Pura Vida translated from spanish means “pure life.” The phrase is to Costa Ricans as Malhalo is to Hawaiians.
Answering the phone: “Pura Vida.”
“How’s your day going?”
Reply: “Pura vida, my friend.”
Fly a helicopter across a ridge line, in which a breath-taking view unfolds and a spectacular volcano is revealed before your eyes. Suddenly, you get the urge to shout something out of pure guttural excitement: “Pura vida!”
Costa Rica, translated literally, means "Rich Coast.” Located in Central America, the country is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the northeast, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, and Ecuador is to the south of Cocos Island. This beautiful country has a population of approximately 5 million in a land area of 51,060 square kilometers (19,714 square miles). An estimated 2 million people live in the metro area of the capital city San José. With its healthy agriculture and eco-tourism markets, Costa Rica is one of the most stable countries in the region, both fiscally and geopolitically.
Additionally, it’s also home to one of the highest educated populations in Central America, especially in healthcare. San Jose is well known for its cost-competitive, highly-trained, cutting-edge medical industry that attracts international clients from around the globe for a variety of procedures.
Following the brief Costa Rican Civil War, it permanently abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army. Instead of spending tax revenue on a military, the country decided to socialize education all the way through the university level with the goal of raising an “army of teachers.” To this day, the country has no military, as education is the weapon of choice over guns.
Rugged Terrain, Perfect for a Helicopter
Many countries in Central America have similar characteristics which make them perfect locales for helicopter operations. Mountainous terrain, dense jungles, poor transportation infrastructure, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (with associated islands) on both sides are just a few attributes that scream, “Put a helicopter here!”
However, it doesn’t matter how suitable a location is, there are other factors that determine real-world viability. Many Central American countries that seem the perfect place for a helicopter, suffer from economic and political instability. Poverty and crime can be the rule and not the exception in many cases.
For most of Costa Rica’s modern day history, it too harbored its share of second- and third- world problems that inhibited a legitimate market for helicopter operations to start and thrive. However, in the last 20 years with the advent of eco-tourism, a stable and growing economy, and a ripe business environment, Costa Rica was waiting for the right people to come along and plant a new industry. One of those people was Federico Laurencich, helicopter pilot, and entrepreneur.
Costa Rican Business is Born
AeroTour, Costa Rica was the brainchild of its founder and “El Presidente,” Federico Laurencich, and was launched in 2003. But his journey to owning a helicopter operation did not start then.
Early on, Laurencich had a strong pull to aviation and decided he would most likely become a fixed-wing pilot and fly airplanes for the rest of his life. So in 1991, he slowly began fixed-wing training, completing ratings from private pilot all the way through multi-engined certified instrument flight instructor (CFII). He even gained experience flying seaplanes and performing aerobatics.
Still, Laurencich kept an open eye, and open mind, to the possibility of also learning to fly helicopters. In the late ‘90s, he decided to take a helicopter flight. “It was really frustrating at first, because you know, airplanes are easy to fly. I thought: This is too hard, I cannot even hover! But after four hours, the switch flipped and I got it. It was at that moment I was hooked on helicopters forever,” Laurencich recalls.
Federico headed to Palm Beach Helicopters in southeast Florida and over the course of a couple years, he obtained all of his helicopter ratings through CFII and gained additional experience. In 2002, the timing was right for a new helicopter business in his home country of Costa Rica and Laurencich’s business planning wheels began to turn. So in 2003, with a rough business plan, one Robinson helicopter, and a dream, Aerotour was born.
Costa Rica Challenges
Today, Aerotour and AENSA are thriving helicopter and fixed-wing operations offering many different types of aviation services, but according to Laurencich, things were not so easy. If the terrain and operational environment of the country were not challenging enough, overcoming the country’s bureaucracy and regulatory environment (or lack thereof) has been a daunting and monumental task.
In the U.S., we like to criticize the FAA and their propensity to slow down processes and growth—but at least there are processes. Federico explains that AENSA was the first helicopter school to ever open its doors in Costa Rica. Combine being the first, with an inexperienced regulatory body, as well cultural lethargy: you will experience large delays. As a result, it took Laurencich a full year to get just a private-pilot training syllabus approved by the Dirección General de Aviación Civil (DGAC), the regulatory body responsible for air safety in Costa Rica.
Additionally, aside from a few government helicopters in operation, there were virtually no operating civil helicopters in the entire country when Aerotour began. As a result, the air traffic control system had no understanding of how to handle helicopters. “When we first began flying helicopters in Costa Rica, we were treated exactly like airplanes. We had to operate from runways, fly airplane traffic patterns, and use the same weather minimums,” explained Laurencich.
Because helicopters are so expensive to operate, Laurencich had to patiently embark on an educational campaign with the government and controllers in order to teach them how helicopters are truly different and more capable than airplanes. Over time, the company was able to operate helicopters at lower weather minimums as well as be handled similarly to operations in the U.S. Had the company been required to operate as inefficiently as in the beginning, Aerotour and AENSA would have probably gone out of business many years ago.
