Alberto Santos-Dumont was to ballooning what Richard Branson is to aerial pickles. Born in Brazil in 1873, Alberto spent much of his boyhood dreaming about "sailing" the sky. He read Jules Verne, watched the condors, made straw planes powered by twisted rubber and sent up fleets of silk- paper fire-balloons. Aged 18, he inherited a fortune from his coffee-planter father and moved to Paris, determined to become a fully-fledged "balloonatic".

Anyone could go up in a balloon: the problem was to steer it. Santos- Dumont used the internal combustion engine from a De Dion cycle as his driving force. He mounted it on a wickerwork gondola strung from an envelope of yellow Japanese silk (so fine that it would fit into a valise) which was inflated with hydrogen. As the motor belched sparks beneath its explosive bladder, Santos-Dumont maintained a superb sang-froid.

On early flights he got lost in fog, crashed into trees and buildings, and was "shaken like a salad basket". Once he almost drowned in the Mediterranean and on another occasion he put out a fire with his Panama hat. But even when scrambling through the bamboo struts, Santos-Dumont remained the languid dandy of the boulevards - spatted, high-collared, pomaded, jewelled. As the British aviation pioneer Lord Brabazon said in his memoirs, ballooning "is the only way to go into the air like a gentleman."

In 1901 Santos-Dumont won international fame by making the first half- hour controlled flight around the Eiffel Tower. He became the Lindbergh or the Neil Armstrong of his day, hailed as the conqueror of the heavens. He was feted everywhere, not least across the Channel. The Daily Mail proclaimed that England, vulnerable to "aerial chariots'', was no longer an island; but The Times declared loftily that "all attempts at artificial aviation'' were dangerous and doomed.

Among the tributes Santos-Dumont received was a wristwatch designed by his friend Louis Cartier to enable him to keep his hands free while flying. It was the earliest commercially marketed wristwatch, changing the fashion from pocket watches and becoming Cartier's best-selling (and most counterfeited) product.

In 1906, perhaps in response to rumours about the Wright brothers, Santos- Dumont turned to heavier-than-air flying machines. He built a box-kite- like contraption which was initially pulled along a high wire by a donkey on the ground: about as eccentric a preparation for flight as the table on stilts at which Santos-Dumont dined. But his ungainly bird did reach, or lurch, for the sky. Santos-Dumont became the first European to fly 200 metres in a fixed-wing aircraft.

The rest of his life was a tragic anti-climax. He developed multiple sclerosis, blamed himself for Zeppelin raids and other bombings and sank into depression. In 1932 he hanged himself - though not before designing a motorised backpack to propel skiers up slopes.

Nancy Winters does not aspire to write serious aviation history: she charts the ups and downs of a magnificent man in his flying machines. Her charmingly illustrated little book would make an excellent stocking- filler. It offers balloonacy in a Cartier setting.

Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99