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occasion, we get passionate letters from Brazilians reviling us for
promoting the Wright brothers as the first to fly and making a case for
their own native son, Alberto Santos Dumont.
There is no question that Santos Dumont was an important pioneer
aviator. Born in Brazil, he emigrated to France in 1891with his parents
and the profits of their coffee plantation. A dapper playboy, a talented
mechanic, and a natural engineer, he began racing motorized tricycles,
then turned to ballooning, then to dirigibles. He delighted Parisians by
dropping down unexpectedly from the skies in his primitive gasbags to
salute the President of France, attend a children's birthday party, or
just enjoy a cup of coffee. In 1901, he piloted his Airship No. 6
around the Eiffel Tower, winning a prize of 100,000 francs -- all of which
he gave to his mechanics.
In 1904 -- a year after the Wright brothers had made their first
powered flight-- Santos Dumont turned his attention to heavier-than-air
flying. He began with a glider, then built an unsuccessful helicopter in
1905. In 1906, he built a strange-looking flying machine -- a
biplane of what the French had begun to call the type du Wright, loosely
based on the Wright biplane plans that had been published in
several European magazines. The box-like elevator and rudder protruded in
front of the wings like the head of a duck in flight. It was promptly
dubbed a canard (French for "duck"), and the name was
incorporated into the growing aeronautical lexicon.
Santos Dumont called the airplane the 14-bis, meaning
"14-encore" since the airplane made its first appearance
suspended from the belly of Santos Dumont's No. 14 dirigible. He
flew it without the dirigible on September 13, 1906, making a hop of
between 23 and 43 feet, depending on who you talked to. On October 27, he
managed to fly 197 feet. Then, on November 12, he set
the first aviation
record in Europe, flying 722 feet (220 meters) in 21-1/2 seconds with
members of the Aero-Club du France in attendance. This won Santos
Dumont a prize of 1500 francs for making the first flight in Europe over
100 meters, and because he was observed by officials from what would
become the Federation Aéronautique Internationale (the designated
keeper of aviation records), he was credited with making the first powered
flight in Europe.
Santos Dumont flew the 14-bis for one more brief hop on April 4, 1907,
then abandoned it as a technological dead end. He turned the design around so
the canard was in back and made a tractor biplane with plywood wings, the 15-bis.
This, however, refused to fly. He turned to monoplanes and produced
four unsuccessful models, but the fifth -- the Demoiselle, first
flown in 1909 -- was a winner. Tiny and quick, it was the first practical
light aircraft, although pilots reported that it was a handful in the air. In a grand and magnanimous gesture, Santos Dumont
offered the plans to the public free of charge. They were published
worldwide -- in America, they appeared in Popular Mechanics -- enabling
hopeful young aviators of limited means to get into the air
inexpensively. In this way, Santos Dumont and his Demoiselle helped
fuel the phenomenal growth of aviation in the years before World War 1.
Unfortunately for aviation, Santos Dumont never produced another
airplane as popular or as influential as the Demoiselle. He was
stricken with multiple sclerosis, dropped out of aviation, and retired
to Brazil in 1916. He died there in 1932.
Making the Case
It's difficult for citizens of the United States to understand why
Brazilians are so insistent that he was the first to fly when the very
sources they cite seem to prove just the opposite. Brazilians point
proudly to the records of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale that
show Santos Dumont made his record 722-foot flight in 1906, without
disputing the eyewitness accounts that corroborate the Wright
brothers report of 852 feet in 1903. To help explain why this is so,
perhaps it would be best to let a Brazilian make the case for Santos
Dumont. This is one of the better-written and less strident letters
that we have received from Brazil:
I recognize the importance of Wright Brothers to the progress of
aviation, to people of USA. But I'll never recognize any kind of primacy
in flight from that Gentlemen, first because they were working in
absolute "secret", until 1908, when they presented their
ground device dependant flying machine in Europe for the first time.
Considering the alleged date for the first flight event, I cannot
understand why 5 years later they were still using a catapult. I can't
understand also why they tried to convince everybody with a simple
photograph of an airplane flying high (more than a meter) over the
launch rail, when hundreds of people watched every experiment made by
Alberto Santos-Dumont since the beginning of the century, including that
first flight on December 23rd, 1906 before a huge crowd on Bagatelle
Field, Paris, with full press and media coverage and movie recording. It
was an Official Experiment, homologated by Aero Club de France members
present at the meeting. The numbers: 200 meters ground roll, 80 to 90 cm
height, 60 meters distance, 30 to 35 km/h speed. About October 23rd,
1906 flight, Mr. Gordon Bennet, American, owner of Herald newspaper,
told: "The first Human mechanical flight", among several other
European newspaper headlines. Then, on November 12th, 1906, he managed
to perform two more flights: In the first he traveled 82 meters in seven
seconds. In the second, he managed 220 meters in 21 seconds, flying well
above the crowd (out of ground effect) and winning Archdeacon Prize,
established for the first to fly over 100 m distance. This last flight
could last longer, but it had to be interrupted when the crowd
precipitated under the flying machine, the pilot deciding to
abort the experiment. Note: All this flights was done with absolute no
ground equipment, such as catapult or ground engine. This fact,
registered in a session of Aeroclub de France, on December, 1910 as
"the first Aviator of the universe to fly in an motor
airplane", was remembered too, by the Archdeacon Prize itself, and
a Monument on Bagatelle with the inscriptions:
"Ici le 12 novembre 1906, sous le controle de l'Aero-Club de
France, Santos-Dumont a établi les premiers records d'áviation du
monde. Durée 21s 1/5 Distance 220 m"
(Translation: Here, on November 12th, 1906, under control of
Aero-Club de France, Santos-Dumont established the first Aviation Record
of the world. Duration: 21 sec 1/5 Distance 220 meters).
Well, I'm only 42 years old, I didn't experience those events
myself. But everybody can research on all available documents in
libraries and newspapers. History (yes, real History!) tells us through
dozens of European and a fistful of American newspapers what really
happened. And what happened wasn't a whisper message to my neighbor in a
silly game, but a strong shout that traveled over the ocean at that
time, and is echoing until the present days...
By the truth.
Capt. Roberto Rodrigues Mola
Sao Paulo - Brazil
P.S. Santos-Dumont donated all the money from all the prizes he won
to his faithful mechanics, in order to reacquire their tools given to
pawn. Santos-Dumont was an idealist, aviation passionate, and never
requested a patent for his machines, giving for nothing all the plans
for 14-Bis and Demoiselle construction to anybody who requested them.
Having given Captain Mola his say, let me respond to the individual
points in his letter.
"...they were working in absolute
"secret", until 1908.."
One of the strongest objections that
Brazilians seem to have to giving primacy to the Wright brothers was that
they worked in secret. Santos Dumont, who was as much a showman as an
aviator, did everything out in the open. There's no doubt about it, the
Brazlian was a great deal more outgoing that the Wright brothers. The
Brazilians argue the Wrights never made a public flight until 1908,
whereas Santos Dumont made three public flights in 1906. They also
use this same argument to discredit
Clement Ader, who claimed to have made
a flight before the French military in 1897 . Ader, they say, was flying
in secret for the military. They conveniently forget that Ader made a public flight in 1890.
While it's true the Wright brothers never flew in Europe until 1908,
they had made several public flights before Santos Dumont. In 1903, they
invited the citizens of Kitty Hawk to watch their flight trials on
December 14 and then again on
17. The fact that only a handful of
people showed up had a lot to do with the fact that there were only a
handful of people living in Kitty Hawk. If Paris had the winds the Wright
brothers needed for their initial glider experiments and the Wrights had
chosen Paris over Kitty Hawk, then their first powered flights might have
been better attended. As for the media, the Wright brothers purposely did
not invite the newspapers because they wanted the announcement of the
first flight to come out of Dayton, Ohio so their home town would get the
The Wrights also invited the public -- and the media -- to witness their flights in
May of 1904. About 30 reporters showed up at Huffman Prairie on May 23. The
Wrights could not get the airplane motor to run properly, and everyone
went home disappointed. A handful came back on May 26, but the Wrights
were only able to manage a flight of about 25 feet -- roughly the same
distance that Santos Dumont covered two years later on September 13, 1906.
In 1905, after the Wrights felt they had worked the bugs out of their
invention and had created a practical airplane, they invited the public
back again. They sent out about 30 invitations to people whom they thought
would make credible witnesses. Several hundred showed up at Huffman
Prairie to watch them fly on
October 4 and 5 ,
1905. On October 5, Wilbur
was able to keep the Wright Flyer 3 in the air for 39 minutes,
flying 30 complete circuits of the field and covering over 24 miles -- in
To sum up, the Wrights made at least six public flights of varying
degrees of success before 1906.
"...they presented their ground device
dependant flying machine..."
Another common objection of the Santos Dumont camp is that the Wright
brothers used a catapult to launch their airplane. They ignore the fact
that the Wright brothers made over 40 flights of varying lengths before
they built a catapult, including the four flights on December 17,
1903. They also ignore the records of the flights the Wrights made
in 1904 and 1905, which show that the catapult wasn't always used. If the
Wrights felt they had sufficient headwinds, they took off without it.
The Wrights continued to use the catapult and launching rail long after
they needed to because they felt it offered an advantage over wheels.
Aircraft with wheels needed a long take-off run; with a rail the Wrights could be off
the ground in as little as 60 feet. Additionally, the rail kept the
airplane headed in the proper direction until the air was flowing over the
control surfaces fast enough to give the pilot adequate control. Ground
loops and other accidents were all too common in wheeled aircraft that had
to traverse some distance before the controls became effective.
Wilbur Wright experienced this anti-catapult chauvinism in France in
1908 when he set an altitude record and the Federation Aeronautique
Internationale denied him the record because he made an
"assisted" take-off. To prove to the French that whatever
assistance the catapult had provided was beside the point, Wilbur took off
unassisted on skids alone and set the record anew.
Two years later, the Wrights gave in to market pressures and began to
install wheeled undercarriages on their airplanes. But they still used the
same engine they had used when they first flew in France. Power
wasn't an issue; they could have added wheels earlier. They simply
believed that the catapult and rail system was better.
Brazilians usually bring up the Wright catapult to imply that the
Wright airplanes were somehow less technologically advanced than Santos
Dumont's. So it's worth noting that on December 31, 1908, Wilbur Wright
made a record-breaking flight where he remained aloft for 2 hours, 18
minutes, and 33 seconds, winning the coveted Coupe de Michelin. During
his entire flying career, Santos Dumont never remained airborne in one of his
airplanes for more then 15 minutes.
an Official Experiment, homologated by Aero Club de France
The Santos Dumont club also makes a great deal over the fact that
Santos Dumont is the very first name in the official record book of
aviation, kept by the Federation Aéronautique Internationale, an
organization that grew out of the Aéro-Club du France. What they don't
consider is that the French started keeping this record book in
1906. When the Wright brothers made their successful 852-foot flight in
1903 and the 24-mile flight in 1905, there weren't any record keepers to
invite to these events.
It's telling that Santos Dumont's monument at Bagatelle, where he
flew in 1906, says that he "established the first Aviation
Record of the world." It doesn't say that he flew first; it just says
that he garnered the first official record.
"History...tells us through dozens of European and a fistful of
American newspapers what really happened."
If it were true that newspapers reported only history, then there were
successful airplanes not only before Santos Dumont, but long before the
Wright brothers. Pick any large American city, go to the central library,
and begin to search the major newspapers between 1890 and 1900. On the
average, you'll find three or four successful flights in that decade, each
informing you that the pilot/inventor was the first to fly. And the
further away from the city that this flight occurred, the more wildly
successful it was. I once found a report in a Denver, Colorado newspaper
from 1869 that a group of businessmen in California were using an airship
to ferry miners in and out of remote mining camps. The venture was so
successful, that they were building three more airships to create a whole
Because journalists often repeat fanciful stories without checking the
facts, or invent fanciful stories they think will sell newspapers,
historians have learned not to trust them in matters of history.
All of which
is lost on a Brazilian
Before I wrote this piece, I made these arguments to a friend of mine
who has spent a great deal of time in Brazil and is in love with the
culture. His comment: "You have explained your position with
unassailable logic, which won't impress anyone in Brazil."
Brazilians, he tells me, have their own way of recounting history. Santos Dumont, to a Brazilian, was the first to fly not because he
flew first, but because in the minds of his countrymen, he deserved to be
first. He expressed himself with more passion, conducted himself with
more panache, and flew with more aplomb than the shy, retiring and
somewhat secretive Wright
A correspondent from Brasilia, Brazil explained it to me another way.
In 1937, Brazil was in the grips of the Vargas dictatorship. Vargas
instituted a department within his government for "Information and
Propaganda." According to this source, "The D.I.P. was in
charge of publishing all schoolbooks, and it set a consistent line of
singing the praises of Brazil and all things Brazilian. The Vargas
dictatorship ended in 1945, but the D.I.P.-influenced schoolbooks endured.
(I studied in books like those.) The Wright brothers and other aviation
pioneers are rarely mentioned."
As a result of this indoctrination, the aeronautical primacy of Santos
Dumont has become part of a belief system among many Brazilians.
When a North American expresses his opinion that the Wright brothers flew
a fixed-wing airplane several years before
Santos Dumont, he is attacking an article of
cultural faith in Brazil. The Brazilian often reacts with emotion, and if the
North American counters with evidence, he is an arrogant Yankee.
Whatever the reasons for our differences on this matter, I do
wish that the Brazilians who write to us to promote the cause of Santos
Dumont would do so without degrading the Wright brothers. Aviation
history and cultural beliefs aside, it's clear to me that Santos Dumont
had a generous heart and abundant personal grace. During his lifetime,
he never stooped to advance his own reputation at the expense of others.
For his supporters to do so is to demean the memory of a great man and
Alberto Santos Dumont was a small man, barely five
feet tall and weighing only 90 pounds. But he more than made up for his
small stature with his personal energy and charisma.
The initial test of the 14-bis in the summer
of 1906. It was suspended from Santos Dumont's dirigible No. 14.
The 14-bis on the ground without the
dirigible attached. The French nicknamed the elevator/rudder apparatus in
front of the airplane a canard. The name has stuck to this day.
The 14-bis in flight on October 27, 1906.
The 1909 Demoiselle was perhaps the first
Santos Dumont in the cockpit of the Demoiselle, preparing
for a flight. Santos Dumont actually used his airplane for personal
A portion of the plans for the Demoiselle the
Santos Dumont made available free to anyone who asked for them.