Today, there are three business divisions: Aerotour is the commercial helicopter operator, AENSA is the flight trainer, and AENSA Services is the maintenance center.
Over the last 20 years, Costa Rica has transitioned from being predominantly an agricultural country to one of tourism. With spectacular volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls, mountains, and jungles, Costa Rica’s ecotourism has attracted people from all over the globe. Centrally located at the Tobias Bolaños Internacional Airport in the San Jose valley, Aerotour can easily accommodate trips to virtually every attraction the country as to offer.
Tourism makes up the majority of Aerotour’s commercial helicopter operations. “There’s absolutely no better way to visit one of Costa Rica’s many active volcanoes than by helicopter,” says Laurencich. There are also many customizable, eco-tour experiences available. Take for example, the multi-day, ‘glamping’ experience in which Aerotour will fly your party to the private island of Jesusita for a unique, five-star camping experience. At Isla Chiquita, pampered glamping guests sleep in air-conditioned, walled tents, complete with a private beach, spa services, a tiki-bar, and many other amenities and recreational activities.
Due to the consistent growth in the country’s tourism, the infrastructure has been expanded to accommodate the increase in an ever demanding tourist population. This, along with other factors, opened new opportunities to put helicopters to work outside the realm of flight training and tour flights, which include charter, construction, LIDAR, search and rescue, medevac, photo flights, and professional filming. In fact, Aerotour did the filming and aerial support for CBS’s full Survivor season in Nicargaua in 2014. Additionally they have completed film work with big names like NHK, ZDF, National Geographic, BBC, and Animal Planet.
Costa Rica has very diverse terrain in which helicopter pilots can experience four or five micro-climates in one flight. From high-altitude mountain ranges (Mt. Chirripo is the highest at 12,500 feet msl), to coastal regions, to rain forests, to dry jungles, they have it all. Because of the beautiful and challenging terrain, pilots come from all over the world to train in both helicopters and airplanes.
AENSA, the flight training arm of the business, utilizes Robinson R66 and R44 helicopters for its helicopter training alongside two single-engine and one twin-engine airplane for its fixed-wing pilot students. According to Laurencich, AENSA carries approximately 12 helicopter pilots and over 100 fixed-wing pilots in training at any given moment. In addition to training aircraft pilots, in order to keep in step with trending technology, AENSA was the first, and is the only school in CR certified by the DGAC to provide training for licensing unmanned-drone aircraft pilots.
On the commercial side of the business, Aerotour operates a Bell 407GX alongside an Airbus H125 B3e and a Robinson R66. “All three helicopters complement one another, and as far as single-engine turbine helicopters go, the mixed fleet provides flexibility and there’s not much the company cannot do, depending on client needs,” said Laurencich. Approximately 30% of the charter business done by Aerotour is from Costa Ricans, with the remaining 70% from international clients.
Aerotour and AENSA are proud to perform all maintenance in-house with a team of five personnel, which includes a director of maintenance, three mechanics, and one administrative person. Mechanics are trained at OEM factory schools in the U.S. In addition to maintaining their own aircraft, the company also provides maintenance services to other helicopter operators in Costa Rica as a DGAC certified repair station.
With over 9,000 species of plants, and 34,000 species of insects, Costa Rica hosts more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity even though its landmass only takes up .03% of the planet's surface. Additionally, more than 25% of Costa Rica’s land is dedicated to national parks, reserves and wildlife refuges. There are more than 100 different protected areas to visit. Partly because of their recreational, laid-back ‘pure life’ culture, Costa Ricans have a life expectancy of almost 77 years, one of the highest in the world. Still, Laurencich and the Aerotour team do have all the stressors of any other helicopter business in the world, but with a pura vida mind set as the rule, along with with a pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, the life expectancy of Aerotour and AENSA should be a long and healthy one.
A PERSONAL NOTE: Why Costa Rica?
As a result of owning Rotorcraft Pro magazine, I have cultivated many skills that relate to media production: photography, video, writing, and social media to name a few. Several years ago, I decided to dedicate some of my time, talent and resources to create free media packages for missionary organizations in impoverished areas. Thus far, I have served in Haiti and Costa Rica, with another planned trip to El Salvador later this year.
In 2018, I traveled to Costa Rica twice where I worked on behalf of Christ for the City International in four impoverished immigrant communities mostly from Nicaragua and El Salvador. As it turns out, one of my Rotorcraft Pro teammates (Bryan Matuskey, who produces many of our videos and lays out this magazine) shares the same desire to help. Consequently, he accompanied me on this trip to Costa Rica. The primary purpose was in support of Christ for the City International, but we carved out one day to visit Aerotour.
We at Rotorcraft Pro feel that we have been blessed by this business and industry, therefore, we are obligated to use those gifts and talents to bless others less fortunate.