Santos Dumont and His Air-Ship by Russell Doubleday

There was a boy in far-away Brazil who played with his friends the game of "Pigeon Flies."

In this pastime the boy who is "it" calls out "pigeon flies," or "bat flies," and the others raise their fingers; but if he should call "fox flies," and one of his mates should raise his hand, that boy would have to pay a forfeit.

The Brazilian boy, however, insisted on raising his finger when the catchwords "man flies" were called, and firmly protested against paying a forfeit.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, even in those early days, was sure that if man did not fly then he would some day.

Many an imaginative boy with a mechanical turn of mind has dreamed and planned wonderful machines that would carry him triumphantly over the tree-tops, and when the tug of the kite-string has been felt has wished that it would pull him up in the air and carry him soaring among the clouds. Santos-Dumont was just such a boy, and he spent much time in setting miniature balloons afloat, and in launching tiny air-ships actuated by twisted rubber bands. But he never outgrew this interest in overhead sailing, and his dreams turned into practical working inventions that enabled him to do what never a mortal man had done before—that is, move about at will in the air.

Perhaps it was the clear blue sky of his native land, and the dense, almost impenetrable thickets below, as Santos-Dumont himself has suggested, that made him think how fine it would be to float in the air above the tangle, where neither rough ground nor wide streams could hinder. At any rate, the thought came into the boy's mind when he was very small, and it stuck there.

His father owned great plantations and many miles of railroad in Brazil, and the boy grew up in the atmosphere of ponderous machinery and puffing locomotives. By the time Santos-Dumont was ten years old he had learned enough about mechanics to control the engines of his father's railroads and handle the machinery in the factories. The boy had a natural bent for mechanics and mathematics, and possessed a cool courage that made him appear almost phlegmatic. Besides his inherited aptitude for mechanics, his father, who was an engineer of the Central School of Arts and Manufactures of Paris, gave him much useful instruction. Like Marconi, Santos-Dumont had many advantages, and also, like the inventor of wireless telegraphy, he had the high intelligence and determination to win success in spite of many discouragements. Like an explorer in a strange land, Santos-Dumont was a pioneer in his work, each trial being different from any other, though the means in themselves were familiar enough.

The steering-wheel can be seen in front of basket, the motor is suspended in frame to the rear, the propeller and rudder at extreme end.

The boy Santos-Dumont dreamed air-ships, planned air-ships, and read about aerial navigation, until he was possessed with the idea that he must build an air-ship for himself.

He set his face toward France, the land of aerial navigation and the country where light motors had been most highly developed for automobiles. The same year, 1897, when he was twenty-four years old, he, with M. Machuron, made his first ascent in a spherical balloon, the only kind in existence at that time. He has described that first ascension with an enthusiasm that proclaims him a devotee of the science for all time.

His first ascension was full of incident: a storm was encountered; the clouds spread themselves between them and the map-like earth, so that nothing could be seen except the white, billowy masses of vapour shining in the sun; some difficulty was experienced in getting down, for the air currents were blowing upward and carried the balloon with them; the tree-tops finally caught them, but they escaped by throwing out ballast, and finally landed in an open place, and watched the dying balloon as it convulsively gasped out its last breath of escaping gas.

After a few trips with an experienced aeronaut, Santos-Dumont determined to go alone into the regions above the clouds. This was the first of a series of ascensions in his own balloon. It was made of very light silk, which he could pack in a valise and carry easily back to Paris from his landing point. In all kinds of weather this determined sky navigator went aloft; in wind, rain, and sunshine he studied the atmospheric conditions, air currents, and the action of his balloon.

The young Brazilian ascended thirty times in spherical balloons before he attempted any work on an elongated shape. He realised that many things must be learned before he could handle successfully the much more delicate and sensitive elongated gas-bag.

In general, Santos-Dumont worked on the theory of the dirigible balloon—that is, one that might be controlled and made to go in any direction desired, by means of a motor and propeller carried by a buoyant gas-bag. His plan was to build a balloon, cigar-shaped, of sufficient capacity to a little more than lift his machinery and himself, this extra lifting power to be balanced by ballast, so that the balloon and the weight it carried would practically equal the weight of air it displaced. The push of the revolving propeller would be depended upon to move the whole air-ship up or down or forward, just as the motion of a fish's fins and tail move it up, down, forward, or back, its weight being nearly the same as the water it displaces.

