Orville and Wilbur Wright are arguably the most famous pilots of all time; after all, their likenesses are present on all FAA-issued pilot certificates. But although the Wright Brothers’ accomplishments will forever be remembered, there are some who believe the honor of being the first to fly a real airplane belongs to another: Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Santos-Dumont was born July 20, 1873, in Cabangu, Brazil. His father managed a coffee plantation, although he was, in fact, an engineer. Santos-Dumont, much like his father, had developed an intense love of machinery. He had the mechanical bug from a young age and, as a young adult, traveled with his parents to France, where he began studying engineering alongside chemistry, physics and mechanics.
While Santos-Dumont was studying in Paris, he became infatuated with the idea of flight. He contacted a balloonist in the hopes of making a flight. The balloonist was agreeable, but the price was steep, so Santos-Dumont talked himself out of it, believing, “I shall find it either good or bad. If it is bad, the money will be lost. If it is good, I shall want to repeat it, and I shall not have the means.” He decided to put ballooning on hold.
Inspired by the book “Andrée- Au Pôle Nord en Ballon,” an account of S.A. Andrée’s fatal attempt to explore the North Pole in a balloon, Santos-Dumont turned his attention to designers and constructors. Upon reaching France, he sought out M. Lachambre, the builder of the Andrée balloon, and inquired about a flight. The next day, Santos-Dumont went for his first balloon flight.
After constructing his own, very small balloon, the Brazil, which he flew in 1898, Santos-Dumont turned his attention to powered airships, and over the next decade, 11 dirigibles emerged from his shop. In 1901, Santos-Dumont claimed an aviation prize for flying a dirigible around the Eiffel Tower. The prize came with a hefty financial reward, which Santos-Dumont, after allotting his crew its share, donated to the poor of Paris.
But once again, Santos-Dumont’s attention turned to the next thing. He had heard of the Wright Brothers’ successes with heavier-than-air flight and decided to give it a go. Many remained skeptical about the Wright Brothers, as all their flights happened privately, away from the public. After Oct. 23, 1906, no one doubted Santos-Dumont. He conducted a public flight in his 14-Bis biplane. Although it was a short flight of 200 feet and only 15 feet above the ground, many believe this was the first true flight of an airplane because, unlike the Wright Flyer, the 14-Bis took off on its own wheels instead of a launching rail like the Wrights employed at Kitty Hawk.
Santos-Dumont continued to propel heavier-than-air flight forward, and in 1909, he began demonstrating the Demoiselle. Although the Demoiselle was rumored to be a handful to fly, it was, in many ways, the first practical light aircraft. In the interest of helping others to fly, Santos-Dumont released the plans to the world. This was to be his last aviation design. In 1910, Santos-Dumont announced his intent to retire from aviation.
After his retirement from aviation, Santos-Dumont received a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. The news, along with his sadness at seeing the flying machines he loved well being turned into weapons over the battlefields of World War I, led him into a deep depression. Santos-Dumont took his own life three days after his 59th birthday.
Although his life was cut short, Santos-Dumont’s legacy lives on, with many, especially those from his native Brazil, believing that he was the true inventor of the powered airplane. Regardless of where history comes down on this, his accomplishments in both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aviation history are simply remarkable.
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Do you want to learn about another Incredible Pilot? Read “Jerrie Cobb: A Life In The Air.”