Often overlooked pioneer - Alberto Santos-Dumont
The world’s first sports aeroplane, “Demoiselle” ,introduced by Santos-Dumont in March 1909. Santos-Dumont flew the aeroplane very frequently to the fascination of friends and to enthusiastic crowds as he flew around the Eiffel Tower.
On the gusty morning of December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the ‘Flyer’ was launched into the air for a period of 12 seconds, over a distance of 120 feet with Orville Wright at the controls. It was the first heavier-than-air, powered, controlled flight, a feat that a number of pioneer individuals and teams had been chasing.
To pilot the ‘Flyer’, Wilbur or Orville would lie on his stomach on the lower wing, strapped into a cradle that allowed him to steer with his hips.
On the fourth and final flights of the day, Wilbur Wright piloted the ‘Flyer’ on the longest flight by far, remaining airborne for 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet. After landing the ‘Flyer’ was unfortunately blown over by a wind gust and heavily damaged—it never flew again.
But, with those few trips aloft, the Wright brothers had proved that sustained, controlled, powered flight was possible and their place in history was assured. Understanding the historic significance of their aeroplane, the Wrights crated up the crumpled pieces and shipped them home to Dayton, Ohio. Today the repaired Wright Flyer hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC.
“Why do people in your country insist that the Wright brothers flew first? Nobody saw them on that damn beach. Without witnesses anyone can claim anything. All of Paris saw Santos fly. Why has the world forgotten him?”
Like most people in the United States, author Paul Hoffman said, “I had never heard of Santos-Dumont, but his presence was felt everywhere in Brazil. People spoke of him reverently as this larger-than-life figure whose particular amalgam of resolve, inventiveness, showmanship and generosity represented the spirit of the whole country.”
Hoffman went to Brazil in January 2000 to see for himself. “Even before I had left the United States, I experienced the aeronaut’s mystique. At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport I purchased an electric converter so that I could run my laptop in Rio. The sales clerk happened to be Brazilian and when I told him I was interested in Santos-Dumont, he pressed the converter into my hand and said, ‘That’s free, for a friend of Santos-Dumont!’”
Alberto Santos-Dumont, the heir of a wealthy coffee producer, went to live in Paris in 1892 as a youth. He employed a former college professor to help him study in the ‘practical sciences’ and mechanical and electrical engineering. During the following years Santos became very interested in free ballooning and described his first sensation of it as, “the air seemed motionless around us and the wind had ceased altogether”.
He designed and built his first balloon from Japanese silk, which proved to be very successful, and named it ‘Brazil’, Feeling the need to power the balloon he later imported an electric motor, but he found it to be unsuitable for air travel because of the weight of the batteries.
Santos-Dumont went on to design and build, with the assistance of his mechanics, 15 powered balloons and airships. He skipped gliders altogether: he went directly from gasbags to aeroplanes. He was not reckless. Before going up in his aeroplane he put it through its paces in a way that the Wrights could not. He tested its stability by suspending it from one if his soaring airships.
On 23 August 1906 he tried the plane for the first time. It was called 14-bis, a box-kite design in front with an engine at the back and a canard configuration—the Press called it ’Bird of Prey’. The wingspan was 33 feet, length was 40 feet, and the engine gave 50hp. After the first run across the field Santos tinkered with the engine, presumably to increase the power output. Again the 14-bis raced across the field and this time “everyone present saw the wheels leave the ground about six inches”, but the engine continued to fluctuate. “I am more than satisfied,” he said later. “I have accomplished more than I dared to hope.”
There came a month’s delay while his workmen repaired the aircraft from its heavy landing and minor damage. Santos-Dumont used this time to enter the Coupe Internationale des Aeronautes balloon race. It was one of the rare times when he did not win the price.
He tested the aircraft again on 23 October 1906. The plane charged across the field and gently climbed ten feet into the air. “The crowd was stirred to the utmost pitch of enthusiasm,” the Herald reported. They watched 14-bis travel 50 metres or so, half the length of a football pitch. According to his wristwatch he had flown 722 feet in 21.2 seconds, never more than 15 feet off the ground.
“When I saw the mass of people beneath me I lost my nerve, I hardly knew what to do to avoid a serious disaster. I could hardly judge what clearance I had above the people’s heads, and I decided hesitatingly to turn to the right. But for the moment my nerve was gone and I felt the only thing was to descend as best I could.”
The crowd stormed the plane, lifted him into the air, and for half a day carried him up and down the boulevards of Paris. He was quickly lionised around the world in such terms as “Santos-Dumont is Conqueror of the Air.” Within the year seven other aeronauts in Europe, inspired by his example, followed him into the air in planes of their own design.
During the months that Santos-Dumont flew 14-bis, the Wright brothers had been dismissive. After Santos-Dumont’s 722 feet flight won him the Archdeacon Prize, the Wrights told the Dayton press that his effort “does not appeal to us with the same degree of importance that it does to the people on the other side of the water, where the aeroplane is comparatively new in the problem of aerial navigation”. When pressed for further reaction, Wilbur said that he doubted the Brazilian could have flown more than a tenth of a kilometre. “If he had gone more than 300 feet, he has really done something: less than this is nothing.”
In fact, he had gone almost two and a half times that distance and newspapers were calling on the Wrights to come forward and fly in public. “M. Santos-Dumont in a few months appears to have achieved more than any other inventor,” the Herald editorialized, “unless it be the Wright Brothers, of Dayton, Ohio who have surrounded their trials with secrecy and mystery.” They had lost something intangible by not making the first public flights. However superior their machines, Europeans saw their own colleagues fly at a time when the Wrights were still regarded as Bluffeurs.
Santos-Dumont introduced No. 20 in March 1909, the world’s first sports aeroplane, named Demoiselle, (French for a young lady), with silk covered wings and an 18hp engine. Wing span was 18 feet and the length 26 feet. The engine was fitted under the pilot’s seat, almost in his lap, with his legs straddling the hot exhaust and his toes very close to the propeller driving belt. He flew the Demoiselle almost daily, often visiting friends at their country estates outside Paris and circled the Eiffel Tower to the cheers of enthusiastic crowds. He set up a speed record of 55.8mph in September of that year. The aircraft was copied widely in Europe and the USA.
- Report by Max Pudney, photographs via Max Pudney.
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