Brazil's father of aviation

Rudolf Sárdi
April 12, 2012

Few have realized that the countless faces of Brazil, occupying a territory almost as large as the United States, would still be shrouded in darkness had it not been for the emergence of civil aviation, as a result of which the previously impassable regions of the country became accessible.

“Buckle up, we are going to land,” is the antepenultimate line of the song that every Brazilian knows by heart. Songwriter and performing artist Tom Jobim was allegedly on his final approach to Rio de Janeiro’s international airport when, in a flash of sheer inspiration, he began to compose the sensuously aching melody of Samba do Aviao, known as the “Airplane Samba” in English. The lyrics of this soaring composition describe the euphoria he felt when flying high over the Marvelous City and catching sight of the airport, which now, suitably, bears Jobim’s name.
Flying in Brazil is simply magic. Even one landing in the dazzling sunshine at Rio’s international airport is reminded of a myriad of songs, of something idyllic, something longed-for. Tropical breezes, stunning women on white sandy beaches, and crystalline waters reflecting blue skies only serve as an accompaniment to the rhythms, the astounding wildlife, the jungles, the culturally bustling metropolises and the colonial architecture of Brazil, all of which have earned the country its unrivalled reputation. Flying inside Brazil is not only regarded as a breathtaking experience, but has become an absolute necessity to open up the country, facilitating the movement of goods and connecting people with one another.

While Europe and the entire English-speaking world eulogize the Wright brothers’ achievement in flying, few Brazilians would share the same view without serious reservations. For his revolutionary work in manned flight, Alberto Santos-Dumont is proudly called the ‘Father of Aviation’ in his native country. He left Brazil at a tender age and moved to Paris where he applied his mechanical skills to building and flying aircraft. In 1906, Santos-Dumont flew 715 feet and became internationally famous as the first man to fly an airplane – a claim that was later disputed when the Wright Brothers were revealed to have flown their own plane secretly in 1903. Brazilians argue that the Americans worked sub rosa for the most part, and failed to invite journalists to witness their maiden attempts. While this version of the story is not unequivocally rejected by all Brazilians, they do propose that the Wright Brothers were only able to lift off from the ground because of a combination of favorable weather conditions and the assistance of an external launching pad. Deeply depressed over the militarization of airplanes during World War I, Santos-Dumont committed suicide. His name is known today by foreign visitors not so much because of his contribution to aviation, but mainly because Rio’s main domestic airport – in the vicinity of the widely photographed Sugar Loaf – was named after him. However, Brazilians cherish him as one of their greatest countrymen of all time (his hometown bears his name and his birthday is an occasion for national festivities). His hat symbolically appears at the website of EMBRAER, the world’s third largest aircraft manufacturer.

New vistas

Santos-Dumont opened up new vistas in flying, but his contribution to the exploration of Brazil was only the beginning of a long and important process. When a small group of idealistic men gathered in Porto Alegre in 1927, they could hardly have imagined that the document they were signing would herald the initiation of a vast air transportation complex, a company that would one day become respected all over the world. Perhaps even more importantly, they could not then have suspected that their newborn company was to play a vital role as a unifying force within its home country, serving as a critical link which would one day connect all of the diverse areas of their vast nation. Although, those hardy pioneers may not have envisioned the enormous future growth of their fledging operation, they were certain on that day that their immediate goals were achievable.
And above all, they had enormous faith in Brazil and in the Brazilian people. These men, filled with the spirit of enterprise, brought into existence the nation’s flag carrier, Varig Brazilian Airlines. For 15 years, Otto Ernst Meyer directed Varig, with Ruben Berta, his indefatigable colleague, at his side. In 1941, when Brazil sided with the Allies against Germany in World War II, Otto Ernst Meyer became fearful that his German origins might create difficulties for the company. Following his resignation, Ruben Berta (who, incidentally, was of Hungarian extraction) assumed the position of president of the company only to restructure the airline to meet Brazil’s post-war expansion needs. A new phase in the airline’s history had begun. Its greatest period of expansion commenced in 1953, when the Brazilian government guaranteed Varig regular flight service to New York, which was only the first step toward making the company an international symbol of excellence of Brazilian products and services.


The advent of the Jet Age in Brazil brought with it prospects of regional and international expansion, making Hungary the very first nation in East-Central Europe to officially represent the carrier in 1965 for the successful promotion of Brazil. This event is still seen today as a milestone in initiating several commercial and tourism-related activities between the two countries, which greatly facilitated passenger air travel from one country to another. Up until the 1970s, small groups of Brazilians made their way to Hungary, while Hungarians were only later allowed to visit the South American country as participants of package tours. Individual travel to Brazil began to rise as visa procedures slackened and the political situation in Brazil underwent important changes.
When the visa obligation between the two countries was eventually lifted, further impetus was given to tourism on both sides. Thanks to the airline’s Hungarian presence and its close cooperation with the Embassy of Brazil, more than 30,000 Hungarians were able to fly to South America to get to know the nation that a recent CNN story has qualified as being “the world’s coolest nationality.”
In 2006, one of the world’s most reputed air carriers fulfilled its historic destiny, and Brazil’s formerly monopolized aviation industry was carved up into chunks of varying sizes, making the way for large-scale competition inside and outside the country. While it may seem that the halcyon days of flying occupy their rightful place in the history books, several airlines (TAM, GOL, Webjet, TRIP, Azul, and even TAP Portugal) have divided up among themselves the crowded Brazilian airspace, as of late. Brazil’s economic stamina has remained unshaken, and it seems now that aviation will continue to play a key role in connecting the rest of the world with even the remotest destinations of the huge South American country. And Tom Jobim’s approaching airplane will keep performing her dance to the rhythm of the samba.

Rudolf Sárdi

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