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Day 61: São José dos Campos

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With Thais and wearing my KLM clogs at the paling stall.
Michael Palin - BrazilIt's not altogether a surprise that Brazil should be good at building aircraft. One of the country's heroes is Alberto Santos-Dumont, known to Brazilians as 'the Father of Aviation'. He spent much of his working life in France, where he pioneered the use of balloons and dirigibles and in 1901 won a 100,000-franc prize for flying between Parc Saint-Cloud and the Eiffel Tower and back again in less than thirty minutes. In 1906 Santos-Dumont made the first public manned aircraft flight of sixty metres. The Wright brothers are generally thought to have been the first to fly, but they had no official witnesses. Santos-Dumont returned to Brazil. He ended his own life in 1932. Some say he had been overcome with despair that the aircraft he'd pioneered were being turned into weapons of war.

Embraer, indeed, began as a military aircraft manufacturer in 1969, but had a chequered history and in 1994 the Brazilian government, faced with high inflation and an increasing economic crisis, refused to put any more money in. A private consortium saved the company with savage cost-cutting, reducing the workforce from 18,000 to 3,000. An astute policy of concentrating on feeder jets and private aircraft saw it gradually recover. By the end of 2011 the company had nearly 2,000 planes on its order books and the workforce is back up to 17,000.

The rest of the day is spent in the assembly sheds, where everything from nose cones to wing sections is made. The atmosphere is cool, well ordered and almost aseptically efficient. Quite un-Brazilian in fact. Most impressive sight of the day is a set of gigantic American-made milling machines which gouge out patterns in the aluminium alloy wing spars. These behemoths, each one as high as a house, move slowly and remorselessly down the aluminium blanks. Their massive motors enable the drill bits, each with five axles capable of turning in five directions, to carve out cavities in the hard metal with the precision of a tattooist. The delicacy of the work for some reason brings to mind something from my child- hood – the motto on every can of Lyle's Golden Syrup, where, beneath the odd graphic of a lion with bees buzzing around it, were the words 'Out of the strong came forth sweetness'.

As I marvel at the sight of these hugely gentle machines, aluminium shavings flying out of them like sparks, I'm assured by my Embraer guide that these are now things of the past. For safety reasons, the new milling machines will be totally enclosed. Soon it will be impossible to see the biggest tattooists in the world at work.
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Embraer's sales team and KLM's 'acceptance team' celebrate in front of their twentieth collaboration.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 61: São José dos Campos
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São José dos Campos
  • Book page no: 255

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  • Miscellaneous
  • Day 3 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 34 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 22 
  • Pole to Pole


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