[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 December, 2003, 11:19 GMT
Brazil's 'father of flight'
Steve Kingstone
By Steve Kingstone
In Rio de Janeiro

Santos Dumont
Santos Dumont is cherished as one of the greatest Brazilians of all time
In a military museum in Rio de Janeiro, excited schoolchildren gather round a display case. Inside it is a golden sphere, the size of a football. Inside the sphere is a human heart. It belongs to the man Brazilians call the "Father of Flight", Alberto Santos Dumont.

"He was a good man," explains 10-year-old Bruna. "He invented lots of things. Like the aeroplane."

"His first plane was called 14-bis," adds eight-year-old Ruiama. "It was like a bird. And he stood in a basket to fly it."

The flamboyant son of a coffee baron, Santos Dumont made his name in France. At first, he flew balloons and airships - winning a prize in 1901 for circling the Eiffel Tower.

Children being shown round the museum
Children learn about Santos Dumont's achievements
In October 1906 he flew 14-bis before a crowd of journalists and aviation officials. The flight of 60 metres prompted newspapers to declare that the tiny Brazilian had "conquered the skies". The International Aeronautics Federation listed Santos Dumont as the first holder of an aviation record.

"When the people saw Santos Dumont fly they were astonished," says Rodrigo Moura, an author and student of Brazilian inventors. "Never before had they seen a machine that was heavier than air leave the ground and fly. It was like a miracle."

But Santos Dumont was brought down to Earth with a bump in 1908, when the American Wilbur Wright arrived in Paris. He proceeded to break many of the Brazilian's aviation records. And he announced that he and his brother Orville had staged their first flight back in 1903 - three years before Santos Dumont.

'First autonomous flight'

Many Brazilians dispute the Wright brothers' achievement. They argue that the Americans worked largely in secret, and did not invite journalists or officials to witness their early efforts.

When he saw planes dropping bombs he slipped into a deep depression
Monica Castelo Branco
The 1903 flight, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was watched by only a handful of local people.

Others accept that the Wrights probably did fly in 1903. But they say take-off was only possible because of favourable weather conditions.

"The Americans got off the ground because there were strong headwinds," says Rodrigo Moura. "Santos Dumont took off, flew and landed without any outside help. His was the first truly autonomous flight."

Santos Dumont's heart on display at Rio's Aerospace Museum
The Brazilian's heart is on display at a Rio museum
Disillusioned by the Wright brothers' successes, Alberto Santos Dumont returned to Brazil in 1914.

But his final years were deeply troubled. He suffered from multiple sclerosis, and became increasingly depressed because planes were being used in war.

"The end was very dramatic," says Monica Castelo Branco, who runs a museum at the site of Santos Dumont's family home.

"When he saw planes dropping bombs he slipped into a deep depression. He always knew that aeroplanes would be used to carry troops, but not to kill people. In July 1932 he committed suicide."

Today, Santos Dumont is cherished as one of the greatest Brazilians of all time. His hometown bears his name, and his birthday is an occasion for national celebration. By contrast, the Wright brothers do not appear in Brazilian textbooks, and nor is Brazil marking the centenary of the 1903 flight.

It's a very different version of history from the one most people are familiar with. And Brazilians have no intention of changing it.


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific