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.
Even now, the Andraus fire is never far away. “My father put our three helicopters up saving people,” recalls Marco Antonio Audi, who sells helicopters and operates an air transport and taxi service. “We took out 262 people from the roof. One pilot told me that when he arrived over the building, a hundred people were trying to grab the helicopter.”
One result of the disaster was the requirement that all public buildings have either a full sprinkler system or a rooftop helipad. The latter not only enhanced fire safety, it added marketability to commercial structures. Paulistanos today take a certain pride in not being able to fix, from one week to the next, the precise number of helipads in their city, but put the current total at about 250, en route to 400 or more. Manhattan has five.
Not surprisingly, the abundant facilities have attracted a cloud of helicopters. Of about 900 in Brazil, nearly two-thirds operate in and around São Paulo, which has the planet’s third largest helicopter population, after New York, with 2,000, and Tokyo, with 700. But no other city is as accommodating to vertical flight as São Paulo, or has a population more inclined to use it. Brazilians are famous for a readiness to transform the technically new and exotic into the tried and true.
Audi Helicopters has certainly found this to be the case. Marco Audi is in an office at the Campo de Marte airport, a large general-aviation field on the north rim of town, where flocks of rotary-wing machines clatter to and from a host of schools and air taxi operations along the tarmac. “Audi Helicopters was the first company dedicated to helicopters here,” he says. “My father bought his first in 1967—a Bell 206—hence my passion.”
That first 206 was joined by another, and then by a Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm MBB-105 twin-turbine ship. But the empire over which Audi now presides is the creation less of those aircraft than of a lightweight alternative from the United States: Frank Robinson’s relatively inexpensive piston-powered machines, which Audi introduced in Brazil during the 1980s. The congruence of Robinson’s designs and the rotary-wing infrastructure of São Paulo created a niche that Marco Audi has deftly exploited. About a third of the civil helicopters now operating in Brazil are Robinsons, brokered by Audi.
He discovers markets everywhere he looks. “I believe that Brazil is the number one market in the world for ENG,” he says, referring to aircraft rigged for electronic news gathering. Over São Paulo, 14 Robinson R-22s give live traffic reports every day. And in a city where most tall buildings have helipads, the light machines take the place of armored cars, carrying money from bank to bank. One security firm flies nine R-44s, several of which are in the air at any given moment. “People in the branch, when they see the bad guys, they push the alarm,” says Audi. “The helicopter is overhead in less than two minutes.
“We brought the concept of LOJAC [a stolen-car recovery system] here,” he continues. “When LOJACIL opened in Brazil, we gave them the idea of using helicopters. Sold three helicopters. They’re up all day, all night.”
Then there’s the filthy rich, who have always known that life is better at a thousand feet and a hundred knots. But in São Paulo, vertical thinking is taking place among the merely rich and nearly rich as well. There may be only a handful of people wealthy enough to own and operate a $7 million twin, but there are legions with enough money to consider something less expensive, like an R-44.
To help that thinking along, Audi and a young partner, Allan James Paiotti, have set up an ownership arrangement called Helisolutions, which appears to be feasible only amid the helicopter-oriented culture of Brazil. The cost of the machine is divided among 10 clients, each paying about $40,000 for a share of an R-44 and some fraction of the costs of owning and operating a helicopter. Each helicopter has a satellite transponder linked to the Helisolutions control center, where headquarters can monitor in real time the position, altitude, and velocity of its entire fleet. If an aircraft drifts off the computer-prepared route, it triggers an alarm. In practice, the system lets Audi connect each customer with the nearest helicopter. “You actually have a piece of one specific helicopter, but you have access to a great fleet,” Paiotti explains. “All R-44s look exactly alike. All you do is make a call and get a helicopter. It’s as if the helicopter is your own.”
Fractional helicopter ownership has taken off in Brazil. Since December 1999, Helisolutions has sold 80 shares in R-44s. The company is also prepared should a Robinson shareholder come down with turbine envy. For about $124,000 and a matching bump in associated costs, a customer can move up to Eurocopter’s EC-120 Colibri single; $198,000 gets you a piece of an AS-350 B3 Esquilo, also from Eurocopter; and for a mere $1.3 million, you can buy one-fifth of a Bell 430 twin, which seats up to 10 people in a roomy, leather-trimmed cabin.
A different way to pool resources is the Latin American practice called consórcio, which is how Helibras, a division of Eurocopter Brazil, is hoping to market its AS-350, a single-turbine helicopter that starts at $1.2 million. At the Helibras complex at São Paulo’s Campo de Marte airport, Helibras commercial director Fabrice Cagnat explains how the consórcio works: “You join a group of people who want to buy something, an apartment, a car, whatever.” In buying an automobile, for example, 10 people get together and each pays one-tenth of the cost of the car each month. “At the end of one month, you own one car. The lottery within the group gives the car to one owner. In 10 months you buy 10 cars.” It’s a welcome alternative to taking out a loan; in Brazil, interest rates can reach 17 percent per month.
Cagnat talks helicopters with the confidence of someone holding four kings. Eurocopter Brazil set up a factory under the Helibras name at São Jose dos Campos, some 60 miles up the Rio highway from São Paulo, for the assembly of the popular AS-350. Today, Eurocopter holds about half the Brazilian military market for rotary-wing machines. “In the civil market our share is not as extraordinary as we’d like,” says Cagnat. “But our sales share is [still] quite good. We do not consider Robinson as a competition. After [customers] get used to rotary wing, they go to Eurocopters. One customer bought a piston, now wants to get a turbine.”
Cagnat believes that demand is open-ended: “Brazil has about 160 million people. One percent of them can afford helicopters. That’s 1.6 million potential users.” With Heliplano, Helibras’ consórcio, that number is even greater. But don’t try this at home. Like Audi’s Helisolutions, Heliplano may be possible only in a helicopter-hungry country like Brazil.
In São Paulo, no matter how you buy your helicopter, once you’re an owner, you’ll probably spend some time at Helicentro. A manicured island of rotary-wing aviation, it caters to its wealthy neighborhood, Morumbi, and others like it. “Maybe we found a niche,” says Helicentro owner Ricardo Zuccolo. “We’re the only company with a facility outside the airport. We have more than a hundred customers.”
The 35 or so helicopters at Helicentro are turbine-powered—Zuccolo’s Shell dealership doesn’t even sell fuel for piston engines. “Easier for our technicians to do one kind of engine,” says Zuccolo. “With turbines, maintenance is cheaper, more profit.”
A walk through the Helicentro hangar is a walk through the current state of the helicopter art, with several dozen Bells, Agustas, Eurocopters, and Sikorskys. The 28-year-old son of a local businessman owns and flies an MD-250 that looks like a black widow spider—his million-dollar flying Ferrari. But helicopter ownership in São Paulo doesn’t mean you have to learn to fly one. Most owners hire a pilot.
Flying a helicopter is one of the good jobs in Brazil. An entry-level commercial R-44 pilot might earn 4,000 reals—about $1,600—a month, plus benefits. Most commercial helicopter pilots earn about twice that, and those flying the larger ships may bring in $80,000 a year. There are always good slots waiting for high-time helicopter captains, who are hard to find and harder to keep. This standing opportunity has drawn legions of aspiring pilots to about a dozen flight schools in São Paulo, each of which churns out perhaps 50 pilots a year. Most budding pilots become instructors as soon as they earn a rating; then, when they’ve built sufficient time, they head for what everyone calls Offshore.
Offshore is shorthand for a host of oil fields—in the Amazon delta and on the north coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Offshore is where pilots deepen their experience, flying in extreme conditions rarely encountered over the mainland. After working Offshore, they graduate to flying for a corporation or private owner.
Marco Infante, now the captain of a Bell 407 kept at Congonhas Airport, falls somewhere between the new kids learning at Campo de Marte and the old eagles. He got his licenses in the United States, in Van Nuys, California. When he came home, he found work as a Bell 407 copilot. “A lot of jobs after that,” he says. “Some time Offshore, always as a copilot. Then I started flying the jungle. Then I came to São Paulo, to the market for VIP aircraft.”
But Infante’s job isn’t with a corporation. “The kind of work that I do is for the owner,” he says. “A few flights during weekdays, but mostly on weekends. They own the 407. The whole family is flying now. Saturday morning I flew them to the beach. Sunday I’ll pick them up.”
His friend and colleague, Luiz Cintra, also learned to fly in the United States, then worked as an instructor for a couple of years in São Paulo before moving on to flying traffic helicopters, air taxis, and, for a corporate job in which he flew VIPs, a Jet-
Ranger. Now he flies the Agusta 109 for a private owner. “It’s fun,” he says, noting that landing on highrise rooftops “is no big deal. We always land to a point. It doesn’t matter where the point is. But there is no ground effect [the cushion of air helicopters create near the ground] on rooftops. When the client wants to carry a lot of stuff, you have to know how to say no.”
The aircraft are mainly a convenience, he believes, a way of saving time on recreational travel. In the course of these jaunts, pilots can become something like a member of the family. “The way your job is, you have a very close relationship with the owner, the family,” he says.
In a culture of vertical flight, a helicopter mishap is front-page news. People still talk about the woman who walked into a tail rotor a few years ago and was killed, along with the companion who tried to rescue her. Last July 27, an Agusta 109 crashed during a night approach to Maresias, a popular resort and surfing beach. The aircraft belonged to the Pao de Acucar supermarket chain, owned by Abilio Diniz. Aboard were a pilot and copilot; the owner’s eldest son, triathlete Joao Paulo Diniz; and fashion model Fernanda Vogel. All four survived the crash and tried to swim the two miles to the beach through rough seas. Only two reached shore: Diniz and copilot Luiz Cintra.
Barring such high-profile crashes, helicopter ownership is a closely kept secret in São Paulo. The wealthy may stick a helipad between the pool and tennis court, but they don’t want to advertise that they are rich enough to own a helicopter. When you bring out the camera, you’re told: No tail numbers please. As for talking directly with an owner, forget it.
Northerners tend to think of Brazil as a huge country with only two big cities, São Paulo to the south, Rio de Janeiro 300 miles to the northeast, with scads of villages scattered everywhere else. In fact, all 27 state capitals are huge; the state of São Paulo, in which the city of the same name is located, has several cities with populations of more than a million. Dire poverty exists, to be sure, but there is also great wealth—enough to acquire a helicopter, hire a pilot, and take the family to the beach.