Twice in a single week I have been amazed by contrasts from the air.
But it wasn’t the flaming gold of the autumnal Scandinavian birch forests over which my aircraft skimmed on the approach to Stockholm on Monday. Nor was it the circular, livid green irrigation pivots surrounded by the brown, still-parched and summery flatlands of central Spain over which our plane circled on Thursday, as we waited for a slot at Madrid’s Barajas airport.
It was the plane itself. On both trips I was travelling out from London’s short-haul City commuter airport on an EMB 190 regional airliner made in Brazil. This plane can take off from a pocket-handkerchief, slices through turbulence, and is amazingly quiet inside. 99% of the passengers think it’s just another small Airbus. Nobody knows this plane is BRIC-made.
The contrast in my mind was between the sleek commuter jet of today, and the aircraft of yesterday that for me sets the standard in Brazilian aviation: The Bandit.
Nobody remembers the Bandit nowadays: it’s a museum piece. But time was, this 14-seater twin-engine pig of a plane made by the (then) state-owned Embraer aircraft factory was the pride of Brazilian industry. Even though it looked (and sounded) like a mini-Dakota, it was even exported to the US, and carried sulky commuters into Dallas and San Francisco.
Properly known as the Bandeirante (a Brazilian term for rapacious 16th and 17th century Portuguese colonizers and slave-hunters opened up the backlands), this regional commuter plane carried me across Brazil on puddle-hopping journeys dozens of times in the 1980s, enveloping me in a cloud of brown dust and kerosene I still find romantic. Once, flying to Fernando de Noronha island some 200 miles offshore, the co-pilot (there was no hostess) told us they’d taken out the life-raft to save weight, as anyway no one would survive the shark attacks if were forced to ditch in the ocean.
What amazes me is that the Bandit – slow, smelly, unpressurized, dangerous, cantankerous – could in just 30 years have spawned an industry that has put Brazil on the global map as a major aviation power. It was truly the grandfather of today’s sleek EMB 190 that whisks me around Europe – and gave me food for thought about Brazil’s stunning process of modernization and the role that aviation has played.
The Allied Powers grew fat on the technological spoils of vanquished Germany’s aircraft industry after World War Two – the USA got rocket scientist Werner von Braun who with NASA put a man on the moon. Brazil, as a junior partner in the handout, only got the scraps no one else wanted, including a seemingly useless helicopter and gyrocopter programme half-forgotten by the Nazis themselves.
Nevertheless, by the mid 1950s Brazilian Air Force engineers attached to the aeronautics institute in São José dos Campos had built a working version of a propeller powered Harrier jump jet. But they didn’t have an engine – and both the US and the UK made very sure they wouldn’t get one. Instead, Brazil was offered a Piper aircraft franchise and told to get on with it. A decade later Embraer was producing the Tucano advanced military trainer that Britain’s RAF ended up buying. In the 90s, foreign capital came into Embraer and the rest is history.
The Bandit spawned something else – a nearly-global Brazilian business that’s on target to soon become the world’s third largest publicly-quoted commercial airline and which is going head-to-head with British Airways in daily aircraft movements. The airline business is TAM, which at 35 years of age is now the Brazilian flag-carrier and is about to merge with Chile’s LAN to produce a South American giant that will rattle the Iberia-BA combo.
Thirty years ago, I remember TAM when it was little more than a regional air-taxi operation run by a beaming chief pilot, Commander Rolim. As I trudged out across the baking, dusty runways of Brazil’s regional airports through the 1980s, Rolim would always be standing, uniformed and ramrod-straight at the aircraft door, in front of an absurd scrap of red carpet, ready to welcome us aboard one of his rattletrap Bandits.
Just once, I’ve been lucky enough to get a First Class upgrade to one of the four flat beds on the big TAM Airbus that sometimes does the London – São Paulo leg, and I’ve flipped Rolim my personal salute (his helicopter ploughed into a mountain some time ago). And yes, they still have the red carpet. Mostly, though, I’m hunched in the cheaper seats, musing on how things have changed in the 30 years and hundreds of times I have now flown this route.
Which all makes me wonder whether continent-sized Brazil isn’t a country made for aviation. There’s none of that winter de-icing and fog that makes flying such a nightmare in northern climes. Today, São Paulo’s impossibly snarled traffic has spawned the world’s second-largest helicopter fleet.
Although “Flying Down to Rio” has lost some of its old magic since the wonderful old Electra propeller planes were withdrawn from the Rio- São Paulo shuttle in the late 80s (they had a magnificent rounded sofa in the tail of the plane where generous Scotch was served); there’s still something impossibly glamorous about touching down at Rio’s waterside municipal airport. Everything looks from the air like an animated Le Corbusier architectural drawing.
But this goes further because it’s not just that Brazil is made for aviation … there’s a strong argument that aviation was in fact made by Brazil. If you’re Brazilian, or French, you’ll know all about Alberto Santos Dumont.
He is acknowledged by these nations as the true father of flight – definitely not America’s Wright Brothers. Now, we all know that history is written by …. those who write the history books. And Brazilians have been conspicuously absent in penning these. But the facts are that Santos Dumont was indeed well and truly aloft in Paris before the Wrights catapulted their Kittyhawk into the air.
The story is a complicated one, which has spawned a crop of books already. In essence, the argument is a credibility game that pitches Latino against Anglo-Saxon; rich playboy against a pair of bicycle mechanics; a pacifist humanist against mercenary defence contractors; generous-to-a-fault ingeniousness against paranoid secrecy; lighter than air dirigibles against fixed wing aircraft. In the end, America won the PR battle, Brazil lost and Santos Dumont is now forgotten.
As the wealthy son of Brazilian coffee planters, Santos Dumont was sent to Paris in the 1890s to pursue his engineering studies, and his dream of powered flight. He enjoyed rockstar celebrity status for his series of mini-Zeppelins with which he – quite literally – dropped in for tea with the Parisian elite. He won a prize for navigating around the Eiffel Tower. And his heavier-than-air plane – 14 Bis – took off under its own power in front of a crowd of thousands. Because he was independently wealthy, Santos Dumont scorned the idea of patenting his discoveries, and gave away all his prize money. He was convinced aviation should be used to promote peace, not war.
At the same time, the Wright brothers were staging their own test in compulsive secrecy in a desperate attempt to sell their invention to the US Army to make their own fortunes. They certainly flew first with no witnesses – but just as certainly, their plane was catapulted into the air – while weeks or months later Santos Dumont took off under his own power before a huge crowd. And there’s little doubt that US operatives in Paris were actively engaged in military or commercial espionage to discover the Brazilian’s secrets. On one occasion, his equipment was sabotaged by US agents while in shipment.
Despite the adulation in which he was held in France, Santos Dumont was his own worst enemy. A depressive, vain and cantankerous homosexual, his own carping about imagined slights cut away his own support base. The use of aviation in wartime wracked him with guilt, and he eventually committed suicide.
I know these obscure things because my Brazilian wife is a direct descendant of Santos Dumont and we have a shelf of books about him. Three sisters who were the aviator’s aunts married three brothers, one of whom was my wife’s great grandfather.
Anyway, whether or not a Brazilian was the true father of aviation, his countrymen have certainly made up for it since. The Bandit and even Santos Dumont may be forgotten, but in terms of civil aviation, Brazil is currently riding high.
So why grudge the Wright Brothers their public place in the history books? And in our own family, we know who really got there first. And next time I’m in Brazil, I’ll see if I can’t get aloft in a Bandit. Just for the nostalgic smell of it …. and that thrilling 1980s vision of the speeding runway at my feet, glimpsed through alarmingly big holes in the floor.