Helicopter flying through the air in São Paulo

On February 11, Brazilians were shocked when news broke that journalist Ricardo Boechat —one of the country’s most-famous radio hosts—died in a helicopter crash on São Paulo’s ring road. According to the civil aviation agency, the company which owned the helicopter was not licensed to transport passengers. Sadly, Mr. Boechat’s case is hardly unique. Since 2008, Brazil has registered 58 fatal accidents involving helicopters.

We have compiled data on helicopter accidents from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and Brazil’s Aeronautical Accidents Investigation and Prevention Center (Cenipa) to map and catalog incidents registered in the country.

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São Paulo: the helicopter capital

Chaotic traffic combined with a high concentration of income has made São Paulo home to a massive volume of helicopters. While billionaire Michael Bloomberg liked to pose on the subway when he served as mayor of New York City, and Boris Johnson took his bike to work—São Paulo mayors often choose to take to the skies to move around the city.

Since the 1980s, media outlets use helicopters to monitor traffic. Having police chiefs serving as traffic jam pundits live on late-afternoon television has become a common occurrence.

In 2013, a study by the Brazilian Association of Helicopter Owners (Abraphe) pointed out that no other city in the world had as many helicopters as São Paulo. At the time, there were 411 such aircraft and 193 heliports—with 2,200 landings every day. Since then, the city has shut down two heliports. Data from the civil aviation agency doesn’t specify how many helicopters there are in the city of São Paulo—but shows a total of 868 state-wide.

Helicopter crashes

But if São Paulo leads in helicopter traffic, it also leads in accidents—one out of every four helicopter crashes in Brazil happened in the state. Among fatal incidents, the rate is even higher: one-third. Forty percent of São Paulo-based helicopter accidents are fatal—only Santa Catarina has a deadlier rate.

Almost half of Brazil’s registered helicopter crashes happened midway through flights, such as what happened this week with Mr. Boechat. Those are the deadliest kind, too—54 percent end up with deaths.

In many cases, though, authorities blame the pilot. In one-quarter of accidents, the cause of the incident was in how commands were applied. “It is possible that the pilot reduced speed way too much,” informs Cenipa. In 15 percent of total cases, the pilot’s attitude (speeding, for example) is to blame.

Looser regulations

Airlines and air taxi companies always have a person responsible for the operational safety of their fleet. Until this week, the national civil aviation agency was in charge of setting the experience and training requirements for such professionals. Now, however, companies will be able to set their own standards, following the current government’s belief in self-regulation by private entities.

On the other hand, people who have been considered responsible for accidents cannot occupy that position for at least five years. A regrettable irony is that this decree was published on February 11, the same day Ricardo Boechat died, flying in a helicopter which was not compliant with the law.

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SocietyFeb 15, 2019

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BY Marcelo Soares

Marcelo Soares is a Brazilian journalist specializing in data journalism and reader engagement.