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Wings of Madness

PBS Airdate: November 7, 2006
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NARRATOR: He showed the world how to fly anytime, anywhere—before anyone had even heard of the Wright brothers—in balloons, dirigibles, and, finally, an airplane.

PAUL HOFFMAN (Author, Wings of Madness): He was the most famous person in his time. I mean the English papers said that when people looked back at the turn of the century, years from then, they would remember only one name, Alberto Santos-Dumont.

RICHARD HALLION (Author, Taking Flight): In many quarters he was seen as far superior to the Wrights, indeed, as the inventor of flight.

TOM CROUCH (Senior Curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum): He was that legendary figure—5'4", something like that, but larger than life at the same time—who just reached out and grabbed the public imagination by the lapels.

NARRATOR: For Santos, flight wasn't just about lift, airflow and engines. Flying was his theology, based on a belief that flight would unite the world, helping to end war and discord.

Sadly, Santos's incredibly colorful and hopeful life would end in tragedy, his name largely forgotten. Yet when modern flight was born, little more than a century ago, it was Santos who carried the world aloft on his frail and troubled shoulders. Wings of Madness, right now on NOVA.

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Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, serving society through biomedical research and science education: HHMI.

Additional funding for Wings of Madness is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to portray the lives of men and women engaged in scientific and technological pursuit.

Major funding for NOVA is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: October 19, 1901, a full two years before the Wright Brothers would make their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk: A powered flying machine, with a radical design, heads for the Eiffel Tower. All Paris watches with amazement and awe.

The airship, called #6, is designed to take home the biggest prize in early aviation, a $20,000 financial dare to take to the air and conquer it. If this flight is successful, it will prove to the world that powered, controlled flight is no longer just a fantastic dream.

PAUL HOFFMAN: It was interesting, because the scientific community ruled out the possibility of manned flight. I mean, their equations, their science showed that humans couldn't do this, so it was something that was just dismissed.

NARRATOR: Only one aviator in the world is capable of winning the prize, a young Brazilian expatriate named Alberto Santos-Dumont.

PAUL HOFFMAN: Santos-Dumont was a showman as much as an inventor, so he wasn't just flying, he was doing it for everybody to see.

NARRATOR: Santos-Dumont had been preparing for this day since arriving in France 10 years earlier. The wealthy son of a Brazilian coffee magnate, the 18-year-old Santos-Dumont journeyed to Paris to study the sciences. He immediately fell in love with ballooning, even designing and flying his own balloons. But he soon realized that balloons, while a delight to fly, were an aeronautical dead end.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS (Author, Alberto Santos-Dumont): What captures Santos's attention is that you could not navigate a balloon. The balloon was free. You would rise, and the air currents would take you to wherever they would take you. There was no real control over the balloon.

NARRATOR: Never shy about his talents, Santos decides to invent the future of aviation, putting all his energy and most of his large inheritance into perfecting a new type of flying machine called a "dirigible," French for "capable of being directed."

A dirigible is a very different craft than a balloon. First, it has its own power, an engine, to propel it. Second, it has a rudder in the rear to steer it. And finally, its elongated, rather than round shape makes the craft more controllable and airworthy.

In his book, My Airships, Santos describes how he invented his first dirigible.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): I started from this principle: to make any kind of success, it would be necessary to economize weight. A dirigible balloon, to be practical, requires, first of all, to have the utmost simplicity in all its mechanism.

RICHARD HALLION: Santos is an artisan and a craftsman. He has a good eye for quality, a good eye for detail, and a good eye for how you can transform and change things. For example, old balloons were the stuff of crude, rubberized cloth and, basically, lashed together ropes and, in some cases, a great deal of wood and things of that sort.

NARRATOR: The core of his innovative engineering ideas? Streamline the balloon and use lighter materials: Japanese silk instead of canvas, bamboo instead of heavy wood.

RICHARD HALLION: There's a statement in aeronautics, "simplicate and add lightness." And if you take a look at the work of Santos, I think, what's very appealing, from an engineering sense, is that Santos had an elegance of design.

