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.”