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100 years in the air

On the 100 year anniversary of the 14–Bis flight, Pesquisa FAPESP retraces the trajectory of Alberto Santos-Dumont, rescues little known stories and relates new details, such as the discovery of an unprecedented manuscript from the inventor of the first plane to take off, fly and land by its own means

FUNDAÇÃO CASA DE CABANGU/EU NAVEGUEI PELO AR (NOVA FRONTEIRA)For such boldness, Alberto Santos-Dumont sometimes seemed a superman. The inventor of the first heavier than air apparatus to take off, fly and land by its own means revealed important secrets of aerial navigation.  Between 1898 and 1910, he was frequently seen in the skies over France, at times in a small basket of a balloon appreciating the landscape and showing the viability of transportation in the air, at others, flying with the elegant ultralight Demoiselle over the fields of the outskirts of Paris. It is a consensus amongst researchers of the area that it was the Brazilian who most contributed towards the development of aeronautics in its primordial days. In this year of the centenary of the flight of the 14-Bis, Pesquisa FAPESP recalls the main part of his career, recovers some little known stories, and tells some novelties, such as the discovery of an unpublished manuscript by the genial inventor.

When Alberto Santos-Dumont built his first balloon, in 1898, there were already aeronauts in the skies of Europe. Young, rich and unmarried, the Brazilian could have been just one more to enjoy the agreeable sensation of letting himself be carried by the wind, seeing the world from above. But Dumont wanted more: his desire was to determine the direction of his destination. Innovations and adaptations made in an incredibly short time led him to invent dirigibles and, later, airplanes. In little more than ten years of activities, it was Dumont who most contributed to the development of aeronautics when there were doubts about the possibility of a heavier than air apparatus flying.

The inventor was born in 1873 on Cabangu farm, in a town in Minas Gerais, Palmira, today Santos-Dumont, and began to take an interest in balloons in 1888, upon seeing one of them in São Paulo. In 1892, he took up residence in Paris, after the death of his father. He studied physics, chemistry, mechanics and electricity informally with a tutor called Garcia. Interested in technology, a fan of all kinds of machines, and a reader of Jules Verne, on March 23, 1898, Dumont finally realized his dream and went up in a balloon, in Paris, as a passenger. After becoming an experienced balloonist, he decided that it was now time for him to have his own balloon. In the same year, he had two of them built, spherical ones, and made the first dirigible with a motor of his invention.

The balloon builders Henri Lachambre and Alexis Machuron thought the design of Brasil, his first spherical balloon, odd. “The project surprised the two because the Brasil was all innovation: different fabric, small basket, extremely small in size” says physicist Henrique Lins de Barros, from the Brazilian Center of Physical Research (CBPF), the main specialist in Santos-Dumont in Brazil, the author of Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight (Jorge Zahar Editor) and screenwriter of the documentary Man Can Fly, by Nelson Hoineff (2006). Barros is launching one more book this month: Challenge of Flying – Brazilian Pioneers of Aeronautics (1709-1914), from Metalivros.

Dumont began with this small aircraft to impart a style of inventor that became his trademark: the extreme simplicity, lightness and elegance of the designs. It was like that with dirigible nº 1, when he, against the opinion of all the aeronauts and constructors, decided that he ought to install a gasoline engine with a propeller, fitted to the basket. The allegation was that it would be foolhardy to place a machine that let off sparks so near to the highly inflammable hydrogen. He solved the question by pointing the exhaust pipe downwards. Simple, effective and safe.

On October 19, 1901, the inventor won the Deutsch Award with dirigible nº 6. The test consisted of leaving Saint-Cloud, circling the Eiffel Tower and returning to the starting point in 30 minutes – a definitive demonstration that it was possible to navigate through the air. One of the Brazilian’s important characteristics: he would disclose the drawings of his creations and did not patent any of them in the field of aeronautics. “This was one of the reasons that favored the development of aviation in an impressive way” Barros says.

A dandy creates fashion in Paris
Santos-Dumont was a refined man of society. The legacy left by his father, Henrique Dumont, allowed him to use his creativity not only to build balloons and planes, but also to dress fastidiously and to frequent Parisian high society. The inventor’s attire was always impeccable, even when he was working with engines or wood. His pinstripe suits, high collar and shoes with a heel (to appear to be taller), and the hat with the turned-down brim made him easily recognized wherever he passed. His style combined to perfection with the Belle Époque, then in full spate in France.

Around that time, the Brazilian helped to launch an accessory that was to become obligatory. At a reception in Maxim’s restaurant, in 1904, he commented to his friend Louis Cartier that, in full flight, it was difficult to get his watch to clock the time. Cartier had prototype made that could be worn on the wrist and baptized it as the ‘santos model.” This, though, was not an absolute invention of Dumont – some women were already wearing a watch on the wrist, but without any practical purpose, but just as if it were jewelry.

IDACDumont with men and woman friends from high societyIDAC

Accidents become events
Santos-Dumont had a particular way of publicizing aerostation and aviation. When he built dirigible nº 9, the Baladeuse (walker), he would park it in front of his apartment, on the corner of Washington street with the Champs Elysées avenue, to have a cup of coffee at home, while the multitude would stop to applaud. Or he would use it to go to lunch at the La Cascade restaurant, near to Longchamps. “This attitude was not mere caprice or exhibitionism, but a very efficient way of showing a new means of transport, which could be quick and safe” says physicist Henrique Lins de Barros.

When the inevitable accidents occurred with his dirigibles, he would, in his narratives and comments, set about giving more emphasis to the peripheral facts and, at the same time, minimizing the main happening. In August 1901, for example, the nº 5 dropped from a height of 32 meters when it was above the Hotel Trocadero. The aeronaut remained hanging 15 meters away and managed to climb up by a rope (photo on the left). Dumont helped the firemen to recover the remains of the balloon and still had the presence of mind to test the engine. In a letter, he thanked the command of the regiment: “My landing on the roofs of Paris, where your valiant firemen exercise their courage so constantly, putting their lives at risk, provided me with an occasion for appreciating them in such new circumstances, both for them and for me.”

On another occasion, in 1909, we went out with Demoiselle for a trip and went too far. Close to nightfall, he was obliged to land in the gardens of the castle of Count Gallard. When narrating the occurrence, Dumont ironically laments the lack of Touring Club signposts in the air. And he recognizes the “inconvenience” of the airplane for social visits: “Without a hat, with blue working clothes, full of grease and oil, such was my equipment for my presentation.”

Iguaçu Falls become a park
In 1916, Santos-Dumont was 42 years old, far away from aviation and on a journey through South America. He visited Chile, passed through Argentina, and ended up as a guest at the Hotel Brasil, in Foz do Iguaçu, owned by Frederico Engel. On April 24, Engel and his son took him to get to know the Iguaçu Falls, to which they went on horseback in a four-hour journey along a track. The inventor was enchanted by what he saw, but did not understand how that spectacle was on land that belonged to a single person – in this case, to the Uruguayan Jesus Val.

Dumont offered to convince the then president of the state of Paraná, Afonso Camargo, to expropriate the place. As there were not roads or railroads connecting the then Vila de Iguaçu to Curitiba, he went on horseback – sleeping and eating heaven knows how – following the telegraph line installed by the Army for 300 kilometers to Guarapuava. The journey, done in the company of a telegraph post guard, lasted six days.

From Guarapuava, he went on by car to Ponta Grossa, and from there to Curitiba, by train. Camargo received him on May 8. “On July 28, 1916, by means of Decree 653, the President of the State of Paraná expropriated the land next to the Iguaçu Falls and declared it as being of public interest for creating a park” says Mário Rangel, a former pilot and a businessman. It was Rangel who conceived and promoted, in 1973, a national competition about documents relating to Dumont, held in Curitiba.

“This story, until then forgotten, was sent by letter by Elfrida Rios, Frederico Engel’s daughter, with a copy of the hotel’s guestbook, and it won second place in the competition.” Today, the falls are part of the Iguaçu National park, created in 1939, and they were declared by Unesco a Natural Heritage of Humanity.

The polemics that have been dragging on for a century no longer exist for those who have informed themselves properly on the details of the history of the invention of flight. Santos-Dumont was in fact the first to fly by his own means, with autonomous takeoff and landing. On October 23, 1906, the 14-Bis covered 60 meters at a height of 3 meters, after running for some 100 meters on the Champs de Bagatelle, in Paris (photo on this page). On November 12, he flew for 220 meters, in the same place, and established the first record in aviation for speed: 41.3 kilometers an hour. The feat was ratified by the International Aeronautical Federation (FAI), created in 1905.

The brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, United States, were said to have flown on December 17, 1903. According to their own report, they covered 258 meters in 59 seconds, against strong winds on the beach at Kill Devil Hills, in Kitty Hawk, in North Carolina. The whole documentation on such an important fact was no more than a telegram and the presence of a few lifeguards who were looking for the wreckage of a ship. With the declared objective of keeping invention secret, to sell it to a military power, they only presented it publicly in 1908. The problem is that, to take off, the Flyer always depended on some external help, like a catapult to get it to run along rails and then to leave the ground, with the help of strong winds.

