Argentine whiz kid to homemade helicopter guru

Saladillo (Argentina) (AFP) - Growing up in a small town on the Argentine plains, Augusto Cicare was so fascinated by flight that he took apart his mother's old bedframe and turned it into the fuselage of a helicopter.

That first flying machine, which Cicare built with a small motor when he was 18, hovered just a few centimeters above the ground.

But he kept tinkering, adding a more powerful motor and better scraps until three years later he had made the Cicare CH-1, the first helicopter built in Latin America.

That was 1958. Cicare has been building aircraft ever since, turning his passion into a boutique ultra-light helicopter business that still operates from the Argentine flatlands but has drawn clients from all over the world.

Today, Cicare is 77 years old and builds about 20 customized helicopters a year with two of his sons and a team of around 30 builders and engineers at a factory in Saladillo, a farming town surrounded by soy fields.

Engineers from Eurocopter, US firms Robinson and Sikorsky, and Italy's Finmeccanica have all visited his factory, intrigued by his do-it-yourself ingenuity.

He even had a visit from former Formula One champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who rang his doorbell one day and asked him to build him a custom four-cylinder engine -- a project that ultimately fell through when the backers, German automakers DKW, were bought by Fiat.

It all started in the family garage, where Cicare's father and uncle repaired local farmers' tractors.

"I've fulfilled the golden dream I've had since I was four years old," said Cicare, a compact man with white hair, black eyebrows and a big smile.

"They tell me that when I was little I used to crawl outside when I heard an airplane so I could look at it flying overhead. It was a premonition," he told AFP.

As a boy Cicare disliked school and would ditch classes to hang out in the family garage and read Popular Mechanics.

He built his first motor at 11 and dropped out of school at 12 to spend his days working on gearboxes and four-speed engines.

Decades on, he has racked up prizes at international air shows and exports his machines to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

- 'Motorcycle in the air' -

Like a deafening dragonfly, a single-seat helicopter buzzes the surrounding fields and comes in for a landing near one of the factory's hangars.

Test pilot Arturo Hernandez, a 44-year-old Spaniard, hops out with a grin.

"Nobody makes anything like this in Spain. It's like driving a motorcycle in the air," he said.

The firm's clients include executives who want to escape traffic jams, farmers who need to fumigate their fields and emergency services that use the machines in rescue operations.

Cicare's oldest son, Alfonso, said financial constraints mean the company can only produce 18 to 24 machines a year, far less than demand.

Cicare's helicopters sell for between $75,000 and $180,000. The company also makes a line of popular flight simulators.

As he approaches his 80s, Cicare says he is not ready to retire.

His sons are ready to take over the business, they say. But he keeps showing up at the factory every day, tweaking, tinkering and dreaming of his next flying machine.