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Who Flew the First Airplane?

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

We all know that Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first people to fly a powered, heavier-than-air plane. We all might be a little bit off with that knowledge, because a Brazilian inventor named Alberto Santos-Dumont can make a legitimate claim to being aviation’s pioneer.

This ungainly machine was the first to take off and land under its own power.

This ungainly machine was the first to take off and land under its own power.

The First Flights of Alberto Santos-Dumont

On October 23, 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont won a competition in Paris by flying his winged aircraft 200 feet and landing it, although the undercarriage collapsed. One breathless report noted that “The stupefied crowd had the impression of a miracle; struck dumb with admiration at first, they shouted with enthusiasm at the moment of the landing, and carried the aviator away in triumph.” A couple of weeks later, he flew a distance of 722 feet, 20 feet high, at a speed of about 25 mph.

The Daily Mail in England was less enthusiastic: “The air around London and other large cities will be darkened by the flight of aeroplanes.”

Santos-Dumont’s contraption, called the 14-bis, was a biplane constructed of several boxes. The frame was built out of pine and bamboo and was covered by Japanese silk. It was powered by a V-8 engine producing 50 horsepower.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, a man with more the look of an impressionist painter than a daring aviator.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, a man with more the look of an impressionist painter than a daring aviator.

A Challenge to the Wright Brothers

The exploits of Alberto Santos-Dumont, allow his supporters to make the claim that he was the first person to invent, build, and fly a machine that had practical applications.

We hear a chorus of “Yabuts” rising from the United States; yes but, Wilbur Wright flew for three seconds before stalling in his powered airplane on December 14, 1903. Subsequent flights last longer and covered up to 200 feet. However, the Wright Flyer was extremely unstable and almost impossible to control.

Equally strident “Yabuts” (“sim mas” in Portuguese) comes from Brazil. Later, the brothers Wright resorted to launching their machines from a rail track using a catapult but the difficulty of a controlled flight remained. The Brazilians point out their beloved Alberto Santos-Dumont took to the air without a power assist and had his plane under control at all times, well, sort of.

Brazilians and Americans could argue late into the night about whose flight was the authentic start of aviation and never reach a comfortable conclusion.

And, Alberto Santos-Dumont certainly had a long resume in pioneering flight encouraged by the largesse of a French industrialist.

Oops

The Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize

The aristocratically named Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe had made a fortune in the petroleum business. An enthusiastic supporter of the development of flying machines, he offered a 100,000 franc prize (almost $600,000 in today’s money) to stimulate innovation.

The money would go to the first person to fly from the Parc Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower, circle it, and return to the park. The trip had to be completed in less than 30 minutes meaning an average speed of at least 22 km/h.

The prize was announced in April 1900. De la Meurthe did not want aviators dawdling in building their machines so he said the prize money would vanish if not won by October 1, 1903.

Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe.

Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe.

A Dirigible Enthusiast

One hundred thousand French francs was a lot of money even to the well-heeled Senor Santos-Dumont (coffee plantations as you’d expect), so the Brazilian set out to win the prize.

Santos-Dumont already had a lot of experience building gas bag flying machines and he had, to some extent, conquered the problem of steering the things that were notoriously susceptible to the capricious nature of wind.

According to Historic Wings “His dirigible was parked at his apartment and at lunchtime, he would ascend into the basket and cruise down the wide Paris boulevards to choose a fashionable cafe for lunch.”

However, while his blimp was fine for searching out the perfect coq au vin it was too sluggish to meet the demands of the Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize.

Dirigible Failures

By the summer of 1901, Santos-Dumont had his craft ready for the challenge.

Frankly, this machine, Dirigible Number 5 was a bit of a flop. In several trial runs, it never even reached the Eiffel Tower, but the intrepid pilot was not one to give up.

On August 1, 1901, he gave his engine full throttle and headed off towards the Parisian landmark. But, he stressed the gas bag too much and it split open crashing him into the Trocadero Hotel, whereupon the sparks from the impact caused the hydrogen to explode. The embarrassed airman was largely unhurt, except for his pride, and was left dangling in the air awaiting the attentions of the Paris Fire Department.

Back to the workshop and, within a couple of months, a bigger and more powerful blimp emerged. With a singular lack of imagination Santos-Dumont called it Dirigible Number 6.

At 2.30 p.m. on October 19, 1901, no doubt having lunched satisfactorily, the valiant pilot climbed into the gondola beneath his airship and set off. Nine minutes into flight the engine failed. Santos-Dumont climbed out of the gondola without a safety harness and got the recalcitrant motor restarted. The rest of the trip was uneventful and he returned to the Parc Saint-Cloud in a time of 29 minutes and 30 seconds.

He gave half his prize money to the poor of Paris and the other half he gave to his ground crew. The Brazilian government, thrilled at the exploits of their native son, insisted on refunding what he had given away.

Santos-Dumont circles the Eiffel Tower,

Santos-Dumont circles the Eiffel Tower,

Alberto Santos-Dumont Receives World Acclaim

He was feted by royalty, and plutocrats and everybody wanted to see a demonstration of his light-than-air machines.

Soon, he turned his attention to heavier-than-air planes. And, that brings us back to whether he did or did not beat the Wright brothers to proper, powered flight.

Reuters reports that “Henrique Lins de Barros, a Brazilian physicist and Santos-Dumont expert, argues that the Wright brothers’ flight did not fulfill the conditions that had been set up at the time to distinguish a true flight from a prolonged hop.”

But, Peter Jakab, chairman of the aeronautics division at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington is having none of that. He calls the Brazilian claim preposterous.

The debate continues, largely informed by nationalist sympathies.

A caricature of Alberto Santos-Dumont that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1901.

A caricature of Alberto Santos-Dumont that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1901.

Bonus Factoids

  • According to FlightAware, at any given time there is an average of 9,728 airplanes in the sky worldwide with 1,270,406 passengers aboard.
  • The development of aviation was rapid. Less than 68 years after Alberto Santos-Dumont circumnavigated the Eiffel Tower, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The date of that moon walk, July 20, 1969, was the 96th anniversary of the birthday of Santos-Dumont.
  • The Icarus Cup Challenge is held every year in England and involves human-powered planes completing a variety of tasks.

Sources

  • “The Prize Patrol.” wright.brothers.org, undated.
  • “The Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize. Thomas Van Hare, Historic Wings, October 19, 2012.
  • “Was the Airplane’s Inventor Brazilian?” Reuters, December 10, 2003.
  • “Alberto Santos-Dumont.” Smithsonian Education, undated.
  • “Alberto Santos Dumont’s Early Flyer 14 Bis.” Fiddlersgreen.net, undated.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor