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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Brazil celebrates its 'father of flight'
By Hugh O'Shaunnessy
BBC News, Brazil

Santos Dumont
Santos Dumont is seen as one of the greatest Brazilians of all time.

A range of special events is taking place in Brazil this month in celebration of one of the country's best-loved heroes - Alberto Santos Dumont.

On 23 October 1906 Alberto Santos Dumont, the 33-year-old son of a fabulously rich Brazilian coffee baron, took off from a field outside Paris in a strange contraption, the 14-bis or 14 Mark II.

It seemed to be flying backwards and had the engine at the rear.

The pilot was keenly watched by an official team of observers and many others at a moment when enthusiasts in the French capital were clearly leading the world in the development of aeronautics.

Louis Blériot, for instance, must have been dreaming of the day, two years in the future, when he would be the first man to fly across the Channel.

Sensitive but dashing, Santos Dumont was already the toast of Paris. In 1901 when he was still in his twenties he had won the Deutsch Prize with his dirigible - a balloon with a motor which could be steered rather precariously.

The use of aircraft offensively caused him intense misery, he seemed to assume personal responsibility for those who died in aerial dog fights

After many attempts over the months he had succeeded in taking off from Saint-Cloud in his balloon, flying round the recently inaugurated Eiffel Tower and landing back at Saint-Cloud in less than half an hour.

In a characteristic gesture of generosity he gave away his 129,000 francs of prize money to his mechanics and to the poor of Paris. The International Aeronautics Federation acknowledged his feat and later he was awarded France's Legion of Honour.

Small in stature and always distinguished as a smart dresser with a high collar and a Panama hat, the young Brazilian went on to invent the Demoiselle, the first plane to be produced in numbers in a factory.

Yet, after a crash in a Demoiselle, Santos Dumont gave up flying for good in 1910.

Returning to Brazil he built himself a typically quirky house in Petrópolis, the former summer capital of the emperors of Brazil.

Santos Dumont with his Santos-Dumont 19 'Demoiselle' monoplane
The Demoiselle was the first factory-produced plane

A Encantada, "the Enchanted Woman" is now a museum - it went up on the side of a hill, not far from the imperial Crystal Palace.

Santos Dumont could not abide inside stairways so all the staircases are on the outside of the Encantada. There was no kitchen: Santos Dumont relied on ordering food from the grand hotel across the way.

As war broke out in Europe in 1914 he was enthusiastic about using aircraft for defence - they were better at spotting submarines than surface vessels, for instance.

But, as the war continued, the use of aircraft offensively caused him intense misery. He seemed to assume personal responsibility for those who died in aerial dogfights.

He was not helped by the onset of multiple sclerosis.

He hanged himself using two of his smart red ties in 1932 at the age of 59. On the day of his death he reflected, "I've invented the misery of the world."

Mysterious affair

For more than a century he has been one of Brazil's undisputed national heroes. The claims of Orville and Wilbur Wright to have taken to the air in the Flyer in North Carolina in 1903 are not given much credence in this country.

Brazilians say that the US flight was a mysterious affair, held virtually in secret and not observed by impartial witnesses. They add that the flight was unable to take off under its own power and was catapulted into the air.

The flight of 60 metres that won Alberto Santos-Dumont a prize of 3000 francs
Santos Dumont's flight attempts were keenly watched

Their case is bolstered by the photo of the Flyer which shows it had no undercarriage.

Here in Brazil Santos Dumont's champions compare the Wright brothers unfavourably with him.

The Wrights were secretive - he was open. They were keen to patent everything they could - he patented nothing. They were keen to sell their machine to the armies of their own country, Britain, Germany and France - he was appalled by dogfights and bombing.

What all sides can come together to appreciate is one of Santos Dumont's minor contributions to human happiness.

He needed both hands free to grasp the controls of his balloons and his aircraft. At the same time he had to take the question of timing seriously, so he made a practice of strapping his watch to his wrist as few people had done before.

He took the practice, so to speak, to a new plane.

He persuaded his friend the jeweller Louis Cartier to mass-produce a wrist watch.

When you are next held up at an airport do not curse the invention of the aeroplane. Just look at the time on your wrist and bless the name of Alberto Santos Dumont
It was good business and Santos Dumont's reputation meant that soon men and women were wearing them.

Indeed the company has maintained them in production to this day.

So when you are next held up at an airport do not curse the invention of the aeroplane.

Just look at the time on your wrist and, as you do, bless the name of Alberto Santos Dumont.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 20 October, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Brazil's 'father of flight'
16 Dec 03 |  Americas
Country profile: Brazil
02 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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