Latin America: The Eyes of the (Helicopter) World Are On Brazil

By Claudio Agostini | January 1, 2003

Brazil has opened a window to the international helicopter industry with an agenda that drives a new outlook for rotorcraft issues in Latin America.

AS AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN helicopter manufacturers struggle with projections of sluggish demand in the world’s two largest markets, developing new markets and forming new alliances has become the key to survival.

There are several possible areas of growth, most of them in Asia and the Pacific Rim. In the Western Hemisphere, the next major market is unquestionably Latin America.


Brazil has by far the largest economy in Latin America, with an estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of more than US$1.34 trillion. The next largest is Mexico, at $920 billion, followed by Argentina ($453 billion), Colombia ($255 billion), Chile ($153 billion), and Venezuela ($146.2 billion). Perhaps not coincidentally, these are also the countries with the largest civil helicopter fleets in Latin America.

The five largest helicopter fleets in the region are (in no particular order) Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. These countries will continue to provide the largest Latin American markets for new civil helicopters, mostly in the corporate/VIP market segment.

Outside observers view Brazil’s economic performance as a touchstone for the rest of the region. Despite a deepening financial crisis and political uncertainty, the indicators are not all bad.

In the third quarter of 2002, Brazil’s GDP grew 2.4%, up from 1.9% in 2001. Although this growth triggered a rise in inflation to 5.19% in 2002, which is expected to increase to 6% in 2003, the rate is not as high as the U.S. government’s 2001 estimate of 7.7%.

An ideal geography

Growth in civil helicopter sales in the region is driven by a complex series of market forces. The helicopter markets in the 21 nations that make up Latin America are particularly influenced by the geography of the region.

The region’s general lack of infrastructure leaves many parts of Latin America accessible only from the air. Rugged terrain and the region’s developing oil and mineral industries make helicopters almost indispensable.

Law enforcement organizations in the region are discovering the benefits of policing crime-ridden cities from the air. Wealthy individuals also seek safety in helicopters, since criminals have taken advantage of the clogged traffic arteries so common in the largest cities. Carjackings and kidnappings for ransom have become almost cottage industries in parts of the region.

Economically, Latin America in general and Brazil in particular have fallen on difficult times. As foreign capital fled the country in the face of Brazil’s mounting $240 billion debt, the Brazilian real dropped 30% in value during the first seven months of 2002 and 40% by the end of the year. This devaluation slowed the pace of helicopter sales and most other durable goods.

Despite these facts, the long-term prospects for the rotorcraft industry look relatively good, especially for helicopter models that provide safe and convenient transportation to busy executives and wealthy business owners.

The business environment has become so helicopter-friendly that Helitech, the international helicopter trade show, was held for the first time in Brazil November 5-7, 2002, at Campo de Marte Airport in São Paulo. About 6,000 rotorcraft industry professionals from 35 countries visited more than 110 exhibitors from 15 countries at the show.

Two months earlier, in September, a launch event took place on São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue business district to introduce Helitech to Latin American journalists. Rotor & Wing’s Latin America Bureau gave a special presentation that began with a regional helicopter market overview, focusing on market conditions that eventually brought Helitech to Brazil.

There are, however, a few potential barriers to industry growth. Local industry sources say the current instability of the Brazilian economy was caused mainly by uncertainties on the Brazilian political scene. The most recent presidential elections, held on October 27, 2002, produced the nation’s first president to come from the Labor Party, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

Lula, as he is commonly known, is not exactly a friend of big business. He has focused mainly on social issues, such as hunger, unemployment and better education for Brazil’s poor, and has opposed the Bush administration’s policy on the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

However, he also has stated that one of his goals as president is to expand Brazil’s "productive capacity." In addition, he has forged an alliance with centrist political forces, and has named a textile industry magnate as his vice president. These developments bode well for the future stability of the country.

National fleets

Brazil’s civil helicopter fleet is the sixth largest in the world, according to the 2002 fleet statistics compiled by the Helicopter Association International. The United States, one of Brazil’s closest trading partners, has by far the largest civil helicopter fleet, with 11,858 rotorcraft. Other top civil fleets, ranked by size, are: Canada 1,675; the United Kingdom, 1,100; Japan 940; Australia 923; Brazil 920; France 750; and Germany 672.

Among these countries, Brazil and Australia seem to have the most dynamic and growing markets. According to sales projections, Brazil will soon move up a notch, replacing Australia as the fifth largest civilian fleet in the world.

As with other countries in Latin America, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Brazil’s helicopter market began to grow. Sales of Robinson helicopters skyrocketed during 1997 and 1998, with more than 100 units registered per year. In 2001, civil helicopter sales totaled about US$120 million; for 2002, that figure was about US$96 million, with sales expected to rise again in the first quarter of 2003.

Brazil has a long history of helicopter operations. The first helicopter came to São Paulo in 1948, when a Bell 47D was delivered, assembled and performed its first takeoffs and landings at Campo de Marte Airport.

Today, Brazil has the only helicopter airframe factory in Latin America through the Eurocopter/Helibras joint venture. The local plant manufactures 17.5% of Brazil’s civil fleet and 29% of the nation’s 248 military helicopters.