The theory seems so simple that it strikes one as strange that the problem of aerial navigation was not solved long ago. The story of Santos-Dumont's experiments, however, his adventures and his successes, will show that the problem was not so simple as it seemed.

Santos-Dumont was built to jockey a Pegasus or guide an air-ship, for he weighed but a hundred pounds when he made his first ascensions, and added very little live ballast as he grew older.

Weight, of course, was the great bugbear of every air-ship inventor, and the chief problem was to provide a motor light enough to furnish sufficient power for driving a balloon that had sufficient lifting capacity to support it and the aeronaut in the air. Steam-engines had been tried, but found too heavy for the power generated; electric motors had been tested, and proved entirely out of the question for the same reason.

Santos-Dumont has been very fortunate in this respect, his success, indeed, being largely due to the compact and powerful gasoline motors that have been developed for use on automobiles.

Even before the balloon for the first air-ship was ordered the young Brazilian experimented with his three-and-one-half horse-power gasoline motor in every possible way, adding to its power, and reducing its weight until he had cut it down to sixty-six pounds, or a little less than twenty pounds to a horse-power. Putting the little motor on a tricycle, he led the procession of powerful automobiles in the Paris-Amsterdam race for some distance, proving its power and speed. The motor tested to his satisfaction, Santos-Dumont ordered his balloon of the famous maker, Lachambre, and while it was building he experimented still further with his little engine. To the horizontal shaft of his motor he attached a propeller made of silk stretched tightly over a light wooden framework. The motor was secured to the aeronaut's basket behind, and the reservoir of gasoline hung to the basket in front. All this was done and tested before the balloon was finished—in fact, the aeronaut hung himself up in his basket from the roof of his workshop and started his motor to find out how much pushing power it exerted and if everything worked satisfactorily.

On September 18, 1898, Santos-Dumont made his first ascension in his first air-ship—in fact, he had never tried to operate an elongated balloon before, and so much of this first experience was absolutely new. Imagine a great bag of yellow oiled silk, cigar-shaped, fully inflated with hydrogen gas, but swaying in the morning breeze, and tugging at its restraining ropes: a vast bubble eighty-two feet long, and twelve feel in diameter at its greatest girth. Such was the balloon of Santos-Dumont's first air-ship. Suspended by cords from the great gas-bag was the basket, to which was attached the motor and six-foot propeller, hung sixteen feet below the belly of the great air-fish.

Many friends and curiosity seekers had assembled to see the aeronaut make his first foolhardy attempt, as they called it. Never before had a spark-spitting motor been hung under a great reservoir of highly inflammable hydrogen gas, and most of the group thought the daring inventor would never see another sunset. Santos-Dumont moved around his suspended air-ship, testing a cord here and a connection there, for he well knew that his life might depend on such a small thing as a length of twine or a slender rod. At one side of a small open space on the outskirts of Paris the long, yellow balloon tugged at its fastenings, while the navigator made his final round to see that all was well. A twist of a strap around the driving-wheel set the motor going, and a moment later Santos-Dumont was standing in his basket, giving the signal to release the air-ship. It rose heavily, and travelling with the fresh wind, the propellers whirling swiftly, it crashed into the trees at the other side of the enclosure. The aeronaut had, against his better judgment, gone with the wind rather than against it, so the power of the propeller was added to the force of the breeze, and the trees were encountered before the ship could rise sufficiently to clear them. The damage was repaired, and two days later, September 20, 1898, the Brazilian started again from the same enclosure, but this time against the wind. The propeller whirled merrily, the explosions of the little motor snapped sharply as the great yellow bulk and the tiny basket with its human freight, the captain of the craft, rose slowly in the air. Santos-Dumont stood quietly in his basket, his hand on the controlling cords of the great rudder on the end of the balloon; near at hand was a bag of loose sand, while small bags of ballast were packed around his feet. Steadily she rose and began to move against the wind with the slow grace of a great bird, while the little man in the basket steered right or left, up or down, as he willed. He turned his rudder for the lateral movements, and changed his shifting bags of ballast hanging fore and aft, pulling in the after bag when he wished to point her nose down, and doing likewise with the forward ballast when he wished to ascend—the propeller pushing up or down as she was pointed. For the first time a man had actual control of an air-ship that carried him. He commanded it as a captain governs his ship, and it obeyed as a vessel answers its helm.

