Why Aviation’s Alberto Santos-Dumont Is A National Hero in Brazil


Alberto Santos-Dumont is regarded as a national hero in Brazil thanks to his pioneering works in early aviation. Born on July 20, 1873, in the Brazilian town of Palmira in Southeastern Brazil, Alberto Santos-Dumont had the fortune of being born into a family of wealthy coffee plantation owners.

Santos-Dumont was originally drawn to balloons. Photo: Getty Images

His father’s use of newly invented labor-saving devices earned him the title of the “Coffee King of Brazil” and allowed young Alberto to drive the plantations steam engines and locomotives. Fascinated with machinery and a love for the works of Jules Verne, Santos-Dumont said in his autobiography that the dream of flying came to him while staring up into the skies above the plantation.

Santos-Dumont bought a Peugeot

After being homeschooled by private tutors Santos-Dumont attended the Colégio Morton in São Paulo and the Escola de Minas in Minas Gerais. Santos-Dumont’s father was partially paralyzed after falling off a horse in 1891 and decided to sell the plantation and move the family to France, where he hoped he would find treatment for his condition.

Rather than flying in a balloon, Santos-Dumont bought a car. photo: Arnaud 25 via Wikipedia

Now living in Paris, Santos Dumont contacted a balloonist in the hope of being able to make a flight. The price of 1,200 francs quoted was a considerable amount of money at the time and had Santos-Dumont second-guessing if he wanted to do it. Included in the price were a two-hour flight and the cost of returning the balloon to Paris.

Pondering his dilemma, Santos-Dumont concluded that if he did not enjoy the experience, it would have been a waste of money and that if he loved the flight, he would not have the means to do it again. In the end, he decided against the balloon trip and bought a Peoget automobile with the money instead.

Santos-Dumont built the Brésil

After traveling back and forth between Brazil and Europe for several years, once Santos-Dumont’s father passed away in 1892, he decided to stay on in Paris and study physics. Still traveling to Brazil for holidays, on one return journey to France, Santos-Dumont bought a book about Salomon Andrée’s attempt to fly to the North Pole by balloon. Calling the book a “revelation,” Santos-Dumont decided that he would contact the balloon’s makers once back in Paris.

Santos-Dumont’s first balloon, the Bresil. Photo: Musee de l’Air et de l’Espace via Wikipediaeven

True to his word Santos-Dumont contacted Lachambre and Machuron and arranged to make a flight piloted by Alexis Machuron. Taking off from Vaugirard, an arrondissement on the River Seine’s left bank, the balloon traveled for 100 kilometers (62 miles) before landing in the grounds of the Château de Ferrières.

So, enchanted by the experience, all Santos-Dumont could now think of was having his own balloon. After designing and building his own balloon called Brésil, Santos-Dumont turned his attention to steerable propelled balloons that would become known as dirigibles.

Santos-Dumont won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize

His first two attempts at building a dirigible failed, but he was successful with his third and went on to win the 100,000 francs Deutsch de la Meurthe prize for flying from Parc Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and back in less than 30 minutes. Winning the prize which Santos-Dumont promised to give to charity made the Brazilian an international celebrity. Fashionable Parisians even went so far as to copy his style by donning his signature Panama hat.

No. 5 rounding the Eiffel Tower during an unsuccessful try for the Deutsch Prize. Photo: Internet Archive Book via Wikipedia

According to Air & Space Magazine,  in 1904 Santos-Dumont shipped his airship to St.Louis, where he would compete in a competition for $100,000 and meet President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. When the airship arrived, it was so severely damaged that he could not participate in the competition, leaving many to speculate that foul play was to blame.

Santos-Dumont helped create the wristwatch

Now back in Paris, Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier that he had difficulty checking his pocket watch while up in the air. The aftermath of this created the world’s first wristwatch that allowed the Brazillian to check the time while still having both hands on the controls.

Europe's 1st Flight Getty
Santos -Dumont and his 14-bis biplane. Photo: Getty Images

By 1905 Santos-Dumonts attention was fixed on heavier than air aircraft, with him going on to pilot a 14-bis for the first-ever heavier than air flight in Europe. The Wright brothers, in contrast, had already made the first heavier than air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, back in 1903.


In 1908 Santos-Dumont started working with the Clement-Bayard company to mass-produce the Demoiselle No 19. Despite planning to build 100 aircraft, only 50 were produced, and of that number, only 15 were sold for 7,500 francs each.

Santos-Dumont gave up flying in 1910

On January 4, 1910, Santos-Dumont made his final flight as a pilot when a bracing wire snapped at an altitude of 25 meters (80 feet). This caused one of the plane’s wings to collapse and left Santos-Dumont bruised, but other than that, unhurt.

Two months later, he announced his retirement from aviation and barely ever left his house. This led to rumors that he had suffered a nervous breakdown from overwork. Most probably, it was not overwork but multiple sclerosis that forced him to call it a day.

In 1911 he took up astronomy as a hobby after moving to the Normandy seaside village of Benerville-Sur-Mer. Following the start of World War One in 1914, his German-made telescope and unusual accent had locals believing that he was a German spy reporting French naval activities to Berlin.


After having his house searched by the police and upset over the allegations and his worsening multiple sclerosis, Santos-Dumont burnt all the papers and plans he had ever made. Because of this, there is very little direct information about what he created left today.

Santos Dumont returned to Brazil in 1932

During the 1920s, he spent time in and out of French and Swiss sanatoriums with the occasional trip to his native Brazil. When arriving on the luxury liner Cap Arcona in 1928, a dozen Brazilian scientific community members planned to greet him by arriving in a seaplane. Unfortunately for them, it was a wrong decision as the plane crashed, killing all 37 passengers and crew.

Rio de Janeiro Airport RJ Santos Dumont (SDU).
Rio de Janeiro Airport RJ Santos Dumont (SDU). Photo: Diego Baravelli via Wikipedia

Now seriously ill and angry about the world using aircraft for warfare, Santos-Dumont’s nephew traveled to Switzerland to take him home to Brazil in 1931. On July 23, 1932, during São Paulo’s Constitutionalist Revolution, he hanged himself three days after his 59th birthday. On his death certificate, it says he suffered a cardiac arrest. His body was taken to São Paulo Cathedral, where it lay in state for two days before being buried in the São João Batista Cemetery.

Today, almost every Brazilian town and city has a plaza, street, or park named after the aviation pioneer as well as Rio de Janeiro Airport RJ Santos Dumont (SDU).

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