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Student's film honors Brazilian aviator

Monday, May 26, 2003 12:00AM EDT
By Barbara Barrett, Staff Writer

Simone Keith's father wanted answers a few years ago when he visited North Carolina from Brazil and saw all the excitement about the Wright brothers.

First in flight? Shaking his head at the license-plate slogan, he told his daughter: Set the Americans straight.

So Keith, 37, who works as a videographer at N.C. State University and was pursuing a master's degree in film studies there, set out to find the truth about who flew the first airplane. Was it Orville and Wilbur Wright, or was it -- as Keith had been taught as a child -- a flamboyant Brazilian aristocrat named Alberto Santos-Dumont?

Three years later, her new documentary, "Heavier Than Air: My Search for Alberto Santos-Dumont," acknowledges the Wrights' 1903 achievement. But amid all the centennial hoopla, including Fayetteville's Festival of Flight, which ends today, Keith wants North Carolinians to know about another man revered in his home country as an aviation pioneer.

Santos-Dumont's initial powered flight came three years after the Wrights' -- but his was the first to be staged in full public view, before a crowd of witnesses. In 1906, he piloted a craft named 14Bis, with wings built of box kites, for 21.2 seconds and 220 meters in a field west of Paris.

Brazil hailed him as a national hero, put his face on stamps and currency and named an airport for him. Keith's father is one of many Brazilians who believe today that Santos-Dumont does not get the credit he deserves for his pioneering work.

Rather than a quest to elevate him above the Wright brothers, Keith's documentary became an intimate portrayal of her quest to understand a man she had known only as a dark-eyed hero staring out from the pages of her school textbooks.

The film begins with a voice-over in her Brazilian accent:

"Something about those eyes fascinated me ..." Keith recalls as her film begins. "His eyes had a haunting sadness I couldn't understand or explain."

In many ways, her film is really a love story.

It was a few years ago that Santos-Dumont captured her heart on a bright Sunday morning in Paris, early in her research, when she stood on a tiny street below the apartment that had been his a century ago on the Champs Elysees. She gazed across the square to the Arc de Triomphe and pictured the dashing, dark-haired figure prowling the same neighborhood, obsessed with his quest to conquer flight.

"I had this incredible feeling that I was there and he was there with me. It was just in a different time frame," Keith said recently. "Imagine: You're in Paris. You can't not fall in love in Paris."

She spent eight days of research in the city, including hours scouting out a suburban park to find the obelisk erected in Santos-Dumont's honor.

"I remember my heart sort of racing as I saw the granite marker," Keith recalled. "Its back was to me, and I started racing toward it."

Etched in stone was the story of his achievement: "Here on 12th November 1906, under the control of the Aero Club of France, Santos-Dumont established the first aviation record in the world."

In her journey, Keith also traveled to Brazil to talk with a relative of Santos-Dumont. She flew in a hot-air balloon and spoke with historians in France and Brazil and with the curator of the Wright exhibition opening this summer at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

At one point, she pored over his original letters in a back-room archive.

"All of a sudden, I'm putting my hand on top of his signature," Keith recalled, laughing. "I'm so excited -- this is it! He starts to be alive, you know. No more photographs."

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born in Brazil in 1873, the son of a coffee baron. He moved to Paris at the age of 18 and inherited his father's wealth. In 1898, he designed and built the world's first steerable dirigible.

He stood just over 5 feet tall but longed always for height. His dining table was suspended from the ceiling, and he held dinner parties where the guests sat in tall chairs to dine aloft.

He was impeccably dressed, with tall starched collars and a Panama hat. He inspired jeweler Louis Cartier to design the first wristwatch so that Santos would not have to dip into his pocket for the time while piloting his aircraft. He had a favorite dirigible, called No. 9, that he used to fly around Paris, including trips for coffee or a bite to eat.

For his 1906 flight in a heavier-than-air machine, before hundreds of witnesses and an official timekeeper, Santos-Dumont won a $10,000 prize, according to a New York Times account.

The Wright brothers had worked in secret to protect their technology, and they had chosen a remote coastal site for their first flights in 1903. Many people were skeptical when the Wrights announced their success in a press conference. It was not until 1908, in Europe, that the pair flew before a public audience and silenced their doubters.

The Wrights went on to sell their invention to the U.S. military. Santos-Dumont was dismayed to see aviation, which he considered a sport, used for warfare as World War I approached. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, went home to Brazil and spoke out for peace. After the League of Nations was formed, he tried unsuccessfully to get it to ban airplanes in warfare.

And after civil war broke out in Brazil, Santos-Dumont hanged himself in 1932 with one of his fashionable neckties. He was 59.

Keith was awarded her master's degree at NCSU on May 18. She works as a videographer and editor in NCSU's Department of Communication Services.

The documentary premiered in April on campus, and she plans to show it in a regional Latin American film festival in November. Her professor, NCSU's Joseph Gomez, wants it to be shown as part of the Wright brothers' centennial observances.

Keith is having a tough time letting go of her subject. She still pines for the aviator with whom she fell in love.

"He was a man who suffered," Keith said, "a man who loved, who battled illness, who drank a lot of great champagne probably."

© Copyright 2003, The News & Observer Publishing Company