NARRATOR: Santos also turns to the pioneering work of French inventor, Henri Giffard.

In 1852, Giffard mounted a steam engine on an elongated gas bag and rode into the sky. It was the first powered flight in history, but the slightest gust of wind would easily defeat Giffard's under-powered craft. Santos feels that Giffard just had not gone far enough.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): If I can make a cylindrical balloon long enough and thin enough, it will cut through the air.

NARRATOR: To provide lift, Santos uses hydrogen, a lighter-than-air gas produced by the chemical reaction between dilute sulfuric acid and iron filings. But the biggest challenge is generating enough power to overcome the wind.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS: For you to have navigability, you need to have speed. Without speed you're ruled by the wind, so you have to move faster than the wind. The previous experiences had never been very efficient.

NARRATOR: Santos then makes his most outrageous choice, to use one of the newly-invented gasoline engines propelling automobiles over the Paris cobblestones.

Everyone thought he had lost his mind. Yes, internal combustion engines were lighter and more powerful than steam or electric, but they were also notoriously unsafe. And hydrogen gas is highly flammable. One wayward spark from the engine and Santos would be history.

But Santos was a born inventor. He had been tinkering with machines, big and small, since he was a boy, on his father's huge coffee plantation in Brazil.

The plantation was a universe of machines, beautiful, logical and graceful, machines that young Santos would carefully observe and often repair. At night, the boy would lose himself in the science fiction of Jules Verne. From an early age, Santos was in love with the dream of flight, imagining a world of exotic flying machines in faraway places.

But to achieve his childhood dream, Santos needed to find a way to keep sparks from the engine's exhaust from setting his airship on fire.

RICHARD HALLION: Santos simply took the exhaust pipes and had them vent well below the airship. He did not have them venting upwards in a way in which they would impinge upon the balloon portion of the vessel.

NARRATOR: But that wasn't the only problem gasoline engines presented.

RICHARD HALLION: What he was really concerned about was the mechanical reliability of the engine itself. Could the engine simply hold together? Because he recognized that if the engine disintegrated, well, then you would have hot metal flung in all directions, and, indeed, that was a problem with many early engines.

NARRATOR: Using the mechanical skill gained from his childhood of tinkering, Santos designed a 3.5 horsepower engine that was safe and reliable enough to power a dirigible.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS: In 1898, he built the first efficient gas-fueled engine in aeronautics. It is his invention.

NARRATOR: With his new engine, Santos takes to the air, in 1898, in his first dirigible. He calls it "#1."

Santos's dirigible is a huge breakthrough, capable of speeds of over 10 miles an hour. But it was apparent that there were a few kinks to be ironed out.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS: Santos-Dumont's first dirigible flight ends with a crash that he survived by a miracle.

NARRATOR: For Santos, developing dirigibles was classic trial and error, with a few miracles thrown in.

PAUL HOFFMAN: What he really did was go up in the damn thing, and, as soon as he experienced some problems, would come down and then adjust the aircraft or adjust the airship to take into account that problem. And next time he'd go up, okay, he'd avoid that problem, but then something else would go wrong.

NARRATOR: One of the ongoing threats was keeping his ships fully inflated. If the sun suddenly disappeared or the airship descended too quickly, the hydrogen gas rapidly condensed. The airship would then lose its shape, crashing to Earth.

But with his usual flair for innovation, Santos came up with a simple solution, place a small interior balloon within the larger balloon, a "balloonet." It was inflated with air pumped in from the engine. This kept the larger balloon intact.

RICHARD HALLION: What you can say about Santos is that he was a tremendous integrator of flight. He took a look at what was available in aviation technology of the day, and he was able to draw from that, mix it together in a very useful way, refine it, and then, take this final integrated product and demonstrate it. And that is a very great skill.

NARRATOR: To make the inventing process efficient, Santos builds his own workshop and hangar in Paris, along with a hydrogen generating plant to provide cheap gas.