“Today, there is a modality of airplane that fits this very well, called motorglider, which does not take off on its own” says physicist Henrique Lins de Barros. Once in the air, it flies very well. “In 1908, the French planes would fly 10 km; the Wright had reached 124 km.”

The difference between the flights of Dumont and those of the Wrights is important for understanding the case. “In 1905, the aeroclubs of the entire world regulated the conditions that a flight would need to satisfy, to be validated” explains Rodrigo Moura Visoni, from UniRio, a student of the subject. According to these rules, the flight should be public and announced beforehand, and carried out in calm weather and on flat terrain. The height and time remaining in the air would not be considered as factors for declassification, but the takeoff had to be unassisted and the landing, accident-free. A qualified committee would accompany everything. “Only Dumont’s plane complied with all these rules and flew before hundreds of other people.”

The name arose when it was hitched to balloon No.14 in the preflight experiments. From 14 to 14-Bis was a hop. The Parisian press called it Oiseau de Proie (bird of prey). Dumont changed the 14-Bis until competing for and winning the Archdeacon award (3 thousand francs, for the unprecedented flight of the 60 meters) and the Aeroclub of France award (1.5 thousand francs, for the flight of 220 meters. He did not win the Deutsch-Archdeacon award (50 thousand francs, for flying a thousand meters in a closed circuit), won by Henri Farman. But he no longer had to. Santos-Dumont was in history.


Nerves in tatters
Santos-Dumont committed suicide on July 23, 1932, at the Hotel de La Plage, in Guarujá, on the coast of São Paulo. For many years, the information was nurtured that the displeasure of seeing his invention used as a powerful instrument of destruction led him to kill himself. In fact, the inventor always lamented seeing the airplane causing so many deaths in the war, although he had suggested its military use for observation. What is known today is that Dumont seems to have hade severe depression, never correctly diagnosed and treated.

Research Rodrigo Moura Visoni recalls that journalist Edgar Morel, in his book Histórias de um Repórter [Stories of a Reporter] (Record, 1999), says that the English doctor Bevan Jones made a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1910. This information could have been crucial for Dumont decide to end his career as an aeronaut. It was Morel who revealed the real cause of the inventor’s death, in 1944, suicide. Until then, it was said that he had died of a heart attack.

“I think it difficult to believe in this hypothesis of multiple sclerosis” says Henrique Lins de Barros. “How could anyone suffering from a degenerative disease like multiple sclerosis ski in Saint Moritz in the 1910’s and play tennis in the 1920’s, as he did?” Barros says that there are receipts indicated that the inventor consulted psychiatrist Juliano Moreira, in Rio de Janeiro.

His great-grandnephew Marcos Villares Filho confirms that the first signs of perturbation may have appeared in 1910. “What is most probable is that he had a profound depression, of a biochemical origin, something perfectly treatable today” he speculates.

Homosexual reputation
Nobody escapes. It may be a genius, a benefactor of humanity, a famous intellectual, and even so, for the common public, the personal life seems to be of more interest than the work. With Santos-Dumont it was no different.

The fact that he had never married, his well cared for appearance, his refined manners and enormous timidity made him a target for comment after comment about a supposed homosexuality. The latest ones appear with prominence in the book by the American Paul Hoffman, Wings of Madness. His conclusions were taken from the English language newspapers, New York Herald and Paris Herald, which were covering Dumont’s experiences in Europe, and from the New-York Mail and Express.

EMBRAERHoffman reproduces phrases from these periodicals like the one that Dumont had a “feminine timidity without feminine charm” or “he certainly has a power of fascinating the opposite sex that neither his appearance nor manners in society justify.” He also talks about rings and jewelry used by the inventor and reproduces well-known rumors that the writer and cartoonist George Goursart, or Sem, a friend of Dumont and the author of popular lampoons about him, could have been his lover, just as Jorge Dumont Villares, a nephew who went to fetch him in France to carry on with the treatment that he was having close to the family, in Brazil. Despite the numerous insinuations contained in the book, there is not a single letter, note or witness to prove this thesis.

Obviously, being homo or heterosexual is absolutely irrelevant and in no way diminishes or enhances the Brazilian’s exceptional contribution to aviation. But his family and Brazilian researchers criticize the bad faith of the theme precisely for concerning rumors that, to this date, have not found any justification in the facts. “The story that was created about Santos-Dumont and his nephew Jorge is absurd, with neither rhyme nor reason” is Marcos Villares Filho’s criticism. “Jorge was chosen by the family to fetch him in Paris precisely because he had no children, although he was married” he says.