A quarter of a mile above the heads of the pygmy crowd who watched him the little South American maneuvered his air-ship, turning circles and figure eights with and against the breeze, too busy with his rudder, his vibrating little engine, his shifting bags of ballast, and the great palpitating bag of yellow silk above him, to think of his triumph, though he could still hear faintly the shouts of his friends on earth. For a time all went well and he felt the exhilaration that no earth-travelling can ever give, as he experienced somewhat of the freedom that the birds must know when they soar through the air unfettered. As he descended to a lower, denser atmosphere he felt rather than saw that something was wrong—that there was a lack of buoyancy to his craft. The engine kept on with its rapid "phut, phut, phut" steadily, but the air-ship was sinking much more rapidly than it should. Looking up, the aeronaut saw that his long gas-bag was beginning to crease in the middle and was getting flabby, the cords from the ends of the long balloon were beginning to sag, and threatened to catch in the propeller. The earth seemed to be leaping up toward him and destruction stared him in the face. A hand air-pump was provided to fill an air balloon inside the larger one and so make up for the compression of the hydrogen gas caused by the denser, lower atmosphere. He started this pump, but it proved too small, and as the gas was compressed more and more, and the flabbiness of the balloon increased, the whole thing became unmanageable. The great ship dropped and dropped through the air, while the aeronaut, no longer in control of his ship, but controlled by it, worked at the pump and threw out ballast in a vain endeavour to escape the inevitable. He was descending directly over the greensward in the centre of the Longchamps race-course, when he caught sight of some boys flying kites in the open space. He shouted to them to take hold of his trailing guide-rope and run with it against the wind. They understood at once and as instantly obeyed. The wind had the same effect on the air-ship as it has on a kite when one runs with it, and the speed of the fall was checked. Man and air-ship landed with a thud that smashed almost everything but the man. The smart boys that had saved Santos-Dumont's life helped him pack what was left of "Santos-Dumont No. 1" into its basket, and a cab took inventor and invention back to Paris.

In spite of the narrow escape and the discouraging ending of his first flight, Santos-Dumont launched his second air-ship the following May. Number 2 was slightly larger than the first, and the fault that was dangerous in it was corrected, its inventor thought, by a ventilator connecting the inner bag with the outer air, which was designed to compensate for the contraction of the gas and keep the skin of the balloon taut. But No. 2 doubled up as had No. 1, while she was still held captive by a line; falling into a tree hurt the balloon, but the aeronaut escaped unscratched. Santos-Dumont, in spite of his quiet ways and almost effeminate speech, his diminutive body, and wealth that permitted him to enjoy every luxury, persisted in his work with rare courage and determination. The difficulties were great and the available information meager to the last degree. The young inventor had to experiment and find out for himself the obstacles to success and then invent ways to surmount them. He had need of ample wealth, for the building of air-ships was expensive business. The balloons were made of the finest, lightest Japanese silk, carefully prepared and still more vigorously tested. They were made by the most famous of the world's balloon-makers, Lachambre, and required the spending of money unstintedly. The motors cost according to their lightness rather than their weight, and all the materials, cordage, metal-work, etc., were expensive for the same reason. The cost of the hydrogen gas was very great also, at twenty cents per cubic meter (thirty-five cubic feet); and as at each ascension all the gas was usually lost, the expense of each sail in the air for gas alone amounted to from $57 for the smallest ship to $122 for the largest.


Nevertheless, in November of 1899 Santos-Dumont launched another air-ship—No. 3. This one was supported by a balloon of much greater diameter, though the length remained about the same—sixty-six feet. The capacity, however, was almost three times as great as No. 1, being 17,655 cubic feet. The balloon was so much larger that the less expensive but heavier illuminating gas could be used instead of hydrogen. When the air-ship "Santos-Dumont No. 3" collapsed and dumped its navigator into the trees, Santos-Dumont's friends took it upon themselves to stop his dangerous experimenting, but he said nothing, and straightway set to work to plan a new machine. It was characteristic of the man that to him the danger, the expense, and the discouragements counted not at all.