STEPHANE NICOLAOU (Historian, Paris Air and Space Museum): Santos was very solitary. He had a very small team, since he had the means to work alone. He liked showing what he was doing, but he didn't get inspired by others. He had his own ideas, even though he took pleasure in seeing what others were doing.

NARRATOR: In November, 1899, Santos reaches for the sky, in the third version of an airship. With #3, Santos touches the heavens with a perfect balance of lightness, power and control.

Yet such achievements are not all that drove Santos. He is also greatly inspired by a deep love for flying itself. For Santos, flight is a spiritual experience that delights the soul and opens the mind.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): The balloonist becomes an explorer. You are no longer a commonplace citizen, you are an adventurer of the unknown, as truly as they who freeze on Greenland's icy mountains or melt on India's coral strands.

PAUL HOFFMAN: He wanted to be able to leave society for a moment. He thought he could gather his thoughts, that he could figure out who he really was, that he could understand how to live a just and moral life, by being able to look down on the Earth and reflect.

NARRATOR: Ever the idealist, Santos's fervent hope is that airships would be more than a new means of transportation, but a vehicle for making the world a better place.

PAUL HOFFMAN: He had this beautiful vision that the flying machine would bring about world peace. That you'd be able to go and visit people, people with whom you had differences, and when you met them, face to face, you'd realize were pretty similar, and, you know, hostilities would fall away because of that. And it's a remarkable vision to have just a decade before World War I.

NARRATOR: But to realize this idealistic vision, Santos needs to prove the practicality of everyday flight.

The impetus to achieve this goal is provided by a wealthy French oil magnate, Henry Deutsch. In April, 1900, as a founding member of the Aéro Club de France, Deutsch offers 100,000 francs, or $20,000, to the first aviator to fly the three and a half miles from St. Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back. And it needs to be done in 30 minutes, requiring an airspeed of more than 15 miles an hour, a difficult, if not impossible, task.

This speed was well beyond any airship of the time, even Santos's. As the only aviator in the world flying a powered craft on a regular basis, Santos would just have to beat himself. And to do that, he needed a lot more speed.

So Santos develops a 12.5 horsepower engine, some four times the size of his first engine. This heavy motor requires Santos to design a new structure to support it.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS: He uses pine, which is a very light wood. He designs a triangular structure, a self-supporting structure. And he manages to build a very light keel, on which he can place the engine, the basket in which he goes piloting, and the propeller. And still, the whole didn't weigh much.

NARRATOR: Then Santos literally stumbles over yet another innovation.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): There followed what turned out to be an entirely new idea in aeronautics. I asked myself why I should not use this same piano wire for all my dirigible balloon suspensions, in place of cords and ropes.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS: It becomes very important to reduce air friction. As the craft moves forward, it generates friction against the air molecules, resulting in a drag force that works against the craft. He substitutes piano wires, thin steel cables, for the ropes, and with that he manages to reduce the drag. Why is that important? Because he needed to gain speed.

NARRATOR: On August 8, 1901, Santos takes to the skies in airship #5, almost 120 feet in length. Santos spent more than a year refining #5 to capture the Deutsch prize.

Flight time to the Eiffel Tower is nine minutes. If he keeps this pace, the Deutsch prize will be his, easily. But his airship starts leaking hydrogen, after one of the gas valves breaks. The balloon begins to deflate. Even the balloonet can not keep the huge airship aloft.

Santos steers for the Seine, a water landing his last, best hope. But first he must get by a Paris hotel, looming dead ahead.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): At the last critical moment, the end of the long balloon that was still full of gas came slapping down on the roof, just before clearing it. It exploded with a great noise, exactly like a paper bag, struck after being blown up.

NARRATOR: Fortunately, Santos is unhurt. But he hangs precariously from his basket, 40 feet up in the air. Then, as hundreds of admirers watch, Santos clambers to safety on a rope.

RICHARD HALLION: I think that anybody who ever contemplates the technology of flight, and how it developed in the early days, is really struck, when we take a took at these early aircraft, at the fact they blended not only creativity, but a tremendous amount of personal courage, to actually develop a vehicle and to put an engine in it and to realize that you would simply be detaching yourself from the Earth's surface and flying through it, at potentially great personal risk.

