are still disrupted.
The airline, which serves about three dozen towns, is the main connecting link in a country where paved roads are at a premuim. Most domestic flights are on aged DC3s and C47s, which land on dirt air strips.
Despite Ethiopia's close relationship with the Soviet Union, the airline has balked at pressure to buy Soviet airliners. Technical officials spoke disparagingly in private about the quality of Soviet equipment and maintenance methods.
On leaving the Addis Ababa airport, one sees a sign, typical of the country's new-found Marxist jargon, that says: "The triumph of socialism is inevitable."
But in this supposed hotbed of Marxism, the senior staff of the national airline is all American-trained and many have attended executive courses at Harvard and Stanford.