Alberto Santos-Dumont – Aviation Pioneer

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

The Brazilian inventor and aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont is popular this year in the United States. A replica of his 1906 airplane, the 14-bis, visited the Oshkosh AirVenture 2006.

In September, a replica of Dumont’s 1907 Demoiselle make public flights at the Dayton-Wright Brothers airport in Miamisburg, Ohio south of Dayton.

In 1904 after visiting the U.S. and learning of the Wright brothers success, Santos-Dumont returned to Paris to build his own machine. He originally moved to France to study engineering in the late 1800s.

In 1906 he created his 14-bis machine so named because it was first tested under his Airship (balloon) No. 14. On September 13, 1906 he achieved a “hop” flight of 23 ft in 7 seconds.

After repairs to the machine resulting from a crash landing on the previous flight, and the addition of a 50-hp engine, he flew 198 feet in seven seconds on Oct. 23. This flight won the Aero club of France’s Archdeacon Prize. The flight was recognized by the French as the first self-propelled heavier-than-air machine to take off in public and was greeted with enormous enthusiasm and coverage in the newspapers.

Then on Nov. 12, the bis-14 was fitted with primitive ailerons and achieved several flights, the longest being 722 feet in the time of 21 seconds at an altitude of 20 feet.

The machine, however, was impractical and Santos-Dumont flew it only one more time.

Octave Chanute wrote to the Wright brothers telling them about Santos-Dumont flights. Wilbur responded in 1906 with the following remarks: “When we see men laboring year after year on points we overcame in a few weeks, we do not believe there is one chance in a hundred that anyone will have a machine of the least practical usefulness within five years.”

In 1910 the Wrights brought suit against Santos-Dumont for infringement on the Wright’s French patents.

Santos-Dumont’s next machine was the 1907 Demoiselle (meaning dragonfly). It was the world’s first light plane. The pilot sat below the wing just to the rear of the engine. The engine powered a two-blade wooden propeller rotating just ahead of the leading edge of the wing.

Flight demonstrations of a replica of this machine were conducted during its stay in Dayton.

Santos-Dumont was born in Brazil on July 20, 1873 to a family made wealthy by the coffee business. He had multiple sclerosis that caused him to retire from flying in 1910. He returned to Brazil and committed suicide on July 23, 1932.

Santos-Dumont was a popular man as an aerial showman even though he contributed little to aeronautical engineering. When the hometown Dayton Herald carried the story of “first flight” on Dec 17, 1903, it carried the headline: Dayton Boys Emulate Great Santos-Dumont. The Herald made the mistake of comparing balloon flights with the first flight of a flying machine.

In 2007 Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of Wilbur and Orville Wright visited with Mario Villares, grandnephew of Santos-Dumont in Brazil. Lane said that she admires Santo-Dumont’s passion for flight. She said that he saw flying in so many ways.

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