NARRATOR: That same day, remarkably unshaken, Santos visits his balloon makers and orders a new airship. He would call it #6.

His new airship underway, Santos finds time to host one of his signature social events, the aerial dinner party, a sumptuous feast served on tables and chairs elevated seven feet in the air. It is a party as unique as the man who gives it. His guests are often celebrities and royalty, and they love the uplifting experience of dining in the sky.

October 19, 1901: Just two months after his terrible crash, Santos confounds everyone by taking to the air in his new ship, #6. As Santos approaches the Eiffel Tower, thousands of Parisians gather. And when the timekeeper announces that Santos and #6 have set a mid-flight record of 8 minutes and 45 seconds, people literally dance in celebration.

PAUL HOFFMAN: He went around the very tip of the Eiffel Tower, in front of the largest crowd that had ever assembled in the world before. And he demonstrated that this thing that scientists said was impossible, flight, that it really was possible.

NARRATOR: But he hasn't made it yet, not even close. Santos still has halfway to go, and it's the hard part, fighting a stiff headwind the whole way. Just beyond the Eiffel Tower, his engine suddenly stalls. Santos manages to get it restarted, but loses critical time in the process. Still, he is in the home stretch.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): There was one vast clamor. I said to myself that this must be a good sign, but I had no watch and really could not tell anything about it.

NARRATOR: Overshooting the finish line, #6 officially clocks 29 minutes, 15 seconds. But unfortunately, another minute and 25 seconds passes before the craft is fully secured. This causes the Aero Club to rule that Santos has gone 40 seconds over the 30-minute limit, losing the Deutsch prize.

Angry, Santos meets with the Aero Club and offers to do it all over. Under immense public pressure, the committee votes to award Santos the Deutsch prize. At 28, Santos has realized the dream of flight.

RICHARD HALLION: What he demonstrated with that, truly, was that the era of the practical airship that could make repetitive flights out and back, where you could take off and have some confidence that you could return to the point from which you started. I think he really demonstrated that the practical airship had arrived.

NARRATOR: Santos's historic flight around the Eiffel Tower inspires and challenges aviators worldwide.

PAUL HOFFMAN: Santos-Dumont, because of his aerial antics, because he drew crowds, drew a whole new generation to aeronautics. They were inspired by his example that he was brave enough to do this; that it looked like fun. He was a mentor and an inspiration to other aviators that went into this burgeoning field.

NARRATOR: Santos is now the 20th century's most famous aviator and inventor, and he loves it.

PAUL HOFFMAN: He invented himself as a modern celebrity. And then, at the same time, you had newspapers where their owners happened to be very interested in aeronautics, and they assigned people to follow him, almost on a daily basis. So the New York Herald, for example, and the Paris Herald, owned by the same person, James Bennett, would follow him and have a story every day on his exploits.

NARRATOR: Everybody adores the young aviator. He becomes affectionately known as "le petit Santos." He is so appealing that men across Paris model their hats and clothes after his, even copying the red ties he sports in the air.

TOM CROUCH: He was that legendary figure—5'4", something like that, but larger than life, at the same time—who just reached out and grabbed the public imagination by the lapels.

NARRATOR: For all his public display, Santos keeps his personal life extremely private; he has to.

PAUL HOFFMAN: He felt a little bit of an outcast. He was probably bi-sexual or gay, and this was not acceptable in a country like Brazil, let alone Paris. There were certain aspects of Parisian society, of course, accepted this, but society as a whole didn't.

NARRATOR: Whatever conflicts lurk beneath his flamboyant exterior, inventing airships always comes first.

With his epic Eiffel Tower flight behind him, Santos sets to work on a new airship, his ninth dirigible. It realizes his personal vision of bringing flight to the masses.

Spring, 1903: Santos unveils "Baladeuse," or the "little runabout." It is a third the size of #6, just 35 feet long. For Santos, #9 is, for all intents and purposes, an aerial car.

