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Before the Wright brothers?

Friday, Dec. 12, 2003
Paul Knox
Globe and Mail

The year was 1906, and a Brazilian-born aviator and boulevardier named Alberto Santos Dumont was about to make history.

What kind of history, as far as millions of Brazilians are concerned, is still in dispute.

Scores of spectators, attracted to the Bois de Boulogne outside Paris by public announcements, watched as Santos Dumont climbed into a contraption called the 14-Bis, lifted into the air and flew for 21 seconds.

The aircraft was hardly a match for its dapper little pilot, who cut a dashing figure in his Panama hats in turn-of-the-century Paris.

It looked like a series of box kites sewn together in the shape of the letter T. It had two wonky wheels and only rudimentary steering controls.

But the 220-metre flight on Nov. 12, 1906, earned Santos Dumont the distinction of being the first person to demonstrate to a public audience that a heavier-than-air machine could be capable of sustained, controlled, powered flight.

Europeans had heard stories about a pair of bicycle mechanics conducting flying trials in the United States. The achievements claimed by Orville and Wilbur Wright spurred Santos Dumont, an accomplished balloonist and dirigible flier, onward in his heavier-than-air experiments.

The centenary of the Wright brothers' 12-second, 36-metre “first flight” at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903, will be celebrated next week. But the secretive Wrights conducted their early trials without fanfare, waiting until 1908 to hold a public demonstration in France.

Heir to a coffee fortune, and as romantic as the Wright brothers were practical, Santos Dumont paid little attention to making money from his aeronautical exploits.

He saw aviation as a boon to humankind, something to be celebrated in style. He reportedly threw dinner parties at which guests sat on two-metre-high seats, and was known to fly to restaurants at dinnertime in a personal balloon.

He watched, dismayed, as the science he helped develop became a deadly weapon in the First World War and in the revolutions of his native Brazil. In 1932, ill with multiple sclerosis, he committed suicide at the age of 59.

He didn't even make the list of 100 aviation heroes named yesterday by the organizers of the Wright brothers' centennial. France's Louis Blériot, the first to fly across the English Channel, and the founders of U.S. aircraft companies such as Martin, Douglas and Lockheed are on the list.

For many Brazilians, what ought to be celebrated next week is a century of wounded pride.

“Who are these Wright brothers?” laughed Annette Hester, a native of Brazil and director of the University of Calgary's Latin American Research Centre. “Who are you talking about? I never heard of them until I was an adult.”

From Campinas, near Sao Paulo, retired physics professor Jose Lunazzi weighed in to contend that whatever the Wright brothers were doing before 1906, there's no proof.

“There isn't a single piece of evidence to show they flew in 1903,” said Prof. Lunazzi, who was born in Argentina but has lived in Brazil since 1975. Not long ago he uncovered a book by Santos Dumont, What I Saw and What We Will See, portions of which he has posted on the Internet.

Other Brazilian commentators have said the Wright flights don't qualify as world firsts because their aircraft were launched by catapult, or the flights weren't long enough.

“Preposterous nonsense,” was the response of Peter Jakab, chairman of the aeronautics division at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

The Wrights had made multiple flights before Santos Dumont's 1906 feat, he said, including one in which their aircraft travelled 38 kilometres, by which point any launch boost was irrelevant.

Mr. Jakab said five people watched the first Kitty Hawk flight, which involved no catapult, and there were numerous witnesses to the others. “There were accounts they gave at the time, and later reminiscences.”

Nevertheless, generations of Brazilian schoolchildren have grown up believing Santos Dumont is the father of powered heavier-than-air flight.

“There's no question about it: That's the way it's taught here,” Brazilian-Canadian broadcaster Adhemar Altieri said from Sao Paulo.

Mr. Altieri spent his first four years of primary school in Brazil, then moved with his family to Cambridge, Mass. He recalls arguing with classmates there when the subject of the Wright brothers came up.

“I said the Wright brothers didn't invent the airplane; it was Santos Dumont,” he said. “The American kids all laughed at me.”

Mr. Jakab said that although the Wright brothers beat Santos Dumont to the punch, the Brazilian made key contributions to aviation science.

“It's unfortunate that the Brazilians focus on this,” he said, “because Santos Dumont was an important early pioneer.”

Copyright © 2003, Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.