Aviation spirit

September 2, 2011

By David Mercado

After being lost for nearly an hour in the north of El Alto, a city at 3,800 meters (12,467 ft) above sea level and one of the poorest and fastest growing in Latin America, we arrived at the home of Jaime Cancari. Jaime and his sons Hugo and Franklin, who like most of this city are ethnic Aymaras, have decided to become Bolivia’s first helicopter builders. We were there to visit their factory.

In a country with no aviation industry, we were at least expecting to find a small factory with considerable technology, but were shocked to find no more than a primitive workshop. The Cancaris normally make the iron bumpers and roof racks that are an essential part of off-road vehicles in Bolivia, where paved roads are few. The frames that resembled the beginnings of a helicopter were sitting in the same dirt yard where the Cancaris live and work.

Jaime and his sons Franklin and Hugo appeared in impeccable blue uniforms with a computerized logo sewn on them that read, “Cancari, Helicopters for Bolivia.” We started by asking about the project and their technical credentials, but the answer was, in the least, astonishing. None of the Cancaris had finished high school, and the team leader Jaime expressed himself better in his native Aymara than in Spanish.

These facts impressed me and although at the start the word “crazy” might have occurred to me, in the end I was impressed by their conviction and spirit. The idea for the project was born 15 years earlier when Jaime promised his sons that one day they would build helicopters. The building began six months ago with the challenge of proving that they could do anything they put their minds to.

With primitive tools and bits of metal recycled from garbage dumps and flea markets, the trio works every day. They now have completed part of the frame for a one-man chopper, with the main and tail rotors well advanced. Hugo confirmed that they have no diagrams or plans, with their only experience having been the observation of helicopters at a local Air Force fair. They told how they fell in love with the aircraft for its versatility and what they learned of its use in rescue missions.

It was quickly obvious that they were talented in working with tubes and bars of steel. Their goal is to finish three different models of helicopters during 2012. Leader and father of the team, Jaime said he hopes to interest President Evo Morales, also an ethnic Aymara, in the project. Morales recently inaugurated a helicopter pilot academy in the east of the country.


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Posted by rodri200000 | Report as abusive

Create and believe, is what it takes
Jorge Perez

Posted by jopeza | Report as abusive

They had better learn some aeronautical engineering first. Helicopters have a problem with vibration. They can tear themselves apart by shaking themselves to pieces.

My father used to work on these things as an aerospace engineer. He mentioned how the rotor can develop several modes of vibration that can reinforce each other until the rotor throws itself out of alignment and the blades fly off. Helicopters are not capable of loosing even a few inches from a blade or they fall like stones. They can’t glide. The blades have to balance each other perfectly or it’s easy to visualize what happens.

They also don’t appear to have any reliable way of determining whether the welds are strong enough, not so much around the passenger seat frame but around the engine and rotor.

They could be building their own death traps. Helicopters were not built by backyard mechanics using scrap metal. They shouldn’t be trying to build these things. They don’t have the knowledge or the materials.

I’m sending this link to my father and he could explain better what the issues are.

But before any of them tried to fly the thing they should weight the landing frame and run the engine and rotor for a long time and get out of the way.

They would be better off trying to build low cost ground transportation for local use.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Sadly, this will all end in tears… Even if by some miracle this thing flies without killing them, it will never get certified

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

President Evo Morales would do well to look into this risky enterprise sooner than later as the points made regarding safety and certification are well taken. I work as an aerospace machinist/technician and would be concerned even if these talented guys were simply building ultralight planes instead of helicopters. FEA is the science of structural stess/strain on load bearing structures at all levels of physics and I’m betting that science isn’t being applied in at any real level in this primitive craft effort. Word of advice: Stick to off road vehicle roof racks and bumpers for now, guys. They only have 6 feet at the most to hit the ground.

Posted by pantognoni | Report as abusive

The Eeyores amongst the commenters here may want to consider whether or not they would have given the same advice to Igor Sikorksy in the 1930’s, simply because he didn’t have access then to the body of knowledge they do now? Or do they believe that Bolivian technology is somehow in excess of 80 years behind first world technology?

How many helicopters were built in the USA before the advent of finite element analysis after fast computers appeared in the 1970’s? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand?

When I was at school, I learnt that if the Wright brothers’ wing-warping technology had really worked in the way they imagined it did, the Flyer would have buried itself in the ground immediately. Fortunately for all of us, the mistakes in their calculations just offset their lack of understanding of aerodynamics. This is what we, in the West, used to call progress….

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

@Ian_Kenmish – Sikorshy aircraft in Long Island was where my father worked at the time. He knew the man. It didn’t take high speed computers to figure out the vibration problem. He used a slide rule. The problem was solved in the early 50’s. They were used extensively in the Korean War.

The Wright bros. were working at a time when everything about aircraft design was more or less unknown. And a plane can fly without power as a glider. If you know how to do it you can make a powerless landing. I can’t, because I never went on to learn how to fly beyond taking the control in the air and trying to stay level and on course and to maintain speed. It would have been a very expensive hobby. I didn’t try to pursue it because, unless you love it and have the time and income, it takes several hours every year to stay certified and to keep the plane up to date.

The Helicopter was the invention of professional engineers. Sikorsky was making planes prior to the helicopter. The man was the offshoot of Polish aristocrats I recently found out. You can actually find their old estate on Wikipedia. I think he had to flee Hitler. There’s another name to look up. He’d had an education in civil engineering. They didn’t anticipate the vibration problem. That was one of the first problems my father worked on. And he doesn’t trust them to this day.

Volunteer to be their first test pilot. But please tell them not to take the kids with them before they know it will fly for several hours without breaking up.

You’re not a fan of the “Astronaut Farmer” are you? That movie was lunacy. That character bankrupted his family, could have destroyed his entire homestead (he burned down his barn) and almost killed everyone in the vicinity and the writers suggested that it was narrow mindedness and envy on the part of the FAA (I can’t quite remember the details) that he was given such grief in the pursuit of his “dream”. It would be a charming and uplifting tale it weren’t for the fact that the man was actually building a WMD and didn’t seem to realize it.

The Wright Bros. weren’t working with scrap metal and neither was Sikorsky aircraft. The Helicopter is a tour de force. But it isn’t unknown territory. They could hit the books themselves or find someone who can help them. What they are really building is a helicopter sculpture – from the sounds of it.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Low cost aircraft are badly needed in third world countries. The fall of the USSR helped some, but most of those aircraft are now worn out and need replacement.
I’d like to see these guys succeed but they have a difficult problem. Let’s hope no one gets hurt.

Posted by ChrisHerz | Report as abusive

This is pretty Amazing seeing Native Americans commit to their own Technology development through Trial and Error. Native Americans never had “Western” Education when they built the Inca and Mayan Empires so they don’t need “Western” Education for modern “trial and Error” technological development.

Posted by Anonymous1533 | Report as abusive