PAUL HOFFMAN: He would dock this small dirigible in front of his apartment in the Champs Elysées and then, at night, fly to Maxim's for dinner. He would fly when he went shopping to go to buy clothes or provisions. I mean, nobody has done that since.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS: The Baladeuse becomes Santos's great trademark and shows the French that the dirigible is practical in every way. But for Santos, there was nothing left to be done with dirigibles after that.

NARRATOR: Just as Santos had felt that balloons were a dead end, after #9, Santos realizes that dirigibles are, too, subject to the vagaries of weather. They would never fulfill his dream of making flight an everyday reality.

So in 1905, Santos shifts his focus, setting to work designing his first heavier-than-air ship.

RICHARD HALLION: Santos was unique in that he was one of the very few individuals who was able to make the transition from developing balloons and airships to developing airplanes.

NARRATOR: His French aviation contemporaries, Louis Blériot, Ferdinand Ferber and Henri Farman, are trying hard to develop airplanes too, but with little success.

TOM CROUCH: He quickly joins the movement, among French aeronautical types, that's just starting to bubble along, this interest in heavier-than-air flight. These guys are learning that, in fact, some really interesting things are going on in America, especially, ultimately, these two guys Wilbur and Orville Wright.

NARRATOR: At the time, few aviators know exactly what the Wrights are up to, since their flights from 1903 onwards were done in secrecy.

Their secrecy has a purpose—allowing the Wrights to protect future patent rights—but as a result, many aviators doubt their claims to have flown in 1903.

RICHARD HALLION: For example, Ferdinand Ferber made crude copies of the Wright gliders; they basically didn't work very, very well. And so, because they didn't work very, very well, there was all of a sudden this suspicion that maybe the Wrights were not what they appeared. Maybe the Wrights had not, in fact, been successful aviators. Maybe the Wrights were "bluffeurs."

NARRATOR: Convinced that aviation's future lays with heavier-than-air machines, Santos is ready to risk his reputation and his life on designing his own airplane.

PAUL HOFFMAN: He was nervous, though, that he wouldn't be able to catch up to these other aviators. So, for the first time in his life, he started doing his work in semi-secrecy. You know, before that, it was all open. That's because he was leading the pack.

NARRATOR: Then Santos starts a collaboration with Gabriel Voisin, a gifted 25-year-old French aeronautical engineer.

Together, they create a biplane composed of box kites. It's called 14bis.

The box kite design they employ was invented 13 years earlier by Australian scientist Lawrence Hargrave. With their slightly curved, winged surfaces, Hargrave's box kites have enormous lift. This is because curved surfaces have twice the lift of flat surfaces.

TOM CROUCH: Santos-Dumont is right up-to-the-minute when he, sort of, borrows the idea of the box kite for the design of the wing structure of 14bis.

NARRATOR: 14bis has an odd, awkward majesty to it. From his dirigible experience, Santos has the pilot stand in a basket. Like the Wright 1903 Flyer, 14bis has a tail-first structure known as a "canard." The canard made a plane more stable in the air and less likely to crash. Santos also designs the wings with significant upward sweep, or dihedral, to further enhance stability.

TOM CROUCH: They had known, for some time, that if you put dihedral in wings, that is, if you tip the wing tips up from the center of the fuselage, you'll build some inherent lateral stability in the design.

NARRATOR: He then proceeds to test the design in his typically creative way.

ALAN CALASSA (14bis Replica Builder): He hung the 14bis by an iron cable and tied it to a pole, then had it pulled by a donkey. He made several tests of the aerodynamics of the shape by using this cable. After that, he tied his airplane to the dirigible. So he did all the aerodynamic tests of the shape before he made use of an engine.

NARRATOR: Today, a hundred years after Santos built his 14bis, a team of Brazilian aviation enthusiasts, led by Brazilian businessman Alan Calassa, are building what they hope will be a flying replica. For Calassa and other Brazilians, Santos's legacy has never faded.

ALAN CALASSA: My dream was always to reconstruct what Santos-Dumont did with 14bis, so that everybody could see and know who he really was.