In the afternoon of November 13, 1899, Santos-Dumont started on his first flight in No. 3. The wind was blowing hard, and for a time the great bulk of the balloon made little headway against it; 600 feet in air it hung poised almost motionless, the winglike propeller whirling rapidly. Then slowly the great balloon began nosing its way into the wind, and the plucky little man, all alone, beyond the reach of any human voice, could not tell his joy, although the feeling of triumph was strong within him. Far below him, looking like two-legged hats, so foreshortened they were from the aeronaut's point of view, were the people of Paris, while in front loomed the tall steel spire of the Eiffel Tower. To sail round that tower even as the birds float about had been the dream of the young aeronaut since his first ascension. The motor was running smoothly, the balloon skin was taut, and everything was working well; pulling the rudder slightly, Santos-Dumont headed directly for the great steel shaft.

The people who were on the Eiffel Tower that breezy afternoon saw a sight that never a man saw before. Out of the haze a yellow shape loomed larger each minute until its outlines could be distinctly seen. It was a big cigar-shaped balloon, and under it, swung by what seemed gossamer threads, was a basket in which was a man. The air-ship was going against the wind, and the man in the basket evidently had full control, for the amazed people on the tower saw the air-ship turn right and left as her navigator pulled the rudder-cords, and she rose and fell as her master regulated his shifting ballast. For twenty minutes Santos-Dumont maneuvered around the tower as a sailboat tacks around a buoy. While the people on that tall spire were still watching, the aeronaut turned his ship around and sailed off for the Longchamps race-course, the green oval of which could be just distinguished in the distance.

On the exact spot where, a little more than a year before, the same man almost lost his life and wrecked his first air-ship, No. 3 landed as softly and neatly as a bird.

Though he made many other successful flights, he discovered so many improvements that with the first small mishap he abandoned No. 3 and began on No. 4.

The balloon "Santos-Dumont No. 4" was long and slim, and had an inner air-bag to compensate for the contraction of the hydrogen gas. This air-ship had one feature that was entirely new; the aeronaut had arranged for himself, not a secure basket to stand in, but a frail, unprotected bicycle seat attached to an ordinary bicycle frame. The cranks were connected with the starting-gear of the motor.

Seated on his unguarded bicycle seat, and holding on to the handle-bars, to which were attached the rudder-cords, Santos-Dumont made voyages in the air with all the assurance of the sailor on the sea.

But No. 4 was soon too imperfect for the exacting Brazilian, and in April, 1901, he had finished No. 5. This air-cruiser was the longest of all (105 feet), and was fitted with a sixteen horse-power motor. Instead of the bicycle frame, he built a triangular keel of pine strips and strengthened it with tightly strung piano wires, the whole frame, though sixty feet long, weighing but 110 pounds. Hung between the rods, being suspended by piano wires as in a spider-web, was the motor, basket, and propeller-shaft.

The last-named air-ship was built, if not expressly at least with the intention of trying for the Deutsch Prize of 100,000 francs. This was a big undertaking, and many people thought it would never be accomplished; the successful aeronaut had to travel more than three miles in one direction, round the Eiffel Tower as a racing yacht rounds a stake-boat, and return to the starting point, all within thirty minutes—i.e., almost seven miles in two directions in half an hour.

The new machine worked well, though at one time the aerial navigator's friends thought that they would have to pick him up in pieces and carry him home in a basket. This incident occurred during one of the first flights in No. 5. Everything was going smoothly, and the air-ship circled like a hawk, when the spectators, who were craning their necks to see, noticed that something was wrong; the motor slowed down, the propeller spun less swiftly, and the whole fabric began to sink toward the ground. While the people gazed, their hearts in their mouths, they saw Santos-Dumont scramble out of his basket and crawl out on the framework, while the balloon swayed in the air. He calmly knotted the cord that had parted and crept back to his place, as unconcernedly as if he were on solid ground.

It was in August of 1901 that he made his first official trial for the Deutsch Prize. The start was perfect, and the machine swooped toward the distant tower straight as a crow flies and almost as fast. The first half of the distance was covered in nine minutes, so twenty-one minutes remained for the balance of the journey: success seemed assured; the prize was almost within the grasp of the aeronaut. Of a sudden assured success was changed to dire peril; the automatic valves began to leak, the balloon to sag, the cords supporting the wooden keel hung low, and before Santos-Dumont could stop the motor the propeller had cut them and the whole system was threatened. The wind was drifting the air-ship toward the Eiffel Tower; the navigator had lost control; 500 feet below were the roofs of the Trocadero Hotels; he had to decide which was the least dangerous; there was but a moment to think. Santos-Dumont, death staring him in the face, chose the roofs. A swift jerk of a cord, and a big slit was made in the balloon. Instantly man, motor, gas-bag, and keel went tumbling down straight into the court of the hotels. The great balloon burst with a noise like an explosion, and the man was lost in a confusion of yellow-silk covering, cords, and wires. When the firemen reached the place and put down their long ladders they found him standing calmly in his wicker basket, entirely unhurt. The long, staunch keel, resting by its ends on the walls of the court, prevented him from being dashed to pieces. And so ended No. 5.

