In the Museum

The Spirit of Santos-Dumont

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14 Bis had three distinctly different sets of controls, which provided the aircraft’s stability. Courtesy Dan Hagedorn

On October 21, the National Air and Space Museum will celebrate the 100th anniversary of a first flight. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian who spent his adult life in France, was the pilot of this particular milestone (which occurred October 23, 1906). He rolled his 14 Bis, which resembles a jumble of oversize box kites, out to a field at the Bagatelle, just outside Paris, France, and lifted gently into the sky…well, “sky” such as it is nine feet off the ground. In the end, he flew 120 feet before touching down and rolling to a stop. It was the first flight of a heavier-than-air craft in Europe.

The Museum will hold a Family Day this October—a themed event occurring several times a year, geared toward school-age children and their parents—to celebrate the centennial. The Brazilian Embassy will join the Museum in fêting Santos-Dumont’s flight, as well as honoring his contributions to the evolution of aviation. A replica of Santos-Dumont’s final design—a delicate, bird-like Demoiselle (Dragonfly), provided by Brazil’s Instituto Arruda—will be on display. “It’s really the first practical ultralight,” says Dan Hagedorn, archivist and adjunct curator of Latin American aviation at the Museum. The 14 Bis will be there in spirit—as a 1/16th-scale model—as will Santos-Dumont’s No. 9 dirigible. And 40 Santos-Dumont postage stamps from around the world will be enlarged and on view.

Kids can construct paper models of the aircraft they see and take home an assortment of posters and pamphlets as well. In addition, Elisabeth P. Waugaman will read from her illustrated children’s book, Follow Your Dreams: The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont. And there’s even something for music fans. “We discovered some special sheet music dedicated to Santos-Dumont,” says Hagedorn. The challenge for event organizers will be finding people who can play the old instruments the music requires.

Although there will be several replicas and models on display, unfortunately, original parts of any of Santo-Dumont’s aircraft are very difficult to find. “No one knows what happened to the 14 Bis,” says Hagedorn. “You can see components of the 14 Bis hanging on the wall [in a photograph of Santo-Dumont’s workshop in Bagatelle], where he was building the No. 19 and No. 20, which leads me to believe he cannibalized his older aircraft to build new ones.” However, the Museum does have an original engine from Santos-Dumont’s No. 9 on display in the Early Flight gallery, in an alcove next to a French Blériot XI monoplane.

“Santos-Dumont’s flight really was a first,” says Hagedorn. “The Wrights did trials in a glider learn how to control it [prior to their first trip in the Flyer]. Santos-Dumont literally taught himself to fly that very day he lifted off.”

It was reported that Santos-Dumont looked like he was doing the rumba when he was flying. Some of the controls for the 14 Bis were attached to his shoulders by a harness, so he was constantly shimmying and shaking as he flew. Santos-Dumont was fairly small, which was probably to his advantage in the lightweight aircraft, says Hagedorn. The 14 Bis was his 14th design, powered by a 50-horsepower Antoinette engine.

The Demoiselle was, for all intents and purposes, Santos-Dumont’s first “practical” aircraft design. “The Demoiselle is Santos-Dumont’s legacy,” says Hagedorn. “So many were built that there’s no record of the precise amount that existed.” The silk-wing monoplane was a far cry from the 14 Bis’ enormous stretch of boxy canvas. Powered by a 20-horsepower Dutheil and Chalmers engine, the entire aircraft, including diminutive pilot Santos-Dumont, weighed just 233 pounds.

Santos-Dumont made his last flight in July 1910. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis some years later, and died by his own hand, despondent and alone, on July 23, 1932.

“Santos-Dumont made a gift of his aircraft designs to the world,” says Hagedorn. The inventor eventually burned almost all of his papers and manuals in his later life, however, leaving very few artifacts (aside from photographs) of his accomplishments. This October will give the public a chance to celebrate this reluctant hero and his exciting flight 100 years ago.

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