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 Ethiopian Air Force


Ethiopian air force History

​​​​​​​​​In 1920th

Ethiopia began the formation of a small air arm in 1929, with the delivery of a Potez 25 A2 to the capital Addis Ababa on 18 August 1929. A Junkers W 33c followed on 5 September.



A few transport aircraft were also acquired during 1934-35 for ambulance work. The Air Force was commanded by a French pilot, Andre Maillet, who delivered the first Potez. He was succeeded by another Frenchman, Paul Corriger, who remained until the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935, when the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force ceased to exist.
A new Imperial Air Force was created with American and British assistance in 1946, after the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian  [Potez 1] occupation. This image is from Insignia Magazine. The plane pictured is a Potez 25 A2 Serial no. 3;the Nesre Makonnen (Prince Makonnen), Addis Ababa, 1933. Here is more on the Potez 25 a light attack, army co-operation and tactical reconnaissance warplane. (Armament) included ... one forward-firing machine gun in the forward fuselage with synchronization equipment to fire through the propeller disc, and two rearward-firing machine guns in the rear cockpit ... (it could carry) four 50 kg (110 lb) bombs. Several Ethiopian and foreign accounts of the 1930s note the Potez primarily for how slow it was relative to other aircraft worldwide and in the Ethiopian inventory. Clearly, any biplane on the eve of the Second World War was obsolete and the Potez had already been in Ethiopian service since 1924.

Ethiopian Potez

In his book "Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of the Haile Sellassie Years" (no link available) John H. Spencer, a long time American advisor to the former Emperor describes a flight to the 1936 warzone at Dessie I flew there on January 16 along with the British Military Attache, Major Holt, in a cabin single engine Potez, (with canvas fuselage and wooden frame) piloted by Michka Babichef, another kilis [person of mixed race], the son of a White Russian father and Ethiopian mother. Although the distance was only slightly more than 160 miles, the flight took an hour and a half. The Ethiopian Army field headquarters was there and Spencer goes on to describe a bombing raid by the Italians during which the Emperor mans an anti-aircraft gun.

Michka Babichef in the cockpit

The second licensed Ethiopian pilot was Asfaw Ali.
According to People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800-1990 by James McCann, Babichef senior was a White Russian (a term used to distinguish non-Bolshevik or pre-Communist era Russians) confidant of the former Emperor Menelik who was given the military / noble title of Qagnazmach.
 Near the present day city of Bishoftu, (which was to become the HQ for the Ethiopian Air Force in later years) he established an early example of commercial agricultural enterprises on lands he had irrigated and later distributed to his workers.
 Future posts will cover the story of two African American pilots who volunteered to fly with the Ethiopian Air Force at the time of the Italian invasion and a brief of the Italian Air Force of the time.
Tsehay and a Roundel History

This is the third in a series of posts about the Ethiopian Air Force. The second described the involvement of two African Americans who either commanded the Air Force or served in it during its early days.
The first described the Potez 25 back in 1933 and one of the first Ethiopian pilots who flew that machine. That plane did not have any of the familiar form of national markings but did have an Imperial Lion painted on the side next to the name of a Prince  Makonnen.

This Meindl/van Nes A-VII (M7) (image from Insignia Magazine) is depicted as it was at Jan Meda in Addis Ababa in 1936. It has the green, yellow and red of the national colors painted on the rudder and wings. On the side is written the word Tsehay (Sun) which may be there because it is name of a Princess Tsehay, one of Emperor Haile Sellassie's daughters.

 This may be the same plane now in Italy whose return is being campaigned for along with other historical treasures. The new terminal at Addis Ababa Bole Airport is to be its home after it is returned.

Only one of the types was delivered, served from 1935 to 1936 and is described as being locally modified with new engines and wing flaps.

                        Ethiopian Roundels

The first traditional roundel used by the then Imperial Ethiopian Air Force has rings of green, yellow and red around a yellow six pointed star that seems to be a stylized Star of David. One of the Emperor's titles was 'Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. In addition, the Imperial House traces its origins to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba so that origin for the roundel seems likely. 

The older roundel was in use from 1946 and can be seen on this F-86F delivered sometime in the early 1960s

This MiG-21 depicted during the 1980s has the newer five pointed star roundel that came into use after an undetermined period when no star at all was used.
This site has a page dedicated to the history of Ethiopian roundels and has large stand alone images.


All military aircraft have markings on their sides and wings called roundels that provide for national identification - basically, to make sure who to attack or not. It all began during the first days of the First World War when the primitive planes of the day were used only for reconnaissance and occasional artillery spotting. Far above the trenches in France and Belgium, Allied and German flyers would encounter each other in the air and wave and otherwise behave like the 'gentlemen' they imagined themselves to be.
Rather soon, all concerned realized that they would not return home victorious before Christmas and settled in for the long bloody years ahead. In the air they started shooting at one another first with pistols, then rifles and finally with machine guns strapped to the fuselages of the planes or wielded by gunners.
Propellers got in the way and were at first armored so fire could be directed forward through them and aimed easily. Fokker and then the Allies developed interrupter gear that allowed the machine guns to mechanically coordinate firing with the propeller’s spin.
After these and other technological advances such as improved engines, aerial warfare and the fighter plane were born and there has never again been anything genteel about it. Bright roundels and other colorful forms of personal and unit identification stayed on in all Air Forces until the 1980s.
It was then realized that modern infra-red guided 'air to air' (AAM) and 'surface to air' (SAM) missiles were sensitive enough to be guided not only by the hot exhaust of engines and friction heated leading edges of wings, but also by the differential heating and cooling of brightly painted markings to find their targets.
The U.S. began to use muted shades of gray for roundels and camouflage on almost all of its planes but other countries have continued to use large and bright national markings. One reason the U.S. no longer needs them is its likely dominance of any potential aerial combat and the low chance of fighting other American made aircraft. Even more important is the perfection from the 1950s of IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) equipment.
Airplanes that come to the attention of fighters or SAM crews by visual, infra-red or radar means can be electronically interrogated. The plane being tracked automatically responds with coded signals that identify which team they are playing on. This is a similar technology to the transponders that most commercial aircraft use to identify themselves and their flight path to air traffic controllers.
Of course, military planes are far more choosy about who they respond to ... if it all.
Although there have been instances of 'friendly fire' among American forces in the air, they are very rare. This has not been the case for other nations such as the Arabs during the October War of 1973. A little known aspect of that conflict is the number of Arab fighter aircraft that were lost, not only to the Israeli Air Force but also to Arab SAMs.
As a result, Cairo and Damascus seldom used airplanes in support of ground operations or often avoided the immediate battlefield entirely. Many other countries just don't trust IFF*. The realization that anything electronic can be tricked probably determined overall Arab and Soviet doctrine to accept high levels of fratricide or to avoid having their own planes anywhere near their own SAMs for any reason. Most Soviet designed man-portable SAMs don't appear to have IFF equipment at all.
Most aerial combat today will probably happen at beyond visual ranges and even during close up dogfights when the opponent is in sight, a bright roundel may not be seen. Today, logic, communication and planning should prevent most errors of identification in air to air engagements but IFF will always remain essential for SAM crews.
However, error will always be a part of the horror of war. Ultimately roundels have stuck around because the standard issue human eyeball is the most reliable and error free instrument invented.
Roundels of the World have a clickable map with all the world's current national markings.
Air Vectors has detail on the origins of IFF and additional info here, here and here.
For a while during the Vietnam War, Americans had equipment that could pick up the IFF transmissions from MiGs so they knew where they were and where they were going. 

​           Condors and Eagles from Harlem

When fascist Italy led by Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 much worldwide sympathy was aroused for the Ethiopian cause but there was little actual support given.

A popular fascination with Africa, and independent Ethiopia in particular, had arisen in Black American and Afro-Caribbean communities in the years before the invasion. Beginning as far back as the 1880s there was a spread of "Ethiopianist" churches and for many Ethiopianism served as an ideology which linked African-American brethren with their African brothers and sisters. During this same period, largely due to the sovereignty of Ethiopia amidst European colonialism on the continent, African Americans fixed greater attention on the ancient Empire of Ethiopia itself, thinking of Ethiopia as a black Zion. In 1896, the defeat of invading Italian forces by Menelik II in the Battle of Adwa served to bolster the mythic status and redemptive symbolism of Ethiopia in the eyes of Africans at home and abroad.
The second Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October of 1935 produced an enormous wave of pro-Ethiopianist sentiments among blacks across the African continent as well as in the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. Particularly to blacks in the diaspora the invasion was seen as an attack on the dominant symbol of African pride and cultural sovereignty. 

                            Col. John C. Robinson

Col. John C. Robinson, later known as the Brown Condor returning home in 1936.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ The condor

Some of the international support that was actually delivered is described in this 2004 speech by Consul General of Ethiopia in LA discusses Colonel John Robinson (the Black Condor [sometimes called the Brown Condor]), helped in establishing the nascent Ethiopian air force.

Colonel Robinson commanded The Ethiopian Air force and actively participated in reconnaissance mission for the Ethiopian Army during the Italian invasion. In this article by Negussay Ayele from Tadias Online there is more on Robinson He completed his pilot’s training and earned his wings from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama in 1920, one of the six hundred black pilots to do so.
He again attended another mainstream flight school in Chicago where in 1931 and thus became the first African American to break the color barrier and graduate from that institution. His ordeal/odyssey was not over yet. Even after his bona fide graduation local airfields were closed to black pilots to use. So, Robinson got together with some supporters and financed the establishment of another private airport, which was duly certified by the authorities to be used by black pilots. According to his biography, written by Thomas E. Simmons, The Brown Condor: The True Adventures of John C. Robinson, immediately after earning his flying license in 1927, Robinson started his own flying school in Chicago for blacks. He even founded an Air Pilots Association for black aviators, and he launched a “John Robinson Airlines.

” However, the more he heard of what was happening in Ethiopia and sensed the indignation and frustration of the black community at its inability to do something about it, the more he was impelled to offer his services to fight fascism in Ethiopia.

Melaku Beyan [an Ethiopian in the U.S. who was active in building bridges between Black America and Ethiopia] heard about him and made contact. Subsequently. Robinson received a cable from the Emperor himself offering him a commission in the Ethiopian army. Prudently, when applying for his U.S. exit visa, he said he was going to Ethiopia on business to sell civilian airplanes. He arrived in Ethiopia at the end of May 1935.

                                          Melaku Beyan

Ethiopia had neither combated trained national pilots nor combat aircraft at the time. Out of less than two-dozen, mostly dysfunctional aircrafts. With that one aircraft, the intrepid Brown Condor flew incessantly on dangerous missions, not to mention a terrain and airspace he was unfamiliar with, from Addis to Adwa and back.
He was carrying supplies, fighters and the Emperor from place to place in the very heat of the war. When the Fascists were controlling the skies and raining down bombs and poison gases. They tried to down him but could not. Robinson gives an eyewitness account of Fascist bombing spree in Adwa where he witnessed the very first assaults of the Fascist elements across the Mereb River on 3 October 1935.

Professor William Scott in his book, The Sons of Sheba’s Race, paraphrases the Brown Condor’s description of that first day of bombing and the tragic reaction of innocent civilians in Tigrai, northern Ethiopian province.

                                  Soloda - Near Adwa

"When Italian planes attacked the Ethiopian towns of Adwa and Adigrat at the start of Rome’s African campaign, Robinson was caught along with Ethiopian civilians and military in the wanton and bloody bombardment. He had been sent on a courier mission to Adwa. Scene of Italy’s humiliating defeat in 1896, the day before the surprise attack. Staying there overnight, Robinson was awakened at dawn by the terrible noise of explosions. Four large bombing planes arrived…and began bombing. Many people ran for cover in the city’s outskirts. Others sought refuge at the Red Cross hospital, imagining they would be protected there, but it too was shelled and was the scene of the heaviest casualties.

Infuriated Ethiopian soldiers, anxious to engage the enemy in battle, ran out into the streets, waving their swords and challenging their adversaries to descend from the clouds and fight like men in hand-to-hand combat."
Although the Fascists failed to down his plane, the Brown Condor was shot at and wounded on his left hand, but he still managed to land safely ... On the eve of Fascist entry into Addis Ababa on 5 May 1936, Robinson had to return back to the United States.

Later, after the war had ended, Colonel Robinson was returned to Ethiopia in 1944 as head of a team of African American aviators and technicians to help build a modern Ethiopian Air Force.
In his book "Ethiopia and the United States, Negussay Ayele describes Robinson's 1944 return along with his team, the self styled "Brood" (including one Puerto-Rican electrician and radio technician). They set up shop in the Orma garage in Addis Ababa and proceeded to train eighty cadets over two years that formed the nuclei of the colonels in the air force.

Robinson had some difficulties with the Swedish pilot, Count Von Rosen, who had also served in Ethiopia. Significantly, Ethiopia's post war air force was largely a Swedish financed and supplied affair - a threatened break of that relationship simply could not be afforded. Robinson resigned from the service to set up Sultan Airlines and an import firm with one of the Emperor Haile Selassie's sons. In addition Robinson and another son of Africa who took up life in Ethiopia, Dr. Talbot, created the educational American Institute. Throughout, Robinson remained a consultant to the Ethiopian Ministry of War.