Most men would have given up aerial navigation after such an experience, but Santos-Dumont could not be deterred from continuing his experiments. The night of the very day which witnessed his fearful fall and the destruction of No. 5 he ordered a new balloon for "Santos-Dumont No. 6." It showed the pluck and determination of the man as nothing else could.

Twenty-two days after the aeronaut's narrow escape his new air-ship was finished and ready for a flight. No. 6 was practically the same as its predecessor—the triangular keel was retained, but an eighteen horse-power gasoline motor was substituted for the sixteen horse-power used previously. The propeller, made of silk stretched over a bamboo frame, was hung at the after end of the keel; the motor was a little aft of the centre, while the basket to which led the steering-gear, the emergency valve to the balloon, and the motor-controlling gear was suspended farther forward. To control the upward or downward pointing of the new air-ship, shifting ballast was used which ran along a wire under the keel from one end to the other; the cords controlling this ran to the basket also.

The new air-ship worked well, and the experimental flights were successful with one exception—when the balloon came in contact with a tree.

It was in October, 1901 (the 19th), when the Deutsch Prize Committee was asked to meet again and see a man try to drive a balloon against the wind, round the Eiffel Tower, and return.

The start took place at 2:42 P.M. of October 19, 1901, with a beam wind blowing. Straight as a bullet the air-ship sped for the steel shaft of the tower, rising as she flew. On and on she sped, while the spectators, remembering the finish of the last trial, watched almost breathlessly. With the air of a cup-racer turning the stake-boat she rounded the steel spire, a run of three and three-fifth miles, in nine minutes (at the rate of more than twenty-two miles an hour), and started on the home-stretch.

For a few moments all went well, then those who watched were horrified to see the propeller slow down and nearly stop, while the wind carried the air-ship toward the Tower. Just in time the motor was speeded up and the course was resumed. As the group of men watched the speck grow larger and larger until things began to take definite shape, the white blur of the whirling propeller could be seen and the small figure in the basket could be at last distinguished. Again the motor failed, the speed slackened, and the ship began to sink. Santos-Dumont threw out enough ballast to recover his equilibrium and adjusted the motor. With but three minutes left and some distance to go, the great dirigible balloon got up speed and rushed for the goal. At eleven and a half minutes past three, twenty-nine minutes and thirty-one seconds after starting, Santos-Dumont crossed the line, the winner of the Deutsch Prize. And so the young Brazilian accomplished that which had been declared impossible.

The gasoline holder, from which a tube leads to the motor, can be seen on the side of the basket.

The following winter the aerial navigator, in the same No. 5, sailed many times over the waters of the Mediterranean from Monte Carlo. These flights over the water, against, athwart, and with the wind, some of them faster than the attending steamboats could travel, continued until through careless inflation of the balloon the air-ship and navigator sank into the sea. Santos-Dumont was rescued without being harmed in the least, and the air-ship was preserved intact, to be exhibited later to American sightseers.

"Santos-Dumont No. 6," the most successful of the series built by the determined Brazilian, looks as if it were altogether too frail to intrust with the carrying of a human being. The 105-foot-long balloon, a light yellow in colour, sways and undulates with every passing breeze. The steel piano wires by which the keel and apparatus are hung to the balloon skin are like spider-webs in lightness and delicacy, and the motor that has the strength of eighteen horses is hardly bigger than a barrel. A little forward of the motor is suspended to the keel the cigar-shaped gasoline reservoir, and strung along the top rod are the batteries which furnish the current to make the sparks for the purpose of exploding the gas in the motor.

Santos-Dumont himself says that the world is still a long way from practical, everyday aerial navigation, but he points out the apparent fact that the dirigible balloon in the hands of determined men will practically put a stop to war. Henri Rochefort has said: "The day when it is established that a man can direct an air-ship in a given direction and cause it to maneuver as he wills—there will remain little for the nations to do but to lay down their arms."

The man who has done so much toward the abolishing of war can rest well content with his work.