- PETROPOLIS, Brazil (Reuters)
- As Americans prepare to celebrate the centennial of the Wright brother's
first flight, a whole country is cringing at what it believes to be a historical
injustice against one of its most beloved heroes.
- Ask anyone in Brazil who invented the airplane and they
will say Alberto Santos-Dumont, a 5-foot-4-inch (1.6 meter) bon vivant
who was as known for his aerial prowess as he was for his dandyish dress
and high society life in Belle Epoque Paris.
- As Paul Hoffman recounts in his Santos-Dumont biography
"Wings of Madness," the eccentric Brazilian was the first and
only person to own a personal flying machine that could take him just about
anywhere he wanted to go.
- "He would keep his dirigible tied to a gas lamp
post in front of his Paris apartment at the Champs-Elysees and every night
he would fly to Maxim's for dinner. During the day he'd fly to go shopping,
he'd fly to visit friends," Hoffman told Reuters.
- An idealist who believed flight was spiritually soothing,
Santos-Dumont financed his lavish lifestyle and aerial experiments in Paris
with the inheritance his coffee-farming father had advanced him as a young
man. Always impeccably dressed, he regularly took a gourmet lunch with
him on his ballooning expeditions.
- But it was on Nov. 12, 1906, when Santos-Dumont flew
a kite-like contraption with boxy wings called the 14-Bis some 722 feet
on the outskirts of Paris. It being the first public flight in the world,
he was hailed as the inventor of the airplane all over Europe.
- It was only later that the secretive Orville and Wilbur
Wright proved they had beaten Santos-Dumont at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina,
three years earlier on Dec. 17.
- But to bring up the Wright brothers with a Brazilian
is bound to elicit an avalanche of arguments -- some more reasonable than
others -- as to why their compatriot's flight didn't count.
- "It's one of the biggest frauds in history,"
scoffs Wagner Diogo, a taxi driver in Rio de Janeiro, of the Wright's inaugural
flight. "No one saw it, and they used a catapult to launch" the
- Apparently, the debate comes down to how you define the
first flight of an airplane.
- Henrique Lins de Barros, a Brazilian physicist and Santos-Dumont
expert, argues that the Wright brothers' flight did not fulfill the conditions
that had been set up at the time to distinguish a true flight from a prolonged
- But Santos-Dumont's flight did meet the criteria, which
in essence meant he took off unassisted, publicly flew a predetermined
length in front of experts and then landed safely.
- "If we understand what the criteria was at the end
of the 19th century, the Wright brothers simply do not fill any of the
prerequisites," says Lins de Barros.
- Brazilians also claim that the Wrights in 1903 launched
their Flyer with a catapult or at an incline, thereby disqualifying it
from being a true airplane because it did not take off on its own.
- Even Santos-Dumont experts like Lins de Barros concede
this is wrong. But he claims that the strong, steady winds at Kitty Hawk
were crucial for the Flyer's take-off, disqualifying the flight because
there is no proof it could lift off on its own.
- Peter Jakab, chairman of the aeronautics division at
the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and a Wright brothers expert,
says such claims are preposterous.
- By the time Santos-Dumont got around to his maiden flight
the Wright brothers had already flown numerous times, including one in
which they flew 24 miles in 40 minutes.
- "Even in 1903 the airplane sustained itself in the
air for nearly a minute. If it's not sustaining itself under its own power
it's not going to stay up that long," Jakab says.
- Even in France -- never a country too eager to agree
with the U.S. point of view -- the Wrights are considered to have flown
before Santos-Dumont, says Claude Carlier, the director of the French Center
for the History of Aeronautics and Space.
- "There's a strong nationalist issue at play here,"
says Marcos Villares, Santos-Dumont's great grandnephew. "Flight was
a very important step in human history, in the history of technology. Every
country wants to claim priority."
- But that is not to say that Santos-Dumont does not deserve
recognition for his other contributions.
- By rounding the Eiffel Tower in a motorized dirigible
in 1901, he helped prove that air travel could be controlled and a practical
means of transportation.
- "Just to show that the flying machine was practical
is an incredible achievement," says Hoffman, his biographer.
- At his summer home in the Brazilian mountain town of
Petropolis, tour guides perpetuate myths about Santos-Dumont -- such as
how he invented the wristwatch.
- Santos-Dumont experts deny that assertion, although they
concede he was probably the first male civilian to use a watch after asking
his friend Louis Cartier to make him a timepiece he could use while flying.
Previously, only royalty and soldiers had used watches.
- To this day, you can still buy the Santos-model Cartier
watch for only a couple thousand dollars.
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