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.