The opening in April of a new $300 million extension to Helibras's Itajuba facility has finally established the Eurocopter subsidiary as Brazil's second original equipment manufacturer. Helibras had been selling, maintaining and final-assembling Eurocopter helicopters - and those from predecessor Aerospatiale - since being set up in 1978, but it was a Brazilian deal to buy 50 EC725 Super Cougars for its army, navy and air force in 2008 that has really elevated its status to OEM proper.
The initial aircraft will be manufactured in France but, as part of the contract, Helibras will begin full assembly from the 17th helicopter in the final quarter of 2013, with flight testing being carried out on helicopter number nine and ground testing two units later.
A local supply chain has been established, with 14 Brazilian companies winning contracts. By the time the 50th helicopter is delivered in 2017, each EC725 will have 50% local content, says Eduardo Mauad, executive vice-president.
However, Helibras's ambitions go much further than assembling around 33 helicopters for the Brazilian military. Helibras will also build from 2014 civilian versions of the Super Cougar - the EC225 - for the local market. Twelve are in service already in Brazil, and Mauad reckons there is a capacity for around 40-50 helicopters in its category - it competes with the Sikorsky S-92 - over the next five years. Helibras may benefit from Brazilian government export aid in its efforts to market the EC225 to other Latin American countries because of its local content, he says.
Beyond that lies the prospect of the first indigenous helicopter from a clean-sheet design. "We plan to develop a Brazilian helicopter in the next 10 years with the integration of a Brazilian supply chain," says Mauad. "We are not investing all this money just to produce 70 helicopters. We are investing in technology transfer, qualification and training."
By 2017, each EC725 will have 50% local content
Part of that investment includes a bustling engineering department - housed when we visited in a rather cramped first-floor office in Helibras's old factory, but soon to move to quarters in the new facility next door, construction of which began in 2010.
Three years ago, the department consisted of just nine engineers. Today, there are 65, but that will increase to 100 by 2015. French mingles with Portuguese in the chatter around the room. Around 40 engineers have been seconded from Eurocopter's headquarters in Marseilles. A similar number of Helibras engineers are updating their skills in France.
"Getting the design office growing and bringing in state-of-the-art tools is the most important thing for me," says Mauad. The expansion of the engineering capability is key to turning Helibras from a manufacturing and assembly facility into one that can develop its own systems and eventually a complete aircraft, he adds. "Our intention is that some Brazilian engineering will eventually be reversed into the French assembly line."
The Super Cougar deal has also helped Helibras to consolidate its legacy business, which sees it final-assemble, modify and maintain AS350/355 Ecureuils, EC120s and EC155 Dauphins for the local market. Late in 2010 it won a deal to lead a major upgrade of the Brazilian army's fleet of AS350s, with work scheduled to last until 2018. Under the contract, Helibras will modernise 36 of the single-engine aircraft with an automatic flight-control system and improved crew seats.
Total employment at Helibras is also growing fast, from 300 in 2008 to a projected 1,000 by 2015 - this in a city that has been largely dependent on agriculture. The EC725 deal - which will see the army and navy each receive 16 helicopters and the air force 18 - has had a number of "positive lateral effects" on the local economy, says Mauad. The local university is developing an aerospace engineering course in cooperation with a university in Toulouse.
An agreement between the state government and the Brazilian development agency will see a helicopter-technology centre being set up - a "mini version" of the facility in Brazil's aerospace capital Sao Jose dos Campos, says Mauad. Itajuba, a twisting 3h drive inland from the major cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, will also benefit from a new regional airport, being developed opposite Helibras's factory and due to open by 2014. It could have been very different for Helibras. The Brazilian government considered a Eurocopter proposal for French-built EC725s - which will be deployed in roles such as combat search and rescue, long-distance tactical airlift, medical evacuation, logistics support, naval missions and head of state transport. A study concluded that involving Helibras in the project would have substantial benefits for the Brazilian economy. "This is a big change for the Brazilian industry," says Mauad. "We are very proud to be part of it."
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