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July 13, 1901: Santos-Dumont Flies Around Eiffel Tower

Alberto Santos-Dumont at the helm of one of his airships.
Alberto Santos-Dumont at the helm of one of his airships.

Santos-Dumont's best known plane, 'La Demoiselle.'
Santos-Dumont's best known plane, 'La Demoiselle.'

When we think of early aviation, invariably the Wright Brothers come to mind. But there were many others who made significant contributions to the realization of early flight, among them a Brazilian inventor and aviator pioneer named Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Born in Brazil in 1873, Santos-Dumont moved to Paris at 18, where his inherited wealth enabled him to live in luxury and pursue his passion. He became fascinated by the possibilities of flight, initially with balloons and so-called "dirigibles"—airships powered by steam engines, electric batteries, and eventually by gasoline engines.

Santos-Dumont made his first successful dirigible flight in 1898, taking off from a botanical garden west of Paris and rising to 1300 feet. Unfortunately the machine lost gas pressure on its descent and crash- landed when the main envelope lost its shape. One year later, Santos-Dumont unveiled his second dirigible, which suffered the same fate as the first: losing pressure and folding in on itself. Undaunted, he replaced the sausage shape with an elliptical envelope that was thickest in the middle to keep it from folding up on itself.

A new incentive for success came later that year when a wealthy patron of the French Aero Club offered a prize of 100,000 francs for the first airship to complete the journey from the club's Parc d’Aerostation at Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back in less than 30 minutes. This was a distance of 6.8 miles, requiring an average speed of 14 mph, which no flying machine had yet achieved. Eager to take up the challenge, Santos-Dumont built himself a hangar at Saint Cloud to conduct further experiments. He constructed his fourth flying machine by the end of 1900 and made several test flights with it the next summer, eventually incorporating what he learned into the design of his fifth machine. And he decided he was ready to take a shot at the prize.

On July 12, 1901, Santos-Dumont made three separate flights over the city of Paris, managing to reach the Tower and round it on the third attempt. But he was forced to land in a nearby garden because of rudder problems. The next day, he tried again, and succeeded in flying his hydrogen-filled airship around the Eiffel Tower and back in 40 minutes—ten minutes too long to earn the prize. On August 8th he made another attempt, again rounding the Tower, but was then forced down by a hydrogen leak, crash-landing into the Trocadero Restaurant. The airship's envelope was ripped to shreds and the framework dangled from the building's walls just long enough for Santos-Dumont to climb down to safety.

But the Brazilian was nothing if not persistent. He quickly constructed a replacement airship, ironing out the kinks, and by October 19, 1901, he was ready for his final attempt. On the way towards the Eiffel Tower the wind was in his favor, and he arrived a mere 9 minutes later. He narrowly missed colliding with it on the turn, and had to fight the wind head on during the trip back. He made it back to Saint Cloud only 40 seconds past the established time limit, and the judges somewhat grudgingly awarded him the prize, which he generously donated to Parisian charities. The feat demonstrated that the airship could be a practical vehicle, and Santos-Dumont became a familiar figure, even barhopping in a little dirigible that he tied to lampposts. In 1902 he tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in an airship, but crashed en route.

Santos-Dumont then turned to designing and flying so-called "heavier than air" machines. On November 12, 1906, he succeeded in flying one of his inventions 772 feet in 21 seconds—three years and 150 feet short of the Wright Brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But the Wrights worked in secrecy to protect their patent rights, so news of their achievement did not reach Paris for several years. Santos-Dumont was still only the third man in the world to fly a powered aircraft. Some historians believe he may have even been the first man to get airborne with a heavier-than-air machine by means of its own propulsion. There is some debate on whether the Wrights used a rudimentary catapult system on an inclined plane to get their machine into the air. The pro-Wright camp claims that the brothers didn't invent the catapult system until 1904, one year after Kitty Hawk. They started using it later on to avoid damaging their aircraft.

One of Santos-Dumont's aircraft designs—the Demoiselle (Grasshopper), invented in 1909—became the forerunner of the modern light plane. He ended his days back in his native Brazil, increasingly depressed over the use of aircraft in warfare. He committed suicide in 1932. But his place in the First Flight Society's hall of fame remains assured.