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Book Review

Up, Up and Away Into the Annals of Aviation History

MAN FLIES, The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont, Master of the Balloon by Nancy Winters, The Ecco Press, 160 pages, $23

September 18, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Upon initial impression, Nancy Winters' "Man Flies" seems a slight book. Compact, written in short paragraphs and spare sentences, profusely and charmingly illustrated, this brief volume tells the story of the Brazilian-born balloonist and aviator who during the first decade of this century was believed to be, and widely celebrated as, the first man to fly. While Winters' book never quite sheds its sense of slightness, it does amount to a gesture of poignant archeology as the author excavates a human story that has been buried by the irrevocable advance of history.

The son of a coffee grower, Alberto Santos-Dumont was raised on a plantation that was so substantial it had its own 60-mile railroad. He grew up reading, perhaps as fact, the stories of Jules Verne and building balloons out of silk paper. Arriving in Paris at the height of the Belle Epoque, Santos-Dumont threaded his way through a society that was being memorialized by Proust, entertained by Bernhardt and sketched by Toulouse-Lautrec. Despite his means, the always smartly dressed Santos-Dumont had come to Paris not merely--or at least not only--to party. He had more ambition than that. He was going to conquer the air.

Santos-Dumont discovered that ballooning had advanced only minimally since the experiments of the Montgolfier brothers a century earlier. No one had invented a safe, steerable balloon. Santos-Dumont provisioned himself with a tutor in science and an able balloon maker. He looked to honey bees for inspiration and practiced eating aloft by dining at home on a specially built raised table and chairs. (He always insisted on festive champagne lunches while ballooning, observing that "[n]o dining room can be so marvelous in its decoration.") He combined an internal combustion engine with explosive hydrogen, hung a gondola from ropes attached to the base of the balloon and developed a means of ascent, descent and what Winters calls "attitude" through movable weights, rather than solely by releasing gas or shedding ballast.

Santos-Dumont had his first great success in October 1901, when he won the Deutsch Prize for a half-hour controlled flight around the Eiffel Tower in his cigar-shaped No. 6 balloon. He became an international celebrity. Medallions and postcards were minted and printed in his honor. Guglielmo Marconi and Thomas Edison embraced him as a fellow inventor. Five years later, ready to tackle a new and more daunting challenge still, Santos-Dumont built a contrivance out of box kites attached to an engine. It had a tail in front and a propeller in the rear. Santos-Dumont used it to make a triumphant heavier-than-air flight of 100 meters. Once again he was the toast of the press and the public, having started mankind on a journey, as Winters observes, "that would eventually lead it into space."

Santos-Dumont and his Eurocentric fans did not know--though they would soon find out--that the much-lauded aviator followed the Wright brothers, who had flown their plane, Kitty Hawk, on a farm in Dayton, Ohio, in 1903. "Santos-Dumont found himself not so much toppled as eclipsed," Winters explains. The elegant and gentlemanly Santos-Dumont seems to have kept his feelings on the matter private, although in a letter discovered locked in his desk after his death he wrote that it was "rather painful for me to note--after all my work in dirigibles and heavier-than-air machines--the ingratitude of those who a few years ago covered me in praise."

This is one of the few moments when Winters is able to peer beneath the public Santos-Dumont, who remains, for all the author's tender appreciation of him, stubbornly opaque. While Winters makes an obligatory inquiry about his sexuality--Santos-Dumont never married and seems to have devoted all his emotive and intellectual resources to flight--she has found minimal access to the inner man. Not long after his heavier-than-air flight, Santos-Dumont was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and much of the remainder of his life appears to have been spent in physical and spiritual decay.

Two aspects of the nearly forgotten aviator's personality do reverberate, however. One is his dignity: Santos-Dumont refused to put ads on his planes, took no money for his inventions and agonized about the military application of his discoveries to such a degree that it seems to have been a factor in his suicide in 1932, when during a civil war in Brazil bombs were being dropped from planes.

The second is his great consuming love of being aloft. In the air, Santos-Dumont remarked, "All is pure"; in the air, for this curious and clever man, the balloon seemed to stand still while, as he put it, "the earth flies past underneath."

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