CHAPTER XXVII. The First Man to Fly in Europe
In November, 1906, nearly the whole civilized world was astonished to read that a rich young Brazilian aeronaut, residing in France, had actually succeeded in making a short flight, or, shall we say, an enormous "hop", in a heavier-than-air machine.
This pioneer of aviation was M. Santos Dumont. For five or six years before his experiments with the aeroplane he had made a great many flights in balloons, and also in dirigible balloons. He was the son of well-to-do parents - his father was a successful coffee planter - and he had ample means to carry on his costly experiments.
Flying was Santos Dumont's great hobby. Even in boyhood, when far away in Brazil, he had been keenly interested in the work of Spencer, Green, and other famous aeronauts, and aeronautics became almost a passion with him.
Towards the end of the year 1898 he designed a rather novel form of air-ship. The balloon was shaped like an enormous cigar, some 80 feet long, and it was inflated with about 6000 cubic feet of hydrogen. The most curious contrivance, however, was the motor. This was suspended from the balloon, and was somewhat similar to the small motor used on a motor-cycle. Santos Dumont sat beside this motor, which worked a propeller, and this curious craft was guided several times by the inventor round the Botanical Gardens in Paris.
About two years after these experiments the science of aeronautics received very valuable aid from M. Deutsch, a member of the French Aero Club. A prize of about L4000 was offered by this gentleman to the man who should first fly from the Aero Club grounds at Longchamps, double round the Eiffel Tower, and then sail back to the starting-place. The total distance to be flown was rather more than 3 miles, and it was stipulated that the journey - which could be made either in a dirigible air-ship or a flying machine - should be completed within half an hour.
This munificent offer at once aroused great enthusiasm among aeronauts and engineers throughout the whole of France, and, to a lesser degree, in Britain. Santos Dumont at once set to work on another air-ship, which was equipped with a much more powerful motor than he had previously used. In July, 1901, his arrangements were completed, and he made his first attempt to win the prize.
The voyage from Longchamps to the Eiffel Tower was made in very quick time, for a favourable wind speeded the huge balloon on its way. The pilot was also able to steer a course round the tower, but his troubles then commenced. The wind was now in his face, and his engine-a small motor engine of about 15 horse-power-was unable to produce sufficient power to move the craft quickly against the wind. The plucky inventor kept fighting against the-breeze, and at length succeeded in returning to his starting-point; but he had exceeded the time limit by several minutes and thus, was disqualified for the prize.
Another attempt was made by Santos Dumont about a month later. This time, however, he was more unfortunate, and he had a marvellous escape from death. As on the previous occasion he got into great difficulties when sailing against the wind on the return journey, and his balloon became torn, so that the gas escaped and the whole craft crashed down on the house-tops. Eyewitnesses of the accident expected to find the gallant young Brazilian crushed to death; but to their great relief he was seen to be hanging to the car, which had been caught upon the buttress of a house. Even now he was in grave peril, but after a long delay he was rescued by means of a rope.
It might be thought that such an accident would have deterred the inventor from making further attempts on the prize; but the aeronaut seemed to be well endowed with the qualities of patience and perseverance and continued to try again. Trial after trial was made, and numerous accidents took place. On nearly every occasion it was comparatively easy to sail round the Tower, but it was a much harder task to sail back again.
At length in October, 1901, he was thought to have completed the course in the allotted time; but the Aero Club held that he had exceeded the time limit by forty seconds. This decision aroused great indignation among Parisians - especially among those who had watched the flight - many of whom were convinced that the journey had been accomplished in the half-hour. After much argument the committee which had charge of the race, acting on the advice of M. Deutsch, who was very anxious that the prize should be awarded to Santos Dumont, decided that the conditions of the flight had been complied with, and that the prize had been legitimately won. It is interesting to read that the famous aeronaut divided the money among the poor.
But important though Santos Dumont's experiments were with the air-ship, they were of even greater value when he turned his attention to the aeroplane.
One of his first trials with a heavier-than-air machine was made with a huge glider, which was fitted with floats. The curious craft was towed along the River Seine by a fast motor boat named the Rapiere, and it actually succeeded in rising into the air and flying behind the boat like a gigantic kite.
12th November, 1906, is a red-letter day in the history of aviation, for it was then that Santos Dumont made his first little flight in an aeroplane. This took place at Bagatelle, not far from Paris.
Two months before this the airman had succeeded in driving his little machine, called the Bird of Prey, many yards into the air, and "11 yards through the air", as the newspapers reported; but the craft was badly smashed. It was not until November that the first really satisfactory flight took place.