Skip to main content

I Believe I Can Fly: Brazil’s Abiding Love For Alberto Santos-Dumont

By | [email protected] | October 1, 2016 9:15am


The Rio 2016 opening and closing ceremonies have come and gone. Many elements emblematic of Brazilian culture were on full display for the world to see. Carnival, samba, favelas, Gisele Bündchen – but it also featured a man flying around Rio in an old fashioned airplane. To foreigners, the image may have seemed out of place among the samba dancers and favelas. What does this man flying around have to do with Brazil? Oh, it has everything to do with Brazil.

Brazilians recognized the man flying the plane right away as Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont was born in 1873 to a family of wealthy coffee producers in the state of Minas Gerais. Growing up, he was fascinated by the works of Jules Verne and by the turn of the century he had moved to France, where he began constructing balloons and experimenting with aircrafts. On October 23, 1906, he flew his aircraft 14-Bis for 60 meters across the Paris Château de Bagatelle, the first heavier-than-air aircraft to have a flight certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. It’s because of this achievement that Brazil considers Santos-Dumont the father of aviation.

If you were educated in the United States, you might be asking, weren’t the Wright brothers the first to take flight? That depends how you define the first flight. The Wright brothers flew their Wright Flyer in 1903, but the flight was not documented or recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Supporters of Santos-Dumont have many a bone to pick with the Wrights’ 1903 flight, saying the event not only lacked witnesses but also that the plane used a ramp to take off and wind to stay in the air.

Santos-Dumont with his dirigible no. 18

Santos-Dumont with his dirigible no. 18

Santos-Dumont is a national hero in Brazil. His hometown of Palmira was renamed Santos Dumont in his honor. Rio’s domestic airport also bears his name, as do many highways and higher learning institutions. His face has appeared on Brazilian currency. The official aircraft for the president of Brazil is named Alberto Santos Dumont. To suggest he wasn’t the father of aviation may as well be heresy.

I first learned of Santos-Dumont when visiting the Museu do Amanhã’s temporary exhibition, “O Poeta Voador, Santos Dumont.” (In English, “The Flying Poet, Santos Dumont.”) I probably wouldn’t even have stopped in if I hadn’t been with a Brazilian friend who wanted to see the exhibit.

“The Flying Poet” had the kind of things you would expect: dioramas, a model of the 14-Bis, photographs from Santos-Dumont’s life. But the most striking was an audiovisual display entirely dedicated to comparing the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight with Santos-Dumont’s in 1906. A split screen showed the differences in their experiments. “Was it done without the aid of wind?” the screen read. “Sim!” the Santos-Dumont side said. “Não!” on the Wright brothers’s side. “Was it performed in front of witnesses?” “Sim!” the Santos-Dumont side read. “Não!” the Wright brothers’ side. And on and on. I thought back to my time in Buenos Aires and remembered all of the Argentines who told me, sometimes rather aggressively, that it was an Argentine who invented the ballpoint pen.

Santos-Dumont on a banknote from 1936

Santos-Dumont on a banknote from 1936

My friend asked me if I had learned about Santos-Dumont in school and I had to confess I had never even heard of the guy until now. But North Americans’ ignorance of Santos-Dumont doesn’t mean we share the same kind of fervor for Orville and Wilbur Wright, at least not in my experience. Growing up in California, I was never taught to have some instinctive pride for the Wright brothers, although I still took it for granted that they invented flight. I asked my college roommate, an Ohio native, how she felt about the Wright brothers, who also hail from Ohio. “Our license plates say ‘Birthplace of Aviation’ and North Carolina’s say ‘First in Flight’ so I don’t know what to believe,” she told me. And Santos-Dumont? “I don’t even know who that is,” she said. Though one of the Wright brothers was born in Ohio and they developed their aircraft there, they performed their alleged first flight in North Carolina. In addition to their license plates, both Ohio and North Carolina also claim the Wright brothers for their state quarters. Americans’ feelings towards the origins of flight are more of a civil war than an international campaign.

Santos-Dumont was certainly aware of the Wright brothers and commended their achievements, but he notes that they did not allow public viewings of their flight until after he flew his 14-bis. “What would Edison, Graham Bell and Marconi say if after presenting the electric lamp, the telephone or wireless telegraph in public, some other inventor appears with an improved version, saying that he had built them first?” Santos-Dumont wrote in his 1918 autobiography.

Santos-Dumont flying high over the Rio Opening Ceremony

Santos-Dumont flying high over the Rio Opening Ceremony

As we left the museum, my friend told me about the tragic turn Santos-Dumont’s life took, something not mentioned in the exhibit. He suffered from multiple sclerosis and depression, growing increasingly ill in his later years. He saw his aviation technology utilized in Brazil’s Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932, in which an estimated 3,000 Brazilians died. Devastated by the fact that his life’s work was used in warfare, Santos-Dumont committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 59. Today he is buried in Rio’s Cemitério de São João Batista, alongside the likes of Carmen Miranda and Tom Jobin. Santos-Dumont was also almost certainly gay; he never married and many articles about him from his lifetime alluded to his homosexuality. However, Brazilian canon often glosses over that fact as if it were at odds with his scientific achievements. “We all known that Santos-Dumont was gay, but no one says it,” says Dutch author Arthur Japin, who fictionalized Santos-Dumont’s life in his 2015 novel De Gevleugelde (translated as O homem com asas in Portuguese).

Despite the difficult ending to his life, contemporary images of Santos-Dumont in Brazil are mostly positive ones. The Olympics opening and closing ceremonies showed a cheerful man flying freely through the air; “The Flying Poet” shows him as one of the leading a pioneers of his time. If Brazilians are so protective of Santos-Dumont’s achievements, it’s perhaps because their country is so often dismissed as a land of partying and dancing rather than as a source of intellectual and technological prowess. Consider it a rebuttal to the famous line, “Brazil is not a serious country,” which seems to cut the Brazilian psyche so deeply. It’s only natural their greatest innovator would make an appearance at the Olympics, Brazil’s biggest chance yet to prove to the world it is a serious country.