NARRATOR: For more than a year, Calassa and his team have painstakingly built their 14bis using many of the same materials and techniques as Santos.

ALAN CALASSA: Since there weren't any written measurements or data left behind, I developed a technique to use Santos's height as a reference, from old photographs. I went through them with a magnifying glass and a tape measure to figure out all the measurements of the 14bis. Once that was done, I started construction.

NARRATOR: To fly the craft, Calassa needs an ace pilot, somebody as small and as fearless as Santos-Dumont: his daughter, 21-year-old Aline.

ALINE CALASSA (14bis Pilot): Do I want to fly on the bis? Words could not begin to express it. It's very exciting for me, it's a passion.

ALAN CALASSA: It does require some practice for the pilot to get completely synchronized with the structure. For rolling and for takeoff, the pilot has to use the right hand, while controlling the direction with the left hand.

NARRATOR: December, 2005: The 14bis replica is now ready for a test flight. But first Alan and Aline Calassa must wait for the Brazilian weather to clear.

Fall, 1906: Santos, too, is anxious to take to the skies in 14bis. He hopes to claim another prize being offered by the Aéro Club de France, for the first pilot to fly an airplane 100 meters.

Since 1904, the prize has gone unclaimed. No pilot, not even the Wrights, has claimed it. But Santos is in stiff competition with a number of aviators, including Louis Blériot.

Few people know more about the 14bis than Gérard Feldzer, whose Musée de l'Air houses the world's most important collection of Santos's work.

GÉRARD FELDZER (Director, Paris Air and Space Museum): The 14bis is complicated because, first of all, it's a canard design, and because it is very long and not terribly stable, so when there is a gust of wind, the front of the plane lifts up and completely transforms the aerodynamics of the plane as a whole. You are in a state of permanent instability.

NARRATOR: A century removed and 5,000 miles from Santos's Paris, the skies in Caldas Novas, Brazil are finally clear. Alan and Aline agree the time is now to prove their 14bis can fly.

Aline begins her roll. Incredibly, the wheels lift; she is airborne. Then, trouble. An errant crosswind tosses 14bis off the runway like a leaf. Fortunately Aline is unhurt, but there will be no more test flights today.

November 12, 1906: Santos waits in his 14bis. Louis Blériot has already tried to fly this day and failed. It's up to Santos now to claim the Aéro Club prize.

GÉRARD FELDZER: There is Santos-Dumont, probably terrified, at the flight controls. And so he gives it full throttle while people hold back the wings. And then they let go.

NARRATOR: With officials from the Aéro Club de France looking on, Santos begins his takeoff roll. And then it happens; he is airborne.

The 14bis travels 722 feet in 21.2 seconds and achieves a height of 15 feet.

HENRIQUE LINS DE BARROS: With this airplane, he performed the first official flight in history.

RICHARD HALLION: Now, that was an accomplishment that made the world take notice. Santos, at this point, was no longer merely a local figure, a figure of French provincial aviation, he was a world-class aeronaut whose accomplishments very much were seen as equivalent to the Wright brothers'. And since the Wrights had not yet flown in Europe, and the full extent of their work was not yet known, in many quarters he was seen as far superior to the Wrights, indeed, as the inventor of flight.

NARRATOR: Santos is now, truly, king of the air.

After weeks of waiting, Alan Calassa is ready to risk his 14bis once more, to see if he can achieve what Santos did 100 years ago. Fearful for his daughter Aline's safety, Alan elects to take the controls.

And then, almost effortlessly, 14bis takes wing. The flight is the ultimate tribute to Alberto Santos-Dumont and his innovative design.

Santos's triumph would last nearly a year, before Louis Blériot, Henri Farman and five other French aviators would make similar short flights.

Meanwhile, back in America, the Wright brothers watch the French aviators in stunned disbelief.

TOM CROUCH: It really hadn't occurred to them that people like Santos-Dumont, and basically the rest of the French, would be willing to do it in quite a different way, and, kind of, stumble into the air, in a machine that was, essentially, out of control, the whole time it was in the air. It had simply not occurred to the Wrights that anybody would be willing to do it that way, to take that approach.

