Were the Wright brothers really first? Not in Brazil

In the U.S., the Wright brothers are recognized for making history with the world's first airplane flight. In Brazil, the first aviator goes by the name of Santos-Dumont.

Everyone knows that the American Wright brothers made aviation history when they lifted off at Kitty Hawk, N.C. on Dec. 17, 1903. But judging their place in that history is less clear when it's retold in Brazil -- especially when the subject involves the story of the country's storied local aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Alberto Santos-Dumont MY AIRSHIPS The Story of My Life BY Alberto Santos-Dumont (Project Gutenberg)
As my colleague, Daniel Terdiman, notes in his detailed write-up of his visit to the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio, "at the time of the Wrights' invention, there was a hot race to get the first powered aircraft aloft."

The Brazilians challenge the assertion that the Wrights were first to make aviation history with a true airplane since they used a launching rail. By contrast, Santos-Dumont won a competition in France on Oct. 23, 1906, when his winged aircraft flew about 200 feet and then landed safely to win the Aero-Club de France prize of 1,500 francs.

In a piece written for Brazil's Ministry of Science and Technology celebrating the 100th anniversary of Santos-Dumont's flight, physicist Henrique Lins de Barros argued that the inventor's 14-Bis, as the craft was called, satisfied all the criteria of the Federation Aéronautique International (FAI) as the world's first airplane. They stipulated the following:

A) the flight should be done before an official organization, qualified to ratify it; B) the flight should be done in calm weather and over a plain ground, and properly documented; C) the machine should be able to take off from a designated area by its own means with a man on board; D) the machine should carry on board the necessary source of energy; E) the machine should fly in a straight line; F) the machine should make a change of direction (turn and circle); G) the machine should return to the starting point.

The 14-Bis arrives in Bagatelle on Nov. 12, 1906. 'Santos-Dumont and the Invention of the Airplane' CBFP

Brazilian critics of the Wrights point to the use of the catapult they deployed instead of equipping their craft with a wheeled undercarriage. However, it's also true that the Wrights recorded making dozens of flights before building the catapult to launch their plane. And as Daniel notes in his piece, the Wright's Oct. 5, 1905, test of the Wright Flyer III remained airborne for 39 minutes, longer in duration than all flights to that point combined.

But even at a remove of more than a century, the Wright vs. Santos-Dumont debate continues into modern times. Removed from the polemics, PBS produced a thorough an fair-minded documentary on Santos-Dumont's life that's worth perusing. In the meantime, though, the true identity of the airplane's creator is fated to leave Brazilians and Americans as divided as ever.

 

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