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the colourful career of Alberto Santos-Dumont

Historians of aviation are not certain what to make of Alberto Santos-Dumont; no one ever was. He was a hero, a genius, and a visionary to some, and to others he was a laughable character who was only accidentally more than a footnote in the history of flight. Peter Wykeham’s biography of the man presents a complex picture of a man who persevered over terrific odds— thrown at him by the world and his own demons—and who “forced history to be made by sheer will.” Santos (as he was known) came to France from Brazil in 1891. He was the eighteen-year- old son of a wealthy coffee plantation owner, and showed mechanical adroitness even as a child.

Alberto Santos-Dumont at the helm of one of his airships

An inveterate gadgeteer, he soaked up French culture insatiably and regarded himself a son of France, even after his return to Brazil in 1928. Santos was short and frail—about five feet tall and weighing no  more than ninety pounds (4lkg)—and his attempts to compensate for this by wearing high collars, tall floppy hats, and pinstripe suits made him appear like a caricature of a dandy.

Soon after arriving in Paris, he became intoxicated with the idea of flight and with all the activity he found all around him in the area of dirigibles and heavier-than-air aircraft. Santos made his first flight in Paris in a dirigible of his own design in 1898, and though he crashed Parisians learned something about Santos that would be true of him his entire life: crashing never deterred Alberto Santos-Dumont. He parked his aircraft near his Champs Elysees apartment and was  frequently seen gliding around Paris to the delight of children, visitors, and the press.

A frequent sight on the streets of Paris in 1909: Santos-Dumont driving his Demoiselle to Saint Cyr airfield for testing. Compare the Demoiselle’s size to the 14-bis (below)

Officialdom looked at these exploits with nervous amusement, particularly when his dirigibles would occasionally appear at an official function uninvited and unannounced. When, in 1900, the financier Henri Deutsch offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first aeronaut to fly the seven miles (11km) from the Aéro Club de France’s headquarters in Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower the Paris press felt that the two leading contenders were Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin and their adopted son Santos.

Santos made two attempts that ended in spectacular crashes—one on the estate of Baron Rothschild, the other in the courtyard of the Trocadero Hotel, both in full view of onlookers and in both cases with Santos barely escaping with his life—and then, on October 19, 1900, he completed the course, adding a flourish by circling the Eiffel Tower and returning to Saint-Cloud.

This extra manoeuvre almost cost him the prize because the judges claimed that the contest required that the flight be considered over by the securing of the guide rope (to differentiate the flight from an un-powered balloon flight). Popular sentiment was so behind Santos, however, that the judges relented and awarded him the prize. With typical magnanimity, Santos announced that he would give seventy-five thousand francs to charity and to volunteers who had helped him (though Brazil, eager to reclaim its native son, matched the French prize with one of its own).

In 1904, Santos experimented with gliders and helicopters, producing a machine of silk and bamboo. It did not fly, though it tossed Santos about. He went back to the drawing board and emerged in 1906 with a machine that looked like several box kites haphazardly put together. He called it the 14-bis (14-encore) because it was to be carried aloft by his No. 14 dirigible.

On July 23, 1906, in a procession that looked like a major parade and included Ernest Archdeacon and other members of the Aéro Club, Santos brought his No. 14 and the 14-bis to the Bagatelle for testing. Noticing that the aircraft had been damaged during the procession, the unflappable Santos announced that the test was off and sent everyone home. He tried again on July 29, this time using a donkey (named Kuigno) to pull the aircraft- dirigible combination.

14-bis, the plane in which Santos-Dumont made his historic 1907 flight.

Santos continued to test the aircraft, soon coming to the conclusion that the dirigible was not necessary. On September 13, the 14-bis took a short hop of from twenty to forty feet (6 to 12m); on October 23 it flew a full 197 feet (60m); and on November 12 it went 722 feet (220m) in a flight lasting twenty-one seconds. All of Europe was electrified by this, the first heavier-than-air flight by a European. Octave Chanute reported back to the Wrights that, while Santos-Dumont had indeed flown, he had no means of controlling the aircraft except by shifting his weight, and even that was difficult because the pilot stood in a narrow wicker basket. Santos’ next airplane, the No. 15, equipped with a makeshift wing-warping mechanism, broke up while taxi-ing for a take-off in March 1907.

By this time, Santos had seen several Blériot aircraft in flight and had decided to construct a monoplane. The result was the Demoiselle No. 19, an ultra-light tractor monoplane made of bamboo and silk and weighing only about 153 pounds. The Demoiselle (nicknamed the Grasshopper) became a sensation all over Europe and was sold by the thousands, introducing an entirely new generation to the thrill of flight for less than five hundred francs. Many designers regarded the Demoiselle as an oddity, but the aircraft had a clear impact on many designers and its image can be seen lurking in the lines of Anthony Fokker’s first aircraft, the Spinne (Spider) of 1912 and in light aircraft of the post war period.

In 1910, Santos-Dumont was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He went into retirement, though he followed aviation developments throughout the war. In 1928, he returned to Brazil and was given a hero’s welcome. As his ship was docking, a sea plane carrying six prominent Brazilians who wished to greet him crashed and all six were lost. Santos, by this time quite frail, asked that all ceremonies and events honouring him be cancelled. On July 23, 1932, Alberto Santos-Dumont committed suicide. In his final years, he had become despondent about the destructive uses to which nations had put aviation, and about his role as a pioneer of flight.