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Second to Fly: Alberto Santos-Dumont, Brazil’s Aviation Hero

Updated on March 14, 2017
Brazilian aviation hero Alberto Santos-Dumont in his trademark high collar shirt and Panama hat.
Brazilian aviation hero Alberto Santos-Dumont in his trademark high collar shirt and Panama hat. | Source

When Brazilian-born aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont’s airplane 14-bis left the ground in Paris before many spectators on September 7, 1906, it caused a sensation. As he made adjustments to the plane and made longer and higher flights among larger audiences, most of the world’s scientific community heralded him as the inventor of human-powered flight.

That’s because the Wright Brothers were simultaneously toiling in relative isolation in tiny Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and kept much of their development of their airplane models a proprietary secret. Meanwhile, Santos-Dumont’s flamboyant, public aerial exploits had been legendary in Paris since the late-1890’s—first in powered balloons, and eventually in heavier-than-air machines.

On September 13, 1906, Santos-Dumont flew his 14-bis at an altitude of 3 feet above the ground for between 23 and 43 feet, according to various witnesses. By late October 1906, adjustments to the aircraft allowed him to fly an astounding 197 feet. Santos-Dumont flew before the Aero-Club du France on November 12, 1906, covering 722 feet in just under 22 seconds, winning giving him the first aviation record in Europe according to the Federation Aéronautique Internationale. The feat also won Santos-Dumont a prize of 1500 francs for achieving the first witnessed, measured flight of 100 meters or more.

It wasn’t until 1908 that the Wright Brothers first flew before large audiences in Europe. Even still, many Europeans resisted crediting the Wrights for their invention because of one or another objections—a catapult that was sometimes used for launching when headwinds were insufficient or using rails instead of wheels to launch.

1899 Vanity Fair caricature of Santos-Dumont flying a powered balloon over Paris.
1899 Vanity Fair caricature of Santos-Dumont flying a powered balloon over Paris. | Source
Blueprints of Santos-Dumont's Demoiselle.
Blueprints of Santos-Dumont's Demoiselle. | Source

But the mastery, control, and durability of the Wright brothers' flights in Europe was an incontrovertible fact, and the Europeans eventually acknowledged that the rumors of the Wrights’ several sparsely-witnessed flights prior to 1906 simply had to be true. On December 31, 1908, Wilbur Wright put an exclamation point on the Wright’s air superiority by winning the winning the coveted Coupe de Michelin with a continuous flight lasting 2 hours, 18 minutes, and 33 seconds.

After abandoning the 14-bis as a fundamentally-flawed beginning, Santos-Dumont fumbled with a number of aviation experiments from 1907 through the end of 1908, when the Wrights made their impressive Paris demonstrations. In 1909, Santos-Dumont hit on a design he called Demoiselle, which became the World’s first practical light aircraft. He flew it constantly around Paris, using it almost as casually as one might use an automobile in 1909.

Ever interested in advancing aviation, Santos-Dumont made his design plans for the Demoiselle free to the public. The plans were published all over the world, and his design specifications appeared in Popular Mechanics magazine in the United States. The affordable light aircraft—in some ways similar to what might be called an ultralight today—helped to spur interest and participation in aviation before World War I.

At the outbreak of World War I in Europe, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 42. He returned to Brazil in 1916, and died in 1932.

Brazilian Hero, Father of Aviation

Today, Alberto Santos-Dumont is one of the most revered heroes in Brazilian history. There are major streets in nearly every city in the country, parks, rock groups, airports, even an entire town is named for the Brazilian father of aviation. In the United States, Princeton University gives annual entrepreneurship awards named in his honor.

Santos-Dumont was a close friend of the French jeweler Jacques-Théodule Cartier, who is said to have developed the wristwatch to make it easier for Santos-Dumont to tell time while flying. Today, many Cartier wristwatch models are named for Santos-Dumont.

Over the past several decades, Brazil’s aviation industry—led by Embraer and other companies—has made significant strides in passenger airplane manufacturing. Embraer was created as a government sponsored aerospace company founded in 1969 to jump start the aviation industry. Today, Brazil is the third-largest country for commercial airplane manufacturing in the world after the United States and France. The Brazilian Air Force has more fighter jets than the United Kingdom, works on the United Nations Stabilization Program for Haiti, leads the Cruzex joint air force exercises with many other South American countries, and conducts many search and rescue missions. Much of this giant aviation legacy is thanks to the inspiration of the tiny, 5-foot-1, 90-pound hero named Alberto Santos Dumont.

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    John C Thomas 5 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    Thank you, rfmoran and Highland Terrier! Its surprising how many people have never heard of this important figure in aviation history. The only reason I found out about him is my father used to live near the airport named for him in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, he's a veritable diety-- I fully expect to hear from a few Brazilians in the comments on this hub denying the Wright Brothers' first flights and suggesting Santos-Dumont was actually the first. It's a common belief in Brazil.

  • rfmoran profile image

    Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

    Wow. Three years after Kitty Hawk and he didn't know. Interesting hub about an obscure little guy.

  • Highland Terrier profile image

    Highland Terrier 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

    Well done; I'd never heard of this person.

    Very interesting read.