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Alberto Santos-Dumont, whose first aeroplane flew in 1906


THE world’s first light aeroplane was built in 1908 by Alberto Santos-Dumont, the son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee planter. Santos-Dumont went to Paris in 1891. Six years later he made his first balloon ascent, and from that time his enthusiasm for aeronautics was born. Shortly afterwards he built his first airship, which was 82 feet long and 11 feet in diameter.

In 1901 he opened works at St. Cloud, near Paris. At this period Henry de la Meurthe (whose ambition it was to develop the petrol engine in aircraft) offered a prize of £4,000 for a flight from St. Cloud, round the Eiffel Tower and back to St. Cloud. Santos-Dumont won this prize with his sixth airship, which flew the distance of nine and a half miles within the required time of half an hour. This airship was 103 feet long and had a cubic feet capacity of 22,000. It was fitted with a 16 horse-power engine.

Despite this triumph Santos-Dumont realized the limitations of the lighter-than-air craft of that time, and he turned his attention to the aeroplane. After having helped the Voisin brothers with their experiments with biplane gliders, Santos-Dumont designed his own aeroplane, a box-kite on the principles due to Hargrave (the inventor of the box-kite). which the Voisin brothers built for him.

This machine was a cumbersome, lumbering affair, but it made history, or rather one of its type did, for Santos-Dumont built a second machine of the same design with which he made the first officially-observed flight in Europe.

It had a small box-kite plane in front and two large box-kite planes, set at a dihedral angle, at the back, and this gave the machine an appearance of flying “tail first”. It was fitted with a 50 horse-power engine. In 1906, after one or two abortive attempts, this odd-looking aeroplane flew for several seconds for a distance of slightly more than 50 feet.

In October and November of the same year Santos-Dumont made longer flights, and won the Archdeacon Prize (presented by M. Archdeacon for the first flight in France over 25 metres; 27¼ yards) and the Aero Club of France prize for the first flights of over 100 metres (109 yards). Santos-Dumont’s longest flight up to November 1906 was 220 metres (240 yards).

Many people were beginning to “find their wings” in those days, and Santos-Dumont’s record was disputed. A Dane, J. C. H. Ellehammer, claimed to have made a power-driven flight at Lindholm some months before Santos-Dumont’s successful attempt. As this was not officially observed, the honour stands to Santos-Dumont’s credit.

He was dissatisfied with the heavy aeroplane with which he had made his successful European flights, as he had been dissatisfied with the airships which had brought him fame, and he worked out a design for a lighter aeroplane. He believed that the future of aeronautics must lie with light aircraft easily handled and relatively inexpensive.


THE WORLD’S FIRST LIGHT AEROPLANE. The Demoiselle was built by Santos-Dumont in 1908. The use of bamboo and the system of staying made this aeroplane.one of the lightest and simplest to construct of its time. It weighed 242 1b. The tail moved as a whole about a universal joint fixed to the back of the framework. A twin-cylinder water-cooled Darracq engine of 30 horse-power was fitted, and gave the machine a speed of 60 miles an hour. The span of the wings was only about 18 feet.

This idea eventually resolved itself into the world’s first light aeroplane - the famous Demoiselle. It weighed 242 lb and was fitted with a 30 horsepower, two-cylinder engine which drove a two-bladed propeller about 6½ feet in diameter. The Demoiselle had a speed of 60 miles an hour, and held the world-record for a take-off: it rose in just over six seconds after a run of only 70 metres (76½ yards). The Demoiselle had a wing span of just over 18 feet, and was built mainly of bamboo. The pilot sat beneath the main plane on a seat made of canvas fastened to the framework of the aeroplane, and he was fully exposed to the wind and the weather.

Judged from a strictly practical point of view, the Demoiselle was not outstandingly successful. Indeed, none of Santos-Dumont’s designs was particularly successful, but his contributions to aeronautics were none the less valuable. Although his designs had no permanent value, he was a genuine pioneer in that he laid down certain foundations which, however imperfect, his successors were able to adapt. The Demoiselle, for example, was fundamentally a sound idea, and could be built for as little as £200. Santos-Dumont died in 1932, and he had lived, therefore, to see the light aeroplane develop from his own crude aeroplane into something practicable. Apart from his contributions to aviation and the records that stand to his credit, Santos-Dumont did great service to aeronautics. His picturesque personality and his enthusiasm had a popular appeal and they helped to direct public attention to aviation.

[From Part 15, published 14 June 1938]

You can read more on “American and Canadian Pioneers”, “Filling the World With Amazement” and “Romance of the Wright Brothers” on this website.

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