A century on, Brazil still claims flight's first
Monday, Brazilians celebrate the first man to fly. But here's a hint: He wasn't a Wright brother.
RIO DE JANEIRO — In the United States, every schoolboy knows that the Wright Brothers were the first men to fly. In Brazil, everyone knows that's wrong – the father of flight is Alberto Santos-Dumont.
One hundred years ago Monday Santos-Dumont set off an argument that still rages when he launched, flew, and landed a boxy biplane christened "14bis" above a field in France. In Brazil, where he is a national hero, everyone passionately believes that his flight was the first.
"The image of the Wright Brothers as the first people to fly has gone around the world, but it wasn't documented," says Henrique Lins de Barros, a flight historian and author of the book, "Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight."
"Santos-Dumont's '14bis' managed to make a complete flight, taking off, flying, and landing without external assistance. The Wright Brothers didn't. Nationalism aside, I am a researcher and there is no controversy – Santos-Dumont was the first man to fly."
The Aero-Club de France, a Paris-based federation that was set up in 1905 to rule on the veracity of first-in-flight claims, confirmed that Santos-Dumont was flying's pioneer. The federation awarded a trophy cup to Santos-Dumont after the Wright Brothers refused to provide evidence that they flew unaided at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
The Aero-Club had several stipulations for the award-winner. He had to be the first man to take off from flat ground unassisted, fly in a straight line with his own power source on board, and most important, do it in front of a crowd of witnesses and judges. Moreover, the flight must have taken place on a preordained day, not one chosen for its propitious weather conditions.
Brazilians feel the American pair did not fulfill all those requirements, claiming that their plane took off from an incline or a ramp and that no independent witnesses could verify the feat. Mr. Lins de Barros says the lack of confirmation led the International Herald Tribune newspaper to run a story in 1906 about the Wright Brothers entitled "Flyers or Liars?"
Santos-Dumont, meanwhile, was a showman. He won a big cash prize after becoming the first man to fly a dirigible around the Eiffel Tower, invented what is considered the first microlight aircraft in 1909, and made design changes to the wristwatch that made them more financially accessible.
In his homeland, he is considered an eccentric genius. Brazil's president recently named him a national hero, only the ninth person to ever receive such an honor, and he is without doubt the best known Brazilian who didn't act, sing, or play soccer, according to Marisa Guadalupe Plum, the woman in charge of the Santos-Dumont House and Museum.
Schools, roads, businesses, airports, towns, and even a small crater on the moon have been named after him.
However, in spite of his achievements few people really know him, Ms. Plum says.
"People only know that he is the father of aviation and that's it," she says. "Brazilians lack self esteem and we aren't proud of what we've done."
Outside Brazil, he is equally obscure, Plum adds, because "Brazil has an image as a place of sun, sea, sand, and sex, and Santos-Dumont is in complete contrast to that and so there was no interest in getting to know him. People couldn't see how important he was because they saw Brazil as a country where you go to enjoy yourself."
Brazil is making efforts to change that this weekend by highlighting his achievements. The armed forces hosted tourists and visitors at Air Force bases and were planning flybys in the capital, Brasília, on Sunday, where, if weather permits, a replica of the 14bis was to fly over the city center.
Even Americans dismissive of Santos-Dumont were eager to mark the anniversary – while stressing that the Brazilians' claims of dominance fell short of the mark.
"The claims that the Brazilians make that he was the first to fly are ridiculous," says Peter Jakab, chairman of the Aeronautics division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, another institution hosting special exhibitions this weekend. "It's like saying a modern jet fighter that uses a catapult to take off from an aircraft carrier isn't a real plane."
The Wright Brothers had superior control over their aircraft and managed other flights between 1903 and 1906 that gave them a distinct advantage over Santos-Dumont, Mr. Jakab adds. But he did not dismiss the Brazilian's role as one of flight's true pioneers.
"Santos-Dumont was a very important figure. He is such a popular figure. He was a flashy, dynamic figure who brought a lot of attention to aeronautics, and he deserves a lot of credit for all his accomplishments."