São Paulo, the World’s Helicopter Capital

 - October 27, 2008, 11:31 AM

High above the miles-long ribbons of daily traffic jams in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, there is luxurious freedom in the more than 420 helicopters that flit from rooftop to rooftop. According to Cleber Mansur, president of the Brazilian Helicopter Pilots Association, that number will approach 460 helicopters by 2010. And, he added, there are currently 260 helipads in this sprawling metropolis of more than 3,000 square miles.

It all began in the early 1990s, when main highways into the city became jammed, not merely at rush hour but virtually any hour. Today, São Paulo is home to some 20 million people and about 6 million automobiles, and a one-hour drive from Guarulhos International Airport to the city center became two and even three hours. Growing crime rates darkened the outlook. It was not unheard of for criminals to walk up to limos stuck in traffic and demand money from passengers. Worse still, passengers were sometimes forced from their vehicle, taken to the nearest automatic teller machine and ordered to empty their accounts.

Faced with this, those with the means discovered that helicopters offer the perfect solution: speed and security. As the ranks of wealthy individuals and companies in and around São Paulo swelled, so did the number of helicopters.

In 2008, looking up at the sky from between the towering skyscrapers during rush hour, it seems almost as if there is as much traffic above the city as there is below.
Even in a city of some 3,000 square miles, maneuvering a fleet of 420 helicopters offers operational challenges, and the city and operators are attempting to deal with them.

Working with local authorities, São Paulo helicopter operators have established a series of main flight corridors, most of which follow the two main rivers and the major highways that pass through the city. There are also connecting corridors, and each corridor has an assigned altitude, typically between 2,000 and 3,500 feet. By common consent, pilots remain in contact with one another on the agreed-to 127.35 MHz radio frequency. Above 3,500 feet, helicopter traffic is regulated by São Paulo ATC.

Most of the helipads were built at a time (in the not-so-distant past) when there were no regulations governing helicopter traffic patterns. As a result, there remain many intersecting approaches to helipads.

According to Mansur, a new law will require that in such cases, one of the landing sites must be closed. Another law will require a minimum of 400 meters separation between helipads. This too might force the closing of some.

A different solution had to be worked out for helicopter operations in the vicinity of Congonhas Airport, located not far from the city center. There are nearly 30 helipads on either side of the Congonhas Airport Runway 17 approach and the problem, explained Mansur, is that the TCAS equipment on helicopters flying in close proximity to the approach was setting off TCAS warnings in fixed-wing aircraft landing at Congonhas.

“Needless to say, this was alarming to the fixed-wing pilots, despite the fact that the fixed-wing airplanes were transiting the area at about 4,000 feet and the helicopters were operating at about 2,000 feet.”

The solution was to establish a control area around and above the runway approach that is regulated by São Paulo ATC, with a floor of 3,100 feet. Helicopter traffic must have permission from ATC to climb above 3,100 feet and enter the control area, and that approval is granted only when there is no transiting fixed-wing traffic.

At this point, rules governing helicopter traffic above metropolitan São Paulo, said Mansur, seem to be working efficiently and contributing to operational safety. On the other hand, he warned, the association has become aware that too many helicopter pilots tend to focus on the instrument panel and trust in TCAS to warn them of any traffic threats.

As the helicopter corridors in São Paulo become still more crowded, safety will become more critical, added Mansur. After all, he pointed out, “Even the helicopter sales people are anticipating that by 2011 the helicopter fleet in São Paulo will reach about 600 aircraft.”