Eurocopter/Helibras is also the leader in the Brazilian military market. The joint venture is expanding its activities here by investing more than US$10 million to increase the production and sales. Eurocopter/Helibras is currently negotiating contracts with countries such as Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay, and is starting an assembly line for the Super Puma at its factory in Brazil.

The country soon may have a second assembly plant if Bell Helicopter Textron can create a similar corporate relationship once the company concludes its evaluation of the Latin American helicopter market in 2003.

Bell is the market leader in civil turbine helicopters, and is expected to increase its sales of the Model 430, now offered through a fractional ownership program administered through the Brazilian company, Helisolutions. Bell’s authorized dealer in Brazil is Lider Taxi Aereo, one of Brazil’s most forward-looking commercial helicopter operators. In 1999, Lider placed orders for the Bell/Agusta BA609 civil tiltrotor.

Another American company, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., is expected to focus on Brazil’s offshore market. The state-owned oil company, Petrobras, will change out its current fleet of 42 helicopters and will add four additional helicopters for transporting people and equipment to extraction and production platforms on the Brazilian coast. All of these new helicopters are scheduled to be flying at least until August 2004.

AgustaWestland is expected to tap into Brazil with the A109Power light twin, and is likely to heavily market the A119 Koala single-engine turbine. When it becomes available, the Bell/Agusta AB139 is a strong candidate for the medium twin market and the Brazilian military.

Smaller companies trying to enter the Latin American market include:

  • Enstrom Helicopter Company, Menominee, Michigan, whose 480 turbines and F28F piston helicopters operate in Brazil. The company is currently undergoing a major overhaul, increasing production to 15 units per year by the end of 2003. To sell them, Enstrom will try to expand its market share in Brazil;
  • MD Helicopters, Mesa, Arizona, which is expected to test the waters in the executive and corporate markets with the Explorer;
  • Robinson Helicopter Company, Torrance, California, which has the largest private helicopter fleet in Brazil; and
  • Former Soviet Bloc companies Kazan, Mil and PZL-Swidnik, all of which are looking for new markets. Kazan and Mil already have a presence in several Latin American countries, mostly with the Mi-17.

While these and other airframe manufacturers have taken an interest in expanding their markets in Brazil, serious economic and political questions remain. Will Brazil pay down its debt? Will the real continue to drop in value, or will it stabilize? Can the economy recover the foreign capital it lost? Will the Labor Party succeed in raising Brazil’s standard of living?

The answers to all of these questions will determine whether Brazil’s rotorcraft industry is headed for a boom or a bust.


Brazil: Room to Grow

Brazil has the largest helicopter market in Latin America. Despite the ups and downs of the country’s economic performance in the last few years, the helicopter market has been registering constant growth.

The market is already served by leading helicopter manufacturers, but there are still great opportunities for suppliers. Brazil offers one of the most promising markets in the world for manufacturers of helicopter avionics, parts and accessories.

According to the Brazilian Civil Aviation Department (DAC), the helicopter fleet in 2001 was composed of 897 civil aircraft and 248 military aircraft. The civil fleet increased 92% from 1995 to 2001, while the military fleet increased 22% in the same period.

The fleet is composed of 20% piston helicopters, 54% single-engine turbines, and 26% twin turbines.

Nearly 500 civil aircraft operate in the state of São Paulo, most of them in the city of São Paulo. The city has the third largest helicopter fleet in the world, after New York and Tokyo, and the world’s busiest helicopter traffic. Daily movement in the city of São Paulo exceeds 350 takeoffs and landings.

To meet this demand, there are about 200 helipads certified by the Brazilian Civil Aviation Department, and another 40 in the process of obtaining the certification. In addition to the helipads, where passengers are only picked-up or dropped-off, the city is served by five heliports that offer a full range of services.

The second largest Brazilian market is the state of Rio de Janeiro, with about 200 aircraft, followed by the state of Minas Gerais, with 100 aircraft.

Below is the breakdown of the helicopter fleet in Brazil by manufacturer.

There are no restrictions on importing civilian helicopters into Brazil. However, the importer must have complete documentation and must request an authorization from the Committee of Civil Transportation (COTAC) within the Department of Civil Aviation (DAC).

COTAC is responsible for the control of all imported civil aircraft. Four different departments within COTAC analyze the request before the Director General of the DAC grants the authorization. This process takes at least 15 days.

The aircraft must then obtain a certificate issued by the Technological Center of Aeronautics. To be certified, aircraft must meet all Brazilian technical and safety requirements. U.S. aircraft and parts that meet FAA requirements usually can be registered in Brazil without major difficulties.

Additional information on the DAC’s procedures for the importation of aircraft is available at the department’s web site, www.dac.gov.br.

Helicopter Fleet by Use
































(Source: DAC, Guia do Helicóptero 2002)

Civil Fleet by Manufacturer


Fleet size

Share (%)













MD Helicopters












(Source: DCA, Guia do Helicóptero 2002)

Military Fleet by Manufacturer


Fleet size

Share (%)



















(Source: DCA, Guia do Helicóptero 2002)

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