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Friday, February 1, 2008

Latin America Notebook: Venezuela: Helos Wanted

Claudio Agostini

PRODUCTS | AIRFRAMES

Latin America is a term coined by the Emperor Napoleon III in 1863 when he was seeking to extend France’s empire from Mexico to Chile’s Cape Horn. Since then, the region has had the main characteristics of a large number of countries with geographic, cultural, political, and economic diversities and societies and business environments based on relationships rather than rules.

The civil helicopter market is dominated by the Big Three of Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela (with the first two being the largest economies in the region). Their situation reflects the region’s 10 years of strong economic growth. The challenge of developing their markets lies in acquiring specific local knowledge necessary to take effective action and managing the whole business chain. In many cases, it also involves political will.

Development of Venezuela’s civilian helicopter fleet of about 200 aircraft seems to follow the same paths as Brazil (which has 1,089) and Mexico (with about 420), with key areas being infrastructure services, helipads, and sales to the executive/corporate, utility, and offshore segments.

Unique to Venezuela is the U.S. arms embargo. It has led the country to look elsewhere for military suppliers and seems to have caused collateral damage to the civilian helicopter markets. The major airframe manufacturers have local representatives and service centers in Venezuela. While U.S. firms’ representatives are optimistic about sales there, they are realistic about the lukewarm business relationship between the countries. That creates an opening for manufacturers from other countries.

Venezuela is the world’s sixth largest oil producer. The oil sector is of central importance to its economy. It accounts for roughly 90 percent of the country’s export revenues. Since the 1950s, Venezuela has exploited its huge onshore oil deposits and shallow-water ones like those in Lake Maracaibo.

It (like Brazil) is looking to increase oil and gas reserves. But Venezuela is looking to do so to increase revenues and become a big gas player in the region and the world. It is expanding projects along its 1,740-mi (2,800 km) coast like Delta Caribe (which is exclusively for exports), Mariscal Sucre, Rafael Urdaneta, and Golfo de Paria. The goal is to have all of them fully operational by 2010 – 12. Companies like PHI and CHC Helicopter are directly or indirectly engaged in Venezuela’s offshore operations.

The civilian fleet includes helicopters from AgustaWestland, Bell, Eurocopter, Enstrom, MD, Robinson, and Schweizer. It is dominated in numbers by Bell.

Latin American countries’ collective arms spending accounts for about 3 percent of total global military purchases. So Venezuela is far from the top of the list of world military spenders. But its military purchases are noticeably increasing.

The Venezuelan armed forces are made up of the army (ejército), navy (armada), air force (aviación) and national guard (guardia nacional). Helicopters are an important part of the current National Strategic Plan.

Venezuela has signed $3 billion in contracts with Russia. That is considerably larger than usual Russian military export deals, and includes a large number of helicopters, parts, and training aids for delivery up to 2010. The original proposal called for up to 55 aircraft for the armed forces and search and rescue units. Of that, 33 were to be designated for the army to support the Pemón Defense Project. The first Venezuelan pilots received their training in Russia in 2006.

To support the Russian helicopters, the Pemón deal included a large maintenance, repair, and training center for civilian and military pilots that is to be fully operational by 2010. It is to be built in a new $1.2 billion aeronautics compound being constructed near the Ezequiel Zamopra Airport in San Carlos, the capital of the state of Cojedes. The training center is to include five complete simulators, two of them mobile.

The center is to serve as a support base for Russian helicopter customers (military and civilian) throughout Latin America.

(Brazil currently is evaluating the purchase this year and next of 10 transport and 12 attack helicopters, including the Mi-17 and the Mi-35M respectively. The civilian version of the Mi-17 has been locally certified since 2005 for offshore operations. There’s also a plan to buy 4-6 heavy helicopters, with the Mi-26T2 probably competing with Boeing’s Chinook CH-47.)

These purchases are changing continent’s military balance of power and helping Russia to expand its business and political influence in Latin America.

As far as the inventory of Venezuelan military helicopters, the army operates AgustaWestland AS-61D Sea Kings, Bell 412HP/EPs and 206Ls, and Mil Mi-35s, Mi-17Vs, and Mi-26Ts. The navy flies AgustaWestland AB212s and Bell 412EPs and 206Bs. The air force operates Eurocopter AS552ACs and 552ULs and AS332B1s. The national guard flies AgustaWestland A109s, Bell 412HP/EPs and 206s, Eurocopter AS355F2s, and Enstrom F-28s and F-280s.

Although the Venezuelan military and parapublic helicopter markets are embracing a new main supplier, the civilian market remains fertile terrain for almost all types, applications, and manufacturers.

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