What was once a problem confined to the Southern European countries is becoming an issue all over Europe. The global rise in temperatures mean that major fires in France and Germany are just as likely as Spain, Italy or Portugal. The EU is currently considering a firefighting brigade or mechanism, so that countries can help each other. Firefighting is clearly top of mind.
Helibravo, in Portugal, has been training helicopter pilots in firefighting since 1996. Working closely with the Portuguese Civil Aviation Authority to improve firefighting capabilities. If there’s smoke anywhere in Portugal, there are 38 helicopter bases in the north and south of the country, ready for immediate take-off. We talked to João Bravo, who founded Helibravo. Where did it all begin?
“My father used to have a helicopter. He promised me, that if I did well at school, I could train for my licence at 18. Unfortunately, there was a revolution in Portugal, everything was nationalised, my father had to sell the helicopter and his company. We went to live in Lausanne Switzerland, near an aerodrome. Whilst I was studying, I was loving to see all these small planes taking off and landing.
Later I was in England at an exhibition, nothing to do with aviation. I saw a client flying in, in a small Robinson helicopter. I went to see the dealer who was very successful at importing helicopters from America to England and thought that this was something I could create in Portugal.”
João started with two small Robinsons, immediately winning a contract for traffic helicopters in Lisbon and Porto for a radio station. That was in 1993, the same year he started the flight school, instantaneously getting 10 private students for the first course, followed by another course with five commercial pilots.
“I had an advantage with the Robinsons, number one in the world for training pilots. However, flying helicopters is a capital-intensive business, I really needed something more to help the company grow. That’s when I started with the first helicopters for firefighting, which I did for the Portuguese Ministry of Internal Administration. Proposing Polish helicopters, the big ones with twin engines.”
Helibravo also brought in the Bell 205 and then Airbus helicopters.
“We now have 12 Airbus helicopters. There’s a fleet of 38 helicopters flying for the Portuguese Air Force. We supply them with helicopters for the firefighting season, in the summer. With 26 years of experience in firefighting, we really know what it takes.”
How do you become a firefighting pilot? Can you apply somewhere? Do you need to have certain training? How does that work?
“We work with very experienced pilots, who have done a lot of flying and are used to many different situations, like search and rescue. We give them specific training for firefighting. At the same time, we’re happy to have many pilots with us today, who started with us from zero. They begin as commercial pilots, after around 200 hours they’re ready for air transport and they carry out air tours of Lisbon, building up experience.
They also do special courses, so they fly a lot of hours every year. The minimum hours they need to have: 800. They might also do some aerial work during their training. When they’re lifting goods, we will give them the turbine licence for the Squirrel, the helicopter we use for firefighting. Also known as the AS350, or the H125 from Airbus. When they have 800 hours of flying experience and 100 hours in the turbine, they are in principle ready. It’s my main pilot instructor who will then make the decision whether they are right for firefighting, because the main thing is what’s going on in their head.”
Helibravo has had many excellent pilots who are just not cut out for firefighting. All pilots are observed over the whole period of their training. When it’s clear that they are firefighting material, pilots receive a special course, which is 15 hours of training and 15 hours of flying.
“Firefighting training is carried out at sea level. Then another five hours at 5,000 feet, where we use our base in the north of Portugal. The training is very demanding, when they have passed all the training they’re ready for firefighting. However, we then have three levels, the youngest pilots are first sent to the least busy national bases. The best pilots are then sent to the busiest bases in their third year.”
Helibravo has a highly structured programme. The right pilot, for the right job in the right place. All the training has been developed in-house, with no formal exams from EASA or the Portuguese regulator.
“We work closely with the Portuguese Civil Aviation Authority. All the years of experience together, we’re always developing something better. They make restrictions and impose some rules, which is normal. We’re at the forefront, together I think that we’re doing a great job.”
What makes Helibravo an attractive choice for an aspiring or experienced pilot?
“Well, for the beginners, if everything goes well, they’re guaranteed a career. Regarding the firefighting it really depends on who they are. That is not written into an agreement that I make with them, it depends on their psychological profile and many other things. However, there are many other jobs, like flying passengers and aerial work. The courses are expensive, many people are financed by the bank, therefore a guaranteed job is important. At this moment there is a shortage of pilots, so we’re renting pilots from Brazil, because they speak Portuguese. A must for firefighting.”
What makes Helibravo attractive for international students?
“We have a good climate, you can fly all year round. Life here is cheap, Portuguese people are easy-going and not so stressed as in many other countries. Our main base is on the coast, a beautiful place for young people, with plenty of good places to go out. It’s enjoyable.”
Helibravo is a founding member of the Leading Helicopter Academies (LHA), Europe’s first network of helicopter companies, founded to raise flying standards in Europe. Learn more about special operations, pilot licences, ratings, missions, simulators and customised programmes at www.lha.eu.