Henrique Lins de Barros, in turn, examined hundreds of photos of Santos-Dumont and says never having seen anything resembling rings or jewelry. The inventor merely used a Cartier watch and a medal with an image of St. Benedict attached to a chain on his wrist, to protect him against accidents. The present was given by Princess Isabel, Countess d’Eu.

Barros brings to light an interview by Agenor Barbosa, a colleague of Dumont and his legal representative, to the Magazine of the Historical and Geographical Institute of São Paulo, in 1959: “His amorous adventures, if he had them, were very discrete. He did not have, nor even had, sentimental “relations.” On this point he was like the patriarch José Bonifácio in exile – he would simply pay from his pocket what tempted him, without any other complications… The only amorous ‘affair’ in his life, that I know of, was a tremendous ‘crush’ on a young American girl, a daughter of the millionaire Mr. Spreckels, who soon sought to drive his daughter away from the dangerous man who had the madness of flying… And that was all.”

Rodrigo Moura Visoni remembers a passage from the autobiography Tudo em cor de rosa [Everything Rosy] (Nova Fronteira, 1977), by Yolanda Penteado, of a traditional São Paulo family, who was familiar with a good number of the country’s artistic and intellectual elite last century. Yolanda talks of Dumont like this: “(…) I got to know Alberto Santos-Dumont, a brother of my Uncle Henrique. Mr Alberto, as we called him, would come every day for dinner and would stay on, saying that it was to see the moon come out. In Flamengo, the moonlit nights really were beautiful. He was a restless person. I used to think that it was funny for him to give me so much attention. And Aunt Amália would say: “Alberto, you’re being silly, courting this girl.” Mr Alberto, did in fact court me, he would bring me candies and flowers and take me for walks. The people who knew him better used to say that he would become electric when he saw me.”

Barros believes that the inventor’s reported homosexuality is a myth. “For the American journalists, who described him as effeminate, French refinement sounded like homosexual affectation” he says. “Hoffman did not understand the customs and values of the times and saw everything with the distorted vision that they had in those days in the United States.” Plastic artist Guto Lacaz, also a student of the inventor’s work and the author of the exhibition Santos-Dumont Designer, held this year in São Paulo, recalls several women in whom the inventor showed an interest: besides Lurline Spreckels and Yolanda, there was Edna Powers and Aida D’Acosta. “He didn’t seem insensitive to women, but you have to remember a drawing done by him (above) on which he wrote: “Dirigible, biplane and monoplane – my family?” says Lacaz. “Poetically, Santos-Dumont married aeronautics.”

The discovery of a manuscript
There is much to discover about the work of Santos-Dumont. “There is good history of science in Brazil, but the history of technique and technology is still incipient over here” claims physicist Henrique Lins de Barros. He complains about the few academic works that deal with Dumont’s work exhaustively and analytically. “He turned into a heritage of the military, and that seems to discourage researchers.” Even so, novelties are emerging.

Alberto Dodsworth Wanderley, the inventor’s great-grandnephew, recently discovered an unpublished manuscript of his, written in French and translated by his mother, Sophia Helena Dodsworth Wanderley. “The book has 13 chapters and is a sort of prehistory of aeronautics” says Wanderley. Probably written in 1902, according to Barros the text shows that he had a critical knowledge about the history of aeronautics and a theoretical knowledge of chemistry and physics.

The discovery of the manuscript occurred after Sophia Helena donated Santos-Dumont’s whole collection in 2003 to the Air Force Documentation and Historical Center (Cendoc), in Rio de Janeiro, where it is available for consultation. This collection had already been organized previously by Sophia’s husband, Nelson Freire Lavenère-Wanderlei (both now deceased).
But there was a package inside a cupboard that had not been donated, to be discovered years later by Alberto Wanderley. It was a 212-page manuscript, written on small sheets of 20 by 16 centimeters, with pages 111 to 115 missing. “I am keying in the book little by little, and I don’t know when I will publish it” he says, still without a publisher. “There is an idea of publishing in the same volume another little book of his, The Mechanical Man, of 1929, already known about but never published.”

MUSÉE DEL'AIRNew balloons and airplanes
Researcher Rodrigo Moura Visoni, the author of articles on Dumont published in Brazil and in Portugal, has four books about the inventor still unpublished. Three of them bring together reports, interviews and articles by Santos-Dumont and about him. And a fourth one clarifies the century-old polemics with the Wrights. Visoni dug up material indicating that, contrary to what used to be thought, Dumont had worked on a Demoiselle in 1913, when it used to be believed that he had concluded the construction of airplanes in 1910.

“According to the magazine Lecture pour Tous, in the issue of January 1, 1914, he ordered from the constructors Morane and Saulnier a new Demoiselle airplane, far more solid and robust than the preceding ones” Visoni says (the original article is part of one of the researcher’s books). “There is no news about him having flown in this equipment, although there are photos of the plane.”

Visoni also wagers that the aeronaut’s production was larger than known today. To date, the count is 14 balloons, including spherical ones and dirigibles, and nine airplanes. This count does not include the numerous modifications that Santos-Dumont would frequently make to the models. “In 1913, he gave an interview in which he said that he had built 14 dirigibles, without counting the spherical balloons, and 19 airplanes” Visoni claims. Now it remains to wait for the researchers to discover new documents, articles and photos from those days, to find out more precisely the inventor’s complete work.

The belated success of the industry in Brazil
The success of Embraer, the fourth largest aeronautical company in the world, with net revenue of R$ 9.1 million in 2005, does not startle anyone – it is the least one expects of the land of Santos-Dumont. What is little commented on is the fact that this industry, so strong, took so long to be constructed. “We have always had a large low-income population, with few resources for using air transport, and we were slow to have a center for qualifying engineers” says Ozires Silva, the main conceiver and entrepreneur of Embraer, and today the president of the Santo Amaro Organization of Education and Culture, in São Paulo.

Until 1950, the year the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) was founded, there were only aeronautical engineers educated abroad. “And here we were making planes under license from foreign companies, or were looking for a model similar to ones that already existed abroad.”

But, at the beginning of the 1960’s, ITA now was ten years old and was graduating 80 engineers a year in different specialties within aeronautics. At that time, a group educated there thought that it was the moment to do something. “We met at the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA) to try to answer the question: how to create a real and comprehensive aeronautical industry in the country?” Silva says. “We concluded that if we didn’t produce a plane of our own, innovative, we would no way of competing with the already established market.”

On the same occasion, this same group discovered that in 1965 there were 45 Brazilian cities served by air transport. It so happens that in 1958 this figure was larger, about 400 cities. Amongst others, the fundamental reason for this was the growing use of jet planes. These aircraft required a greater infrastructure to operate and were too large for small communities. “Then we thought that if we made a plane that was not very big, that could land on a short runway and required a more modest infrastructure, we would help to take air transport back to the small cities.” In those days, it was not known that the Brazilian phenomenon was repeating itself worldwide.

“Accordingly, we created the Bandeirante, with 16 seats, and propellers, to be cheaper” he says. “The first prototype was made in the CTA and the plane flew successfully in 1968.” The proceedings for deciding how to manufacture it were long and painful, until the government agreed to create a mixed-capital company. That is, the concept of regional aviation was created and developed here. “We are moving within the old marketing tradition: we discovered a market niche and we conquered it.”

IDACBack to Paris
On November 5, the French will go back a hundred years in time and will watch a flight of the 14-Bis over the Champs de Bagatelle, in Paris. The event will mark the commemorations of the centenary of the pioneering flight in France, although the original dates occurred on October 23 and November 12, 1906. Before that, the 14-Bis will fly on the 22nd of this month in the Esplanade of the Ministries, in Brasilia.

The plane will be piloted by Aline, the daughter of Alan Calassa, a pilot and businessman from Caldas Novas, Goiás, who is fascinated by Santos-Dumont and his apparatuses. At the beginning of 2005, he concluded the construction of the replica of the plane, after years going after information in Brazil and in France and exhaustive consultations with photos, documents and articles from those days and specialists. The result is surprising: the 14-Bis flies suavely and elegantly.

‘santos-Dumont knew exactly what he was doing” Calassa guarantees. “When he developed the plane on the canard system, imitating a duck, he did that for the apparatus to be able to move with less engine power” he says. “He began with a 24 HP engine in September, went to 36 HP in October, and 50 HP in November.” Lift is provided just by the wings. “The 14-Bis is a perfect assembly of aerodynamics.”

Self-taught, Calassa made four replicas of the plane. One is in the Musée de l’Air, in France, another in the United States, a third on display in Brazil, and the fourth in Caldas Novas, for tests. The businessman spent R$ 1.5 million from his own pocket to build them. Embraer is sponsoring the exhibitions in Brazil and abroad.

The flying displays are done by Aline, 22 years old and 52 kilos in weight, the same as Santos-Dumont. After the plane was ready, a few discoveries were made. Even weighing twice what his daughter does, the plane flies very well with Calassa (photo on this page) and even manages two carry two people – one of them sitting where the wings are joined together. It was also discovered that the 14-Bis makes curves, contrary to what used to be thought. “Perhaps Dumont did not know this because he was not a pilot as pilots were to come to be” says Calassa. “He had just finished inventing the airplane and was learning everything.”