São Paulo, Brazil — City of Helicopters

July 9, 1997
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzSeeing a helicopter in the skies above an American city is still an event that is rare enough that those who hear its rotors whirring tend to look skyward. I have had the chance to ride in a helicopter only a few times in my life, and those times were when I used to study revolution in Africa (Portuguese Guinea, to be exact). Riding in a helicopter is an exhilarating experience (at least it is to me). When it lifts off the ground, it seems to do so in slow motion. You can see just about every detail on the ground, more detail than you would expect to see.

Anyway, helicopter rides are rare. And when there is no war going on, just about the only time we come across them is when we hear a traffic report from a news station s helicopter reporters in the morning or late in the afternoon. In Boulder, we also see them when the Bolder Boulder and Kinetics races are run, or when the search-and-rescue teams look for lost hikers and climbers in the foothills. The rarity of helicopter sightings may be one of those things that is changing with the times, but not here in America; at least not yet.

During a recent trip to South America, I flew on Varig, a Brazilian airline. I was looking through its in-flight magazine, "Ícaro," for June 1997 and came across an article by Brazilian writer Carlos Moreas called São Paulo, Helicopter Territory. São Paulo is the largest city in Brazil, with a population of over 10 million within the city. Some experts suggest that the population of the São Paulo metropolitan region numbers between 17 and 20 million. Of the 10 million in the city, statistics suggest that there is one auto for every two people. That translates into major traffic gridlock at various times of the day and on different days of the week.

São Paulo, too, has its traffic reporters flying around the city in helicopters, warning drivers of traffic jams and suggesting alternate routes. Not unlike in some American cities during high traffic flow periods (such as going to and from work), it can take a few hours to go just a few tens of miles from home to work.

Enter the helicopter. From here on I've got to rely on Moreas to tell you what it is like in São Paulo: Helicopters are fast, safe, and comfortable. Moreas tell of how sophisticated some of them are, with the capability to fly by instruments even when there is zero visibility. He notes that there are a few score of helipads around the city, in addition to heliports. Helipads can be placed in open squares or on the rooftops of high-rise buildings. Their number doubled from 30 in 1995 to 60 in 1996. Heliports are much more sophisticated, providing hangars and maintenance facilities.

São Paulo is quite a developed city. When I visited it for the first time a few years ago, I could not see why Brazil was called a developing country. It has all the amenities that one can find in the most advanced cities in the world, including a subway system (called the "Metro"). I mention this because Moreas noted in his article that some Brazilian investors are planning to build a heliport right in the middle of town, next to one of the major Metro stations.

Helicopters enable businessmen and other executives to sharply reduce their commuting time, at least to the most important meetings and conferences. They are also used to bring executives in from their homes in distant parts of the greater metropolitan area and back to them at the end of the work week.

Some companies own their helicopters, others lease them, and still others use helicopter taxi services. The costs for buying them, according to Moreas, ranges from $175,000 for a two-passenger unit, up to $6 million for the bigger ones with all the amenities.

One suburban helicopter shuttle service, located about 15 miles from the center of town in a suburb called Tambore, is unique in the sense that it is run and operated totally by women — including its pilots.

Moreas also reported that shuttle service helicopters have been seen hovering in the sky near powerlines so that they can be repaired from the air. They also transport large pieces of equipment from the air, so there is no need for extended traffic or construction delays.

So, why did this particular article capture my attention? Because I think that it will eventually be the wave of the future. As transportation networks become increasingly clogged on the ground, more and more people will take to the air — more specifically, to helicopters.

It reminds me of the cartoon we used to watch some decades ago called The Jetsons. Set a few centuries ahead of the present, families used to jet around from one neighborhood or city to another in their little space ships. Well, before we get there, we are more likely to pass through the helicopter phase.

São Paulo is a city of the future. It is a huge megalopolis with transportation arteries that are often clogged. It is a booming city, the industrial heart (one might argue) of Brazil. Brazilian entrepreneurs are quite clever and do not miss many opportunities to make progress ("Progress" is one of the words on the Brazilian flag). When it comes to the use of the helicopter for commuting, I think that they have surpassed their counterparts in many countries. I would bet that we'll be hearing a lot more of those rotor blades overhead in the not-so-distant future.

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