Commercial

The Politics Behind the Rise of Argentina’s Cicaré Helicopters

By Georgina Hunter-Jones | May 4, 2018

Cicare Helicopters 8 ultralight

The Cicaré 8 ultralight, which has an empty weight of 620 lbs, can be purchased in kit or factory-built forms. Photo courtesy Gerald and Georgina Cheyne

There is only one helicopter manufacturer in Argentina, Cicaré SA. It is also the only indigenous helicopter manufacturer in South America. While Brazil and Chile have thriving civilian helicopter industries, neither of them house original manufacturers.

Brazil has Helibras, owned by Airbus, and Embraer, which had an abortive attempt at indigenous helicopter production with Agusta.

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In the civilian use of helicopters, however, Argentina lags far behind its neighbors despite having suitable climatic and landscape conditions. While Brazil and Chile have many civilian helicopter operators in the air medical, search and rescue, oil and gas, firefighting and VIP roles, in Argentina the Army Aviation Service performs all humanitarian, medical, emergency and firefighting operations.

The reason is both financial and political: Argentina has had a plethora of changing governments, periods of instability and rampant inflation and corruption, and is only now achieving a more stable government. Chile has had a stable economic environment for the past 45 years, and although Brazil has been less stable than Chile, it has had periods of immense growth. Brazil also has offshore oil and a population of 200 million, while Argentina has only 40 million and is still researching oil and gas opportunities.

Augusto Cicaré, inventor, designer and CEO of Cicaré SA Helicópters, started his business with few funds and with an attitude of curiosity and a desire to create and fly the magnificent flying machines he had seen in magazines. In 1958, despite having never seen an actual helicopter, and knowing little of helicopter design, Cicaré designed and built one, the CH-1, which flew for the first time with a 30-hp engine — himself the test pilot.

However, this period in Argentina was not conducive to growth as the early spurt of economic prosperity after World War II was evaporating after President Juan Peron nationalized British-owned railroads and other properties and caused investment in his country to dry up. Inflation at this time soared to 40%, and eventually Peron fled to be replaced by a military coalition. Nonetheless, Cicaré’s company continued, partly funded by Augusto’s wife’s teaching job and by friends as investors.

Augusto Cicare helicopter designer, inventor and owner

Augusto Cicaré, now 80 years old, has been designing and building helicopters since 1958. Photo courtesy of Gerald and Georgina Cheyne

By the 1970s, a series of presidents and military governments had failed to give the economy any prosperity and there was a general clamor for the return of Peron. President Peron did return briefly, but was unable to deal with the factionalism and died of a heart attack. His third wife took his place, and inflation soared to 600%. At this time, the generals again took over the country. Despite all this government tension, Cicaré continued to develop his helicopters and next produced the CH3 in 1975.

In 1989, Carlos Menem took power, encouraged foreign investment, slashed import tariffs and restored the economy. In 1991 the Argentine Peso was linked to the U.S. dollar in an attempt to eliminate hyperinflation and stimulate growth.
During Menem’s presidency Cicaré built the best known of his products — the SVH3 helicopter trainer, which brought him to prominence as an Argentinean designer and also brought in some much-needed income as he sold models to the Argentinean police and other military as a trainer.

In 2000, the British entrepreneur Gary McCormack bought four Cicaré SVH3s, which he took to the U.K. for corporate entertainment with his company, Blue Sky Blue. The company then looked ready to expand into Europe.

Unfortunately, this period of success was followed by a crash in the Argentinean economy, followed by regulatory problems with the U.K. purchases. Gary McCormack’s company ceased trading, the British SVH3s were put in the back of a hangar and Cicaré Helicopteros SA went into liquidation. It was later reborn as Cicaré SA.

In the mid-2000s, the military approached Cicaré’s company regarding a collaboration for a classified helicopter design. The Cicaré CH-14 Helicopter was to be the first design of a family of helicopters that were to provide national solutions for the requirements of the armed forces, security and civil market.

In January 2006, Cicaré S.A. began the design and production of the experimental prototype of the CH-14.  The stage of design and development was done under FAR 27.  In March 2007, the first test flights were performed. The production had the participation of the Technical Department of the Army Aviation Command and numerous national suppliers.

The final Cicaré CH-14 prototype was a light tandem helicopter, powered by the Rolls-Royce Allison 250 C20-B turbine engine. There were also plans for a larger version, the CH-16, which would have CH-14 components but with more seats.
However, when the helicopter was demonstrated in flight for the first time in public Nov. 23, 2007, at Argentina Army Aviation Day, it appeared that its first public flight would also be its last.

In 2007, President Néstor Kirchner had stood aside for his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who became president in his stead. Funding for the machine was withdrawn, the helicopter was mothballed and the government went on to new projects. The Cicaré Company was back where it started.

Cicare Helicopters CH-14

Cicare Helicopters CH-14. Photo courtesy of Gerald and Georgina Cheyne

Once again Augusto and his family, who were by this time also working for the company, refused to give up on their dream. They continued with their previous projects like the trainer CH-2002, a helicopter with a Subaru 165-hp engine. Also the CH-7, which was designed as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), and the still popular SVH-3 simulator, now upgraded to the SVH-4, commercially known as the Cicaré Trainer, with a four-stroke engine and governor.

In 2015, there was a change of government in Argentina. Mauricio Macri swept into power, and the previous president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, found herself fighting corruption allegations.

Since then the economy in Argentina has slowly improved, and its government is once again working to make business feasible in the nation. Cicaré SA has been granted a government loan to build a new hangar and expand its business, which it hopes to grow fast, initially building 20 helicopters a year, with a chance to expand further.

Today, it has several new models, but is concentrating specifically on the Cicaré 8 ultralight. It is also looking for certification for the two-seat Cicaré 12 model, which the company hopes will be used as a helicopter trainer. Both of these seem to have a potentially large market share. They also continue to improve, market and sell the Cicaré trainer, something unique to the Cicarés and Argentina. Finally it seems that, as Augusto Cicaré celebrates his 80thbirthday, his time has come:

“If,” said Raul Hector Oreste, CCO at Cicaré, “we had an economy as stable as the U.S., you would be looking at an Argentinean Frank Robinson.”

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