Replica of Santos-Dumontís 
ď14 BisĒ 
in S„o Paulo, Brazil

Photos taken by Walter Castro

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by Stan Griffin

Ask any American elementary school student "Who was the first to fly?", and itís almost a certainty their answer would be: "Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk" (especially if you asked the question in Ohio or North Carolina).

Once you leave the U.S., however, the odds drop considerably youíll get the same reply. Other names often surface in European countries and even in Latin American nations. In particular, the majority of youngsters in Brazil would likely say: "Alberto Santos-Dumont," a man completely unknown to most Americans.

As the 20th century dawned, many thought Santos-Dumont was the most famous person in the world! He visited the U.S. in 1904 and came to the White House for a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt. He built and flew: many balloons; the first practical dirigible; and powered heavier-than-air ships. He won a number of prizes and became a friend to millionaires and royalty.

Alberto Santos-Dumont considered himself a son of France; but he was born on July 20, 1873 in the village of Cabangu, part of Manas-Gerais (a Brazilian state). He was the youngest of 11 children raised on a family-owned coffee plantation in Sao Paulo. His father was an engineer who became a successful farmer. Along with that success came wealth. He became known as the "Coffee King of Brazil."

Alberto was interested in anything mechanical. He drove many of the plantationís steam tractors and locomotives. He read all of Jules Verneís books before he was ten and dreamed of flying during long afternoons as he stared for hours at the Brazilian skies.

When Alberto was 17, his father fell from a horse he was riding. His injuries made him a paraplegic (complete paralysis of the lower half of the body including the legs). He sold the plantation and moved to Paris, France with his wife and youngest son. Alberto had to leave school, so in Paris he studied physics, chemistry, mechanics, and electricity with a tutor.

It wasnít long before he discovered balloons, hired a pilot to take him up, and learned to fly. He even began designing them, flying his "Bresil" in 1898.

Next, he turned his attention to steerable balloons (called dirigibles) which could be pushed through the air, not just travel where the wind took them. By 1901 Santos-Dumont was able to win a prize of 100 francs for flying his "Number 6" dirigible across Paris in less than half an hour. The first two attempts ended in spectacular crashes. Never one to be discouraged by such results, Santos tried againĖthis time with success. He donated his prize money to charity and to volunteers who had helped him prepare his ship.

He was known as "Santos" to friends and associates in Paris. He was slight in stature, weighing about 90 pounds and standing 5 feet tall. Santos usually appeared in his trademark pinstriped suit and floppy Panama hat.

The interests of this Brazilian "high flier" then turned to heavier-than-air craft. By 1905, he had designed his first. The following year (October 23, 1906) Alberto piloted the "14 Bis" in front of a large crowd of witnesses a distance of 197 feet at a height of 6 to 10 feet.

"This well-documented event was the first flight verified by the Aero-Club De France of a powered heavier-than-air machine in Europe and the first public demonstration in the world of an aircraft taking off from an ordinary airstrip with a non-detachable landing gear ... on its own power (self propelled) .. in calm weather, officially resolving the problem of getting a machine that is Ďheavier-than-airí to take off the ground by its own means."

Twenty days later, Santos-Dumont set the " ... first world record in aviation ..." flying 722 feet in less than 22 seconds. Both events took place BEFORE the Wrights had made any PUBLIC flights.

However, his achievements took place almost four years AFTER the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio flew their heavier-than-air craft on North Carolinaís Outer Banks. The date was December 17, 1903. The flyer was airborne for 12 seconds and traveled a distance of 120 feet. They made three other flights on the same day: the longest was 852 feet with the ship airborne for one minute.

Their 1905 Wright Flyer was the " ... first practical airplane ... able to fly several miles at a time, make sharp turns, and land safely under full control of the pilot."

Not surprisingly, the Brazilian governmentís official position is that Santos-Dumont should be given credit as "Number One." Those who believe likewise cite the following points:

(1) News of the flight of Santos-Dumontís "14 Bis" was spread throughout Paris beforehand, and so it was witnessed by large crowds who saw first-hand the result of Santosí work.

On the other hand, the Wrights tended to do their testing in remote locations with only a handful of spectators. There were five at North Carolina to watch their first flight, none of them who could be described as "officials." Orville and Wilbur Wright were "very protective of their intellectual properties," afraid other inventors would steal ideas from them.

(2) The "14 Bis" took off under its own power on an ordinary airstrip.

The Wright machine had to be pushed into the air from local dunes.

(3) Weather in Paris was ideal with only light winds.

On the Outer Banks, however, winds were estimated at 27 mph. In fact, the location was chosen because of almost constant winds. Critics maintain they gave the craft an extra edge.

(4) The landing gear of "14 Bis" was an "integral part" of the craft, "non-detachable," two things the Wrightís was not.

(5) Documents and photographs produced by Wright backers were described as "unreliable." Witness reports from North Carolina were dismissed as "inconsistent." Some of the Santos-Dumont backers even accused the Wrights of releasing fake photographs.

After they learned of the Wrightís success in North Carolina, the Aero-Club De France sent a letter "demanding" they come to their country and "prove themselves." There was no reply. The Club denounced the Wrights as "frauds" as did many in the European scientific community and some of the general public.

Wright supporters contended the Club had a conflict of interest in recognizing so quickly Santos-Dumontís flight because they were early backers of the Brazilian flyer and had a vested interest in having him declared "first."

Santosí aircraft looked like "several box kites put together haphazardly." According to an American observer, Santos had " ... no means of controlling it except by shifting his weight

... difficult because the pilot stood in a narrow wicker basket ..."

Some Wright backers made the point Santos was helped by their patent filings which he could have used during time between the two flights. There were also other advances which could have helped Santos in building "14 Bis."

In 1909 he designed a monoplane that became the "forerunner of modern light planes." The "Desmoiselle No. 19" (nicknamed "Grasshopper") sold by the thousands in Europe, creating a sensation at a price of less than 500 francs.

Santos kept building and flying aircraft until 1910 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He fired his whole staff, shut down his shop, and soon dropped into a period of severe depression. Rumors surfaced accusing him of being a German spy, causing him to burn all of his papers, plans and notes. This makes it impossible to research his design development processes today.

Santos returned to Brazil in 1916 or 1928 (the date is in question), and he never came back. A tragic event marred his homecoming. Just as his ship reached port at Cap Ancona, a seaplane carrying six Brazilian scientists headed for the celebration crashed. All on board were killed. Santos asked that planned ceremonies and events be canceled. This incident intensified Santosí anguish.

He built a small home near Rio de Janeiro in the city of Petropolis and filled it with "imaginative mechanical gadgetry." After a number of years Santos, seriously ill and still despondent over his health and the way aircraft were being used in warfare, committed suicide by hanging himself in the city of Guaruja in Sao Paulo. The date was July 23, 1932.

Eventually Santos was willing to agree he was the first to fly in Europe and the Wrights were first to fly in America. He was inducted into the "First Flight Society" in 1981 as: "First to Fly A Heavier-Than-Air Machine In Europe in 1906."

Santos-Dumontís most important contributions in the field of aviation were: (1) use of effective ailerons at the tops of wings; (2) he lobbied for improvements in engine power-to-weight ratio; (3) he influenced the designs of many aircraft which followed; and (4) other refinements in aircraft construction techniques. He was only one of a very few aviation pioneers who could claim success in working with both lighter- and heavier-than-air craft.

In spite of the controversy between Santos and the Wrights, there was (and is) a very high regard in the United States for Santosí achievements.



First Flight Society: Alberto Santos-Dumont


Century of Flight: "The Colorful Career of Alberto Santos-Dumont"



Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: "Alberto Santos-Dumont"