A daring old man and his flying machine: Phil Davison in Rio de Janeiro on the flyer who may have beaten the Wright brothers into the air

WHO invented the aeroplane and made the first flight? The Wright brothers, right? Wrong, at least if you're Brazilian. In fact, if you're any sort of Latin American, perhaps even if you're French, the first man to conquer the air was a dashing Brazilian gentleman in an Indiana Jones-style felt hat, called Alberto Santos Dumont.

Santos Dumont is a national hero in Brazil, known as the father of aviation, with towns and airports named after him and monuments around the country. In his day he was to air buffs, including those far beyond Brazil, what Pele is to football-lovers.

Now, at the house in Petropolis, near Rio, where he spent his latter years disillusioned over the military use of what he considered his invention, a new museum to the aviator has become one of Brazil's busiest tourist attractions.

But was he first off the ground, before the Americans, Wilbur and Orville Wright, hopped their 'power machine' into the air at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903? Well, perhaps not. But Brazilians dismissed, as did French officials at the time, the Wright brothers' first flight as dubious. They believe Santos Dumont's 60-metre flight at Bagatelle, France, on 23 October, 1906, in his a bamboo, silk and aluminium biplane known as 14- bis, was the first true, unaided flight of a heavier-than-air machine. And they are pressing their case hard.

The evidence to back their version is strong. 'There is absolutely no doubt,' a Brazilian air force colonel, Marco Aurelio Erthal, said last week. 'Santos Dumont did not use any outside aid to take off. The Wright brothers used a catapult-type device and a kind of rail. We respect all air pioneers, including the Wrights. But Santos Dumont was certainly the first man to take off without any help and fly.'

At Brazil's Historic Cultural Institute of Aeronautics in Rio, next to the domestic airport that bears the aviator's name, there is tons of evidence shooting down the credibility of the Wright brothers' first flight. There are excerpts from the brothers' diaries, referring to their plane's 'starting track, a 60ft monorail of iron- shod wood . . . on a slope of eight degrees'. Documents show only five people witnessed the first flight at Kitty Hawk, including a gentleman called Jack Daniels.

According to a history of the Wright brothers by John R McMahon, reporters were sceptical when the brothers tried to emulate their feat at Dayton, Ohio, in 1904. ' 'That's not scientific,' scoffed a reporter with eyeglasses on a black cord,' McMahon writes. ' 'Air is air. Take it from me, the Wrights have a can of compressed gas stowed somewhere inside the ship. This thing, scientifically speaking, is a dirigible balloon.' '

Mr McMahon described the Wright's take-off method: 'The plane on a single-wheel carriage was shot forward on a monorail track by a pulleyed rope connected with a 600lb weight which fell 16 1/2 feet from a wooden derrick at the rear.' Ironically, Wilbur Wright later criticised Santos Dumont's unaided method. 'We deduce that Mr Santos Dumont has first to make a run over a long level field. With the aid of the starting-off pillar that we use, Orville and I go right up into the air in a much more practical fashion.'

Records show that the Wright brothers, after making further and longer flights in 1904-05, suddenly stopped flying, 'owing to the publicity', until challenged to prove themselves in 1907 in France, the heart of the aeronautic world, where Santos Dumont was already a legend. As early as 1901 he had made a historic flight in his cigar-shaped dirigible balloon from Saint Cloud in Paris round the Eiffel Tower and back.

At the end of 1905, the Wright brothers wrote to the US Secretary of War offering to sell their flying machine idea. The War Department turned them down, saying it was not interested 'until a machine is produced which by actual operation is shown able to produce horizontal flight and to carry an operator'.

The brothers went to France in 1907 and attempted to sell their idea to the French government for a million francs. Depending on which version you believe, either the talks fell through or the Americans had a patriotic change of heart and went home. It was 1908, two years after Santos Dumont's officially recognised flight, before the brothers showed in France, for all the world to see, what they could do.

On 3 November 1906, three years after Kitty Hawk, the Illustrated London News described the Brazilian's Bagatelle flight of the previous month as 'the first flight of a machine heavier than air.

As a gentleman aviator, the Brazilian admired the Wright brothers' achievements and was reluctant to denigrate them. But he later wrote: 'It is undeniable that, only after all of us had flown, they made their appearance with a better machine than ours, saying it was a copy of one they had built before we constructed our machines. We made our demonstrations before scientific commissions and in broad daylight.

'The partisans of the Wright brothers claim that they flew in America from 1903 to 1905 near Dayton, in a field along one of whose sides a streetcar used to pass. During three and a half years, the Wrights made innumerable mechanical flights and no journalist of the perspicacious press of the United States took the trouble to go and see the flights and write up the most interesting interview of the time.'

As a boy, Santos Dumont was inspired by paper balloons and the visions of Jules Verne. Before he flew, he predicted planes would carry passengers. He also saw the potential of aircraft in war and didn't like that vision.

After the development of Germany's zeppelin, a result of his airships, and the use of planes in wars, he grew more depressed. In Brazil's civil war in 1932, he covered his ears as war planes flew by. It is as well he didn't live to see later wars, stealth bombers, precision bombing of Baghdad. On 23 July 1932, aged 59, the great flyer committed suicide.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower