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)

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