Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, one of 10 top economies, with more than 200 million inhabitants and about 2,137 helicopters flying. Even as it faces problems from an unprecedented financial crisis, Brazil is still a huge market for aviation with a special niche for helicopters, considering its geographical features that are navigated best via rotorcraft.
São Paulo, which has the highest urban concentration in the Southern Hemisphere, was identified by the Brazilian Assn. of Helicopter Pilots in 2017 as the city with the largest fleet worldwide — with more than 450 helicopters and operating more than 2,000 takeoffs and landings each day.
In 1948, the first helicopter arrived in Brazil. A Bell Helicopter 47D with a 200-hp Lycoming engine, it came to supply the need for agricultural spraying in São Paulo. It was registered as PP-H1, and the very first Brazilian helicopter pilot was Capt. Carlos Alberto Alves. At the time, it look Alves four years to receive his helicopter pilot license because until 1952, there was only pilot certification with no differentiation between rotary-wing or fixed-wing aircraft.
In the 1950s, the first combat-configured helicopters from Bell were delivered to the Brazilian air force.
There had been no national rotorcraft service until 1978, when the Brazilian government supported the creation of a national endeavor in São José dos Campos, inside the facilities of the Aerospace Technical Center in cooperation with French Aerospatiale. There Helibras was born.
In 1980, it was moved to Itajubá, where the main product of the assembly line continues to be the now-Airbus Helicopters AS350 Squirrel.
Helibras became an Airbus company. Since its founding, it has delivered more than 750 helicopters, 70% being Squirrel models. Its factory employs more than 550 professionals and has a production capacity of 36 light aircraft a year for the civil and military segments. The manufacturer leads the Brazilian market of turbine helicopters flying today.
From 2006 to 2013, Brazil saw a boom in the market, thanks to demand in several sectors. The oil and gas industry had requested a significant number of helicopters to support increasing offshore aviation operations.
In 2008, Brazil’s military modernization program, HX-BR, called for the development of a helicopter that could meet the country’s military needs. This opened Brazil up to the international market. A $2.1 billion (1.9 billion euro) initiative for the purchase of 50 EC725s, a military version of the EC225, had been secured. The EC725 is to be produced in Brazil with up to 50% national content, as well as the guarantee of technology transfer.
Lt. Gen. Nivaldo Rossato, commander of the Air Force, told R&WI, that the HX-BR program “promotes defense integration activities in our country” and “fosters the national industry, generating access to new technologies and opportunity to create new job positions in the aerospace sector.”
Helibras had contracted about 40 Brazilian companies, including Mectron and Avibras, that have been carrying out training in France and Brazil to manufacture parts and to offer services with the accompaniment of Brazilian air force, army and navy officers to ensure the effective transfer of technology required by the program.
Helicopters in the Brazilian armed forces historically were used primarily for border defense and search and rescue operations. More recently, tactical operations have been strengthened in military defense planning, especially with the purchase of 12 Mi-35Ms that dramatically changed the military’s operations, surveillance and airspace control methods over the Amazonia region.
Since 2015, Brazil’s market has declined amid the oil and gas downturn and numerous corruption scandals with state-owned oil and gas company Petrobras.
According to the National Civil Aviation Agency, the fleet of helicopters qualified for offshore operations in Brazil fell 22% from 2015 to 2016, from 174 to 135 aircraft. Fewer available jobs also meant a reduction in helicopter pilots.
Canadian operator CHC, which has operated in Brazil since 2005, has also seen a decline. Since opening a hangar at Cabo Frio International Airport in 2015, its operations have decreased 33% in response to the market downturn.
As a result, CHC Brazil reduced its fleet and adjusted its budget to surmount the storm. Now the company seems to be prepared to offer services at a cost that the market is willing to pay.
There is hope.
Brazilian Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles said, “In recent years, the country faced a crisis, but the deficit is now falling and we are coming out of the biggest recession Brazil has faced since we started measuring GDP over a century ago.”
Meirelles stressed that soon public accounts will equalize, and the economy will grow again, creating new jobs. For the industry, this is a good indication that the country will start growing.
Companies like Climb Aircraft Division, which flies Robinson Helicopter R22s, R44s and R66s, in São Paulo, are expanding into more markets. By the end of this year, it expects to incorporate two Bell 205s into its fleet. Its operations manager, Sylvio Malheiro, said it is flying helicopters “for agricultural services with an innovative purpose in Brazil — mobile landing pads.” Landing pads with helicopters are transported by truck to remote areas of croplands.
The HX-BR program is also ongoing. Last April, during the Latin America Aerospace and Defense trade show, Helibras said it had received its 26th EC725, developed for naval operations.
The recovery of the oil market, the rewarming of the Brazilian economy and the increase of the country’s technological capacity are indicators that better days are coming with good expectations for the rotorcraft industry in Brazil. RWI