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.