RICHARD HALLION: The Wright's great accomplishment in flight was recognizing that flight wasn't simply a matter of getting off the ground with power and then staying in the air with lift. A lot of people overemphasized the notion of power and lift. The Wrights recognized the most important thing was control.

NARRATOR: The Wright brothers achieved their control through a technique called wing warping. The pilot's control stick is connected to wires on the wingtips, allowing the pilot to twist or warp the end of the wings up or down, giving greater control during turns.

August 8th, 1908: The Wright brothers are ready to come out of the shadows. Their patent finally secure, the Wrights are prepared to show that they have the right stuff. And where did they do it? Santos's backyard: France.

It is a short flight, but with Wilbur Wright at the controls, the Wright Flyer shows complete mastery of the skies. The Wrights quickly become Parisian royalty. Santos is devastated.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): It was, I may say now, rather a painful experience for me to see, after all my work in dirigibles and heavier-than-air machines, the ingratitude of those who, only a short time ago, covered me in praise.

RICHARD HALLION: When the Wrights came to Europe and demonstrated the Wright Flyer, both in 1908 and 1909, they had a degree of control over the vehicle, and a degree of mastery over the vehicle that was astonishing.

NARRATOR: Ironically, the Wright's mastery is very short-lived.

TOM CROUCH: By 1909, the French are rushing right past the Wright Brothers and everybody else. They've become, suddenly, the real leaders in world aviation.

NARRATOR: Helping to lead the way, once again, is Santos-Dumont.

After his huge disappointment at being upstaged by the Wrights, Santos goes back to his workshop. In 1909, a year after Wilbur's first public flight, Santos unveils a new airplane, a monoplane that is far more advanced than 14bis or the Wright Flyer. He calls it "Demoiselle," or "dragonfly."

RICHARD HALLION: One of the great qualities Santos had, unlike many early pioneers, is that he wasn't wedded to a single design configuration. Ironically, the great creators of flight, the Wright Brothers, were so wedded to their particular design configuration that it actually hobbled their ability to transform their concept into a successful, marketable airplane. As late as 1915, you could still look at Wright airplanes and see, within them, that same attempt to hang on to the technology of their original 1903 machine.

TOM CROUCH: So his response, as was the case with his little one-person airships, is to build an airplane that's different from the ones his French colleagues are building. It's smaller, it's lighter, and it's aimed at realizing the same dream that he had at the very turn of the century, and that is personal sort of flying machine.

RICHARD HALLION: Actually, when one takes a look at the Demoiselle and how it flew, and how well it flew, you realize we are looking at the predecessor of, basically, the modern small, general aviation airplane.

NARRATOR: In Demoiselle, Santos clocks the then extraordinary speed of 55.8 miles per hour, far faster than anyone has ever flown before.

DAN TAYLOR (Aviation Historian/Restorer): It is a great design, because it was sort of the forerunner of what we were going to get.

NARRATOR: Pilot and collector, Dan Taylor has restored a non-flying replica of Demoiselle, part of the collection at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, an airplane museum in New York State.

DAN TAYLOR: So, I'm sitting on this little canvas seat. You'll notice that hands kind of like to rest on the wheels. Well, that's my braking action. Most of the pictures you see of Santos-Dumont flying the Demoiselle, he had leather gloves on. This was the brakes. You grabbed onto the wheel, as you were rolling, hopefully, to a stop; pretty remarkable idea. Now, to operate the rudder, Santos-Dumont had a little wheel in his left hand. And, the idea being, with this wheel, is that you can turn the airplane.

I have a stick in my right hand; this is for pitch. And what I would do is pull back on the stick to climb out, push forward to dive or to descend. Santos-Dumont had a leather flying jacket, or he would use his coveralls, but either way he had a small pocket that was sewn into the back of his jacket. And this stick behind me would operate the wing warp, because that pocket would catch on that stick. That's how you would bank the airplane.

NARRATOR: Unