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Brazil's daredevil of the air.

IN THE RESORT TOWN of Petropolis, where the Brazilian royal family once repaired to avoid the tropical diseases that ravaged Rio de Janeiro during the summer months, a peculiar structure resembling an oversized bird house in the style of a Swiss chalet clings unobtrusively to the side of a hill. The steps from the street are so narrow that a visitor must climb sideways to mount them. The tiny abode, painted white with green trim and topped by a rust-red roof, houses curiosities such as a dining table twice the height of standard furniture, with chairs to match, and what a placard celebrates as the first hot-and-cold-water shower in Brazil, a contraption dating back to 1918.

There is a strong scent of eccentricity in every corner of what has come to be known as the "Enchanted House." And rightly so, for it was designed and inhabited by one of Brazil's most creative and lovable eccentrics, Alberto Santos-Dumont.

In his native land they hail him as the "Father of Aviation." The French, among whom he lived for many years, bestowed upon him the affectionate nickname "Petit Santos". Writer Marcio Souza called him o brasileiro voador ("the flying Brazilian"), and used the phrase as the title of his fictionalized biography of the fearless birdman whose derring-do was the talk of Paris during the belle epoque. Santos-Dumont is an unusual denizen of the Brazilian pantheon of national heroes because he performed his epic feats abroad. Yet his accomplishments were so extraordinary and his style so Brazilian that his fellow citizens took, and continue to take, great and justifiable pride in one of aviation's most fascinating pioneers.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, the last of eight children, was born in 1873 in the sugar-growing region of southern Minas Gerais, near what is now the main highway between Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. His father, the scion of a humble merchant of French descent, managed to earn an engineering degree from a university in France. He returned home to Brazil, married into a traditional Brazilian family and began to farm. In 1879 he acquired a coffee plantation in the state of Sao Paulo. Using modern technology to increase its production, he became an extremely wealthy man.

The young Alberto was a wiry wisp of a boy with dark hair and eyes and large ears. The machinery he encountered on the farm intrigued him, and he set about learning how everything worked. Shy and full of dreams, he immersed himself in the novels of Jules Verne and fantasized about air travel. In 1891 a fall from a horse left Alberto's father partially paralyzed. He took Alberto with him on a trip to Lisbon and Paris, where he consulted with specialists about his condition. The boy fell under the spell of the "City of Lights," and was mesmerized by an internal-combustion engine that was on display at a science exposition. He used his allowance to purchase a Peugeot roadster, the intricacies of which he quickly mastered, and he brought the car back with him to Brazil. It may have been the first automobile to appear in South America.

Realizing that he did not have long to live, Alberto's father decided to emancipate his youngest son and let him return to Paris to continue his education. "We'll see whether you'll make a man of yourself," he wrote in a letter to the 19-year-old boy, whom he advised to study physics and chemistry. "Don't forget," he wrote, "that the future of the world lies in mechanics." Alberto, a reed-thin, diminutive lad, followed his father's counsel. On his own in Paris, he took private classes in the applied sciences, and also traveled to England to attend lectures at the University of Bristol. His education spanned a period of four years.

These were exciting days for anyone interested in technology, which was bursting beyond its frontiers and into territory hitherto inhabited by science-fiction writers. The young Brazilian, after a brief return to his homeland, went back to Paris and immersed himself in the infant science of ballooning. Utilizing the financial resources that his now-deceased father had put at his disposal, he set up a workshop on the outskirts of Paris and turned his attention with remarkable single-mindedness to lighter-than-air flight.

Santos-Dumont soon became a leading figure within a small group of intrepid adventurers who designed and produced their own spherical balloons and then flew them into space with the aid of air currents. After becoming an accomplished free-flyer, Alberto designed and constructed a cylindrical airship powered by an engine mounted in a basket suspended from an elongated balloon. It was the first in a series of dirigibles he would fly.

When the Aero Club of France offered a prize for the first person who could pilot a dirigible along a prescribed route around the Eiffel Tower in thirty minutes, Santos-Dumont rose to the challenge. He made several attempts, one of which almost ended in tragedy when his airship crashed onto the roof of the Trocadero Hotel and he had to be rescued by firemen. But on October 19, 1901, he successfully completed the course and became the toast of Paris.

Santos-Dumont's popularity derived from not only what he did but also from how he did it. The Brazilian had a way about him that captivated Parisians. A shade under 5 feet in height and weighing less than 110 pounds, he was a curious amalgam of cockiness and reticence, courage and primness. He was also somewhat of a man-about-town, dining regularly at Maxim's, the famous restaurant.

Then there was the matter of his appearance. To offset his lack of size, he wore elevated heels, striped suits, a high starched collar, a red scarf and a broad-brimmed Panama hat. He became the delight of the French press, which publicized his adventures and captured them with printed photographs, a novelty at the time. He also became the favorite subject of one of his friends, the caricaturist Georges Goursat. Before long, people began to imitate his dress.

He bought a house on the Champs-Elysees, not far from the Arch of Triumph, and set up in the dining-room a table and chair that hung by wires from the high ceiling, six feet from the floor. Mounting the chair by the use of stilts, he would sway back and forth as he ate his meals, in order to acclimate himself to dining in a balloon.

Always impeccably dressed, he electrified Parisians by unannounced descents from the sky. He would even steer his airship along the streets of the city. Once he tied up at his apartment building, went inside for a cup of coffee and then resumed his flight. On another occasion he landed in front of a care on the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne and sauntered in for an aperitif. He took the young son of a United States diplomat with him on one ascent, and let a dazzlingly attractive Cuban woman solo in one of his dirigibles (both firsts). He was totally unflappable, even during the mishaps that inevitably occurred.

One explanation for his behavior rests upon the thesis, developed by one of his biographers (Henrique Lins de Barros) that the driving force behind Santos-Dumont was his desire to be accepted by the French aristocracy. He disdained the pursuit of profit, a bourgeois notion, and looked upon what he was doing as a gentleman's pastime. Thus, when he won the Eiffel Tower contest, he gave away the prize money. He would not patent any of his numerous inventions, and allowed them to enter the public domain, for anyone to copy and use freely.

Although he would have preferred to continue experimenting with dirigibles, a growing worldwide interest in the possibilities of flight in heavier-than-air machines inevitably captured his attention. Reports that the Wright brothers had flown an airplane in 1903 in the United States were greeted with skepticism in Europe, and the Aero Club offered a prize for the first aviator to make a 200-meter flight. The diminutive Brazilian decided to enter the competition.

By late 1906 he was ready to give it a try. He constructed an odd-shaped biplane that resembled a series of box kites, with a horizontal stabilizer in front, rather than in the form of a tail. He called it the 14 Bis (an accurate translation into English would be the 14a), since it was a variation on his fourteenth airship. On November 12, before an enthusiastic crowd on a field in the outskirts of Paris, after several inconclusive attempts, he and the 14 Bis managed to traverse more than the required distance at an altitude that exceeded 20 feet. The publicity generated by Santos Dumont's feat gave a tremendous boost to the work of others. He was prominent among the handful of individuals who made Europe air-conscious during this period. Moreover, his total openness contributed to the rapid progress that was to follow, since anyone was free to copy and improve upon what he had done.

"Petit Santos" clung stubbornly to his belief that aviation should be an avocation for the rich, and shuddered at the thought that airplanes might be mass-produced in factories. He built a new craft, which he christened the Demoiselle, or Dragonfly, an elegant little monoplane that his British biographer, Peter Wykeham, described as "beautifully made and finished...the last and perhaps the most satisfying realisation of his genius." He once landed it on the lawn of the chateau of a French count, who invited him in for tea--an exploit that gave him the distinction of making the first social call in an airplane. The Demoiselle was soon copied by others.

In November of 1909 Santos-Dumont made his last flight. Several months later, the news broke that he had suffered what was described as a nervous breakdown. Wykeham hypothesizes that French doctors had in fact discovered that he had multiple sclerosis, and he preferred to keep his medical condition a secret.

With the passing of the belle epoque, the coming of World War I and upheaval in Russia, Santos-Dumont's world came to a sudden end. Although in 1913 the French Aero Club built a monument in St. Cloud, just outside Paris, to commemorate his 1901 dirigible trip around the Eiffel Tower and the flight of the 14 Bis in 1906, he found himself increasingly marginalized. When he amused himself with a telescope in the seaside town he was visiting in 1914 and the overzealous police chief arrested him on suspicion of being a German spy, he decided to leave the country, despite the prompt apologies of the French government. He returned to Brazil.

By this time Santos-Dumont was showing signs of premature aging, the effects of the multiple sclerosis that afflicted him. The use of airplanes during the war profoundly depressed him, and he sought refuge in a little house he built for himself in Petropolis. As soon as hostilities in Europe ended, he sailed hack to the continent for medical treatment. He could not seem to adjust to the changed times.

On another return to Brazil in December 1928, his compatriots planned a gala reception as his steamship entered Guanabara Bay. A seaplane, named the Santos-Dumont and carrying a number of notable Brazilian scientists, was to take off, fly over the vessel and drop a packet containing a message of homage to "the great Brazilian who by achieving the conquest of air honored the country's name abroad." As the plane glided toward the ship, a wing tip caught a wave and it crashed. There were no survivors.

By now a very sick man, Santos-Dumont bounced back and forth between Brazil and European sanitaria. In 1930 the French government awarded him its coveted Legion of Honor decoration. In late 1931, as the depressions that beset him grew worse, he went home to Brazil for the last time.

The 1930 Revolution that had brought Getulio Vargas to power provoked an armed revolt in Sao Paulo in 1932, and the regime used aerial bombardments to suppress it. Santos-Dumont, who had gone to live at the seaside resort of Guaruja not far from Sao Paulo, could watch military planes from his room as they deployed to attack a rebel fortress near the coast. His nephew, who was caring for him, went off to buy cigarettes and left him alone for a few minutes. He headed straight for the bathroom and hanged himself.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, who today lies at rest beneath a statue of Icarus (a copy of the St. Cloud monument) in the Sao Joao Batista Cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, exemplifies the mix of sweetness and greatness that marks the most seductive aspect of "Brazilian-ness." Because of the recognition he achieved abroad for Brazil, his fellow citizens idolized him (although some grumbled at his refusal to make any of his flights in his native land). The town where he was born and the downtown airport in Rio de Janeiro bear his name, and the Brazilian Air Force has made him their hero (despite his well-known opposition to military aviation).

There are some, especially in his native land, who insist that Alberto Santos-Dumont was the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine. In so doing, they have inadvertently helped to dim his reputation. The historical facts establish beyond cavil that the Wright brothers did fly an airplane in Kitty Hawk in 1903, and near Dayton in 1905. However, to reiterate a sterile claim serves only to detract from Santos-Dumont's genuine contributions, which were numerous and substantial.

He was the only early flier who had significant successes in both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air flight. He may have been the first to build a hangar for dirigibles. He made the first flight in a powered aircraft in public before an official commission. His dirigibles and his Demoiselle were clear contributions to the state of the art in aviation development. And when he told a friend, Louis Cartier, that he could not manipulate the controls of his airships and at the same time consult his pocket timepiece, the two of them came up with the design of the first wristwatch for men.

But this is just part of the story. Santos-Dumont was a true original--a complex, dapper daredevil, a comet who blazed briefly but brightly, both a shaper and a mirror of the era he embellished, a legend in his own time, and ultimately a tortured soul to whom fate dealt a cruel hand.

The star-crossed quality of his life seems to have remained with him after death. A major international film project to be based upon Marcio Souza's O Brasileiro Voador and likely to secure for him the recognition that he richly deserves has been shelved indefinitely for lack of financing.

Joseph A. Page, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., is the author of The Revolution That Never Was: Northeast Brazil, 1955-1964 and Peron: A Biography, and is currently at work on The Brazilians, from which this article is adapted.
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Title Annotation:Alberto Santos-Dumont
Author:Page, Joseph A.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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