Horse-drawn carriages stopped dead in their tracks. People pointed at the sky. “Look!” they shouted. “There’s Santos in one of his flying machines!” Above, along the Champs–Elysées, sailed a strange-looking contraption: a cigar-shaped balloon under which was mounted a gasoline engine, a large propeller, and, in a wicker basket, a dapper little man with a neatly trimmed moustache, starched collar, and a Panama hat. Spotting an agreeable sidewalk café, he landed his airship and hitched it to a lamppost. Then he calmly ordered his morning cup of coffee
He was Alberto Santos-Dumont, a very short twenty-nine-year-old Brazilian aviator who loved everything high. (His dining table had nine-foot legs with chairs to match. To reach it, his manservant climbed a step stool.)
A year earlier, in 1901, Santos had astounded Parisians with one of the most spectacular feats in early aviation history. A prize of one-hundred thousand francs had been offered to the first pilot who took off from the Paris Aero Club, circled the Eiffel Tower, and returned to the club within thirty minutes.
Though the money meant little to Alberto—his father had left him with a fortune— it presented a challenge.
His first attempt failed when his 16-horsepower engine conked out, causing his dirigible to fall into a tree. On his second try, the airship crashed into a roof, and the brave Brazilian was left suspended in his basket fifty feet above the ground.
His third attempt was a success. “Did I make it?” he shouted as he passed the finish line. “Oui! Oui!” spectators roared back at him, throwing handkerchiefs into the air and whirling their hats on top of their walking sticks.
Flight was Alberto’s great passion. Arriving in Paris at 18, he had a balloon made— so tiny it could be packed into a travel bag, but big enough to carry his pint-size figure. Then came dirigibles —fourteen altogether.
In 1906, after the Wright brother’s historic flight, he built his own airplane. Named 14 bis, it looked like a bunch of boxes haphazardly thrown together. But it flew, making him the first man in Europe to fly a heavier-than-air machine.
His final aircraft was made of bamboo, aluminum, and silk. Seeing him buzz around in it, people shouted, “Our Santos is riding a dragonfly!” And that became its name: Demoiselle (dragonfly).
Le Petit Santos— a remarkable little man indeed.
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MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Alberto Santos-Dumont." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 16 May
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