On March 13, 1954 Robinson volunteered for an emergency flight to deliver blood and crashed. Barely surviving the accident, he died two weeks later in hospital and was mourned by thousands on two continents.
In a National Day Message, Ambassador Aurelia E. Brazeal on February 20, 2003 had this to say about African-American and Ethiopian relations. During the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Ethiopia, the uncolonized nation, became a symbol of freedom to the African-American, and often black churches and civic organizations included the word Ethiopian or Abyssinian in the formal names of their organizations to affirm the dignity and self-determination of a free people.

The twentieth century saw many African-Americans come to Ethiopia to work in a spirit of solidarity, especially during the struggle against the Italians. These include people like Colonel John Robinson, an American pilot, who helped Ethiopia defeat the Fascist occupation, and later became an important figure in Ethiopian aviation.
Recognizing the appeal Ethiopia had as an ideal to the African-American community. Ato Yilma Deressa, Ethiopia's Vice-Minister of Finance in 1943, visited Washington, which was then a racially-segregated city, and successfully recruited African-American teachers, technicians and other professionals to come to Ethiopia and assist in its post-war reconstruction.
Among these Americans were William Steen, one of the first editors of the Ethiopian Herald; Edgar Love, headmaster of the Ras Mekonnen School, and several aircraft technicians, who worked alongside Colonel Robinson in the development of civil aviation.


                                        Ato Yilma Deressa 

                                    The eagle

Colonel Hubert Fauntleroy Julian with his Packard Bellanca, "The Abyssinia" in 1931. Julian was at the time the holder of the World's Non-Refueling Endurance Record for a flight lasting 84hrs and 33min.
Colonel Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, the Black Eagle of Harlem is another little known figure in Ethiopian and American history. He was the first black person to obtain a pilot's license. Tall, athletic and handsome, he was dubbed "the Lindbergh of his race." Despite constant struggles to raise financial backing for his exploits, he had a brilliant and widely publicized flying career. The African American Registry has more detail about Julian From Trinidad; he came from a well-to-do family who sent him to England for school. The dangers during WW I caused the family to move him to Montreal.
By 1921 and having moved to New York, he had become a “gentleman flyer,” a man about town, sharp dresser, etc. He was a supporter of Marcus Garvey and in 1922 flew his plane over parades in support of Garvey.
In July, 1924, Julian intended to fly to Africa and become the first person to fly solo across the Atlanic Ocean. He dubbed his airplane Ethiopia I and began to raise money for the trip. This attempt failed with a crash into the water off of Flushing New York, and Julian spent the next month in the hospital recovering from injuries. His 1929 Trans-Atlanic flight (was) 2 years after that of Charles Lindbergh.
Julian flew to Ethiopia in 1930, where his flying exploits impressed Emperor Haile Selassie, who awarded Julian Abyssinian citizenship and the rank of Colonel. In 1931 he was the first African-American to fly coast to coast in the United States. Julian was one of several aviators in the 1920s and 1930s who competed in outdoing each other and briefly holding records for longest non-stop flights. In 1931, for example, Julian held the non-stop non-refueling aviation endurance record with a flight of 84 hours and 33 minutes. Julian flew a number of flights in and between the Americas, Europe, and Africa, surviving several crashes. In between major flights he headed and toured with a small all-Black flying circus called The Five Blackbirds.

                            Colonel Hubert Fauntleroy Julian

During the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Julian flew to Ethiopia to aid in the defense of Selassie's government. He commanded their Ethiopian air force, which at the time consisted of 3 planes. Yet after getting into a public fist-fight with Black aviator John C. Robinson, he was ordered to leave the country. Beyond aviation, Julian also invented some safety devices used in airplanes ... After the United States entered World War II, Julian volunteered to train for combat with the Tuskegee Airmen. He was a colorful character who wore a non-regulation Colonel's uniform, despite not holding rank with the United States Armed Forces, and was discharged before graduation. According to Wikipedia The 14 November 1974 issue of Jet Magazine briefly mentions Julian, saying he was then 77 years of age, and was making plans to rescue Haile Selassie [during the Dergue coup of that year], then believed to be held prisoner by the new government of Ethiopia.
Hubert Fauntleroy Julian died in the borough of the Bronx, New York City, in February 1983. His passing went largely unnoticed.

 ​​​    ​​​​​Imperial Ethiopian Air Force​ 
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