Brazil did not manufacture airplanes until 1935. In the land of Alberto Santos-Dumont, one of aviation’s pioneers, importing was the solution whenever any type of aircraft was needed. A number of planes were actually designed and built in the country starting in 1910, but this was almost always because an aviation aficionado had taken it on as a personal challenge. The situation was radically different, however, by May 2014. That month, the Brazilian aerospace company, Embraer, inaugurated a hangar at its facility in Gavião Peixoto, located in the interior of São Paulo, where it will install an assembly line for building the KC-390, a mid-size military cargo plane and the largest aircraft ever made in Brazil. The move to mass-produce airplanes came in 1934 and had the support of the Getúlio Vargas Administration. Two major driving forces were Army Lieutenant Colonel Guedes Muniz and Rio de Janeiro industrialist Henrique Lage. A year later, the first of these aircrafts – the M7 – took off at the Campo dos Afonsos airfield in Rio. Brazil’s earliest aircraft manufacturer, the Companhia Nacional de Navegação Aérea (CNNA), located in Lage, Rio de Janeiro State, produced 26 M7s and 40 M9s. Guedes Muniz designed both models and oversaw their construction.
The Brazilian government and its armed forces realized the importance of aviation during World War I, when airplanes were used as weapons for the first time. The conflict prompted the Army and Navy to establish their own aviation branches; it was only in 1941 that the Ministry of the Air Force was created. Another consideration, beyond military concerns, was that Brazil had few roads and railways, making air transport an important means for reaching the country’s interior. “This was when the idea arose to buy basic-training airplanes, instruct pilots, and donate the craft to flying clubs,” says historian João Alexandre Viégas, who defended his PhD dissertation on the topic at the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1988 and published the book Vencendo o azul – História da indústria e tecnologia aeronáuticas no Brasil (Conquering the sky: the history of the aeronautics industry and technology in Brazil) (Livraria Duas Cidades, out of print).
“It was in this context that Guedes Muniz, a native of Alagoas State, proposed that aircraft should be manufactured in Brazil; this was during the First National Aeronautics Congress in 1934,” says Viégas. The lieutenant colonel cited three options: open a publicly owned factory, invite a foreign company to assemble its aircraft in Brazil, or develop a Brazilian industry with private capital and private management. An advocate of the third of these solutions, Muniz received the support of the federal government, which was vital if the industry was to secure a worthwhile domestic market. At the same time, Henrique Lage already had his own plans to enter the aviation field.
Guedes Muniz, who was one of the few aeronautical engineers in Brazil at that time, began with the Muniz M5, which he designed himself and had manufactured in France using federal government funds. The aircraft was shipped to Rio and unveiled to the public in 1931. The success of the M5 blazed the way for another Muniz project, the M7, the first aircraft to be mass-produced by CNNA.
The M7 was a single-engine biplane of wooden construction, equipped with a British 130 hp Gipsy Major. The plane’s parts were built by Brazilian firms, which included a precision machining shop in the city of Rio that copied a U.S.-designed turn controller. Meant for primary flight training, it was a robust craft that stood up well on landings. Of the 26 planes made between 1936 and 1941, eight were for military purposes and 18 for use by flying clubs. Muniz next designed the M9. It was practically the same craft but with a 200 hp de Havilland Gipsy and a longer nose. Certified in 1938, 40 M9s were manufactured through 1943.
Lage’s company was the first but not the only one to manufacture airplanes, starting in the 1930s. By 1945, other businesses had been established for the same purpose. But, according to Viégas, the United States began exporting extremely cheap aircraft after World War II; since Brazil had no customs barriers in place, this hastened the collapse of Brazil’s fledgling aeronautics industry. “The first aeronautics manufacturers depended heavily on the State, which, while not the only buyer, was clearly the main one,” points out historian Nilda Oliveira, professor and researcher at the Humanities Department of the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA). “The halt in orders after the war was a decisive factor in the demise of these companies.” Brazil only recovered from this setback when Embraer opened its doors in 1968, as a direct result of the availability of engineers trained by the ITA, founded in 1950 in São José dos Campos, São Paulo State.