The Case for
Alberto Santos Dumont

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n 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.

A Quick Biography

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:

Dear Sirs,

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.

Yours sincerely,
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.

Examining the Case

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 December 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 honor.

The Wrights also invited the public -- and the media -- to witness their flights in late 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 public.

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.

"It was an Official Experiment, homologated by Aero Club de France members..."

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 fleet.

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 brothers.

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 aviator. 

Santos-Dumont.jpg (31041 bytes)
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.

14Bis Summer Test.jpg (40285 bytes)
The initial test of the 14-bis in the summer of 1906. It was suspended from Santos Dumont's dirigible No. 14.

14bis on ground.JPG (16310 bytes)
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.

Demoisselle.jpg (12316 bytes)
The 1909 Demoiselle was perhaps the first "ultralight."

Dan Dumont in Demoiselle.jpg (23255 bytes)
Santos Dumont in the cockpit of the Demoiselle, preparing for a flight. Santos Dumont actually used his airplane for personal transportation.

Demoiselle Plans.jpg (55897 bytes)
A portion of the plans for the Demoiselle the Santos Dumont made available free to anyone who asked for them.

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