At Sikorsky Aviation’s Stratford, Connecticut headquarters, the paneled office where the father of the helicopter spent his final years has been preserved much as it was three decades ago. On the credenza is a copy of Igor Sikorsky’s last letter, which the 84-year-old dictated on October 15, 1972, the day before he died. “Please accept my sincere thanks for your recent letter,” he wrote Jerome Lederer of the Flight Safety Foundation, “and for the enclosure describing the São Paulo helicopter rescues.... I had it read to me (my eyesight has failed to such an extent that I can no longer read) and found it interesting indeed.
“I always believed that the helicopter would be an outstanding vehicle for the greatest variety of life-saving missions and now, near the close of my life, I have the satisfaction of knowing that this proved to be true.”
The helicopter rescues reported to Sikorsky had been made eight months earlier after the 26-story Andraus Building, in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, had erupted in flames. Some 375 people were injured in the fire, but only 16 died. The toll would have been higher but for a swarm of helicopters whose crews scooped people by the hundreds off the rooftop.
The flames that consumed the Andraus Building were not merely destructive. They also released seeds that, through a coincidence of time, place, and technological readiness, would grow into a unique culture of vertical flight, a future for helicopters that not even Sikorsky had foreseen.
Even in the helicopter-saturated world of São Paulo, Donaldo Zandon—Captain Zandon, as he prefers—is an exceptional case. He has spent 18,000 hours flying helicopters, mostly Bells. “I was a captain in the air force,” he says, “then I retired and have been flying helicopters ever since.” He flew offshore to oil rigs, around town for corporate executives, and in the Amazon for industry—“every kind of flying.” At the moment, he occupies the right seat of a Bell 206 puttering over the southwest rim of São Paulo.
A thousand feet above the ground, Zandon guides the 206 out along a river flanking the city, which spreads out to every horizon, the low structures interspersed here and there by a bloom of high-rises. Like many European cities, São Paulo is laid out like a plate of spaghetti; it is also burdened with terrible roads, a rudimentary transit system, and a population of 17 million. On a good day, driving from the city’s outskirts to its center is an hour’s work; add rain and multiply by four. But at 1,000 feet the clamor is barely discernible. In the distance the posh downtown around Avenida Paulista, bristling with glass and metal towers, clings to a spine of high ground. Heliports dot the cityscape in stunning profusion, like lilies floating on a concrete pond.
Knowing this airspace is shared by hundreds of machines, one expects to see a chaos of them, wheeling like swallows over Capistrano. In fact, while the airspace over the city center can become busy and helicopters do indeed speckle the horizon, the size of São Paulo—it has the sprawl of Los Angeles—keeps crowds from getting too large. Because Zandon is flying close to Congonhas Airport, São Paulo’s busy domestic hub, he has the tower on his radio, but there is no controlling voice vectoring his helicopter. “We just look around, speak to other pilots,” says the captain. “We have all these corridors to fly. In bad weather, helicopters and pilots must be IFR [on instrument flight rules] to and from the airport. At decision height, you say to the controller, ‘I’m in visual conditions,’ and you can [leave airport control and] go to another helipad. In minimum conditions you have to land at the airport.”
One wonders how the pilots managed to find the right helipad, in this great floating garden of them, before there was a Global Positioning System. The answer: with great difficulty. But they still don’t use GPS for instrument approaches because, one pilot notes, “every day we have another antenna, another building.” The charts will never catch up.
Over the southwest neighborhood of Morumbi, said to be São Paulo’s wealthiest, one begins to see residential helipads, as blue as swimming pools and almost as ubiquitous. There are 20 in this one area, some with an interesting accessory: concealed snipers, to discourage low-flying intruders. The fact that São Paulo has more than its share of murders and robberies, and contends with other South American countries for the kidnapping crown, hasn’t hurt the helicopter trade. Trapped in a bog of automotive traffic, a powerful executive or socialite is vulnerable to anyone bent on collecting a ransom. After dark, cab drivers tend not to stop even for traffic lights.
But the booming helicopter culture in São Paulo is not the creation of gridlock, crime, and the way the wealthy forage for convenience. It took root in the ashes of the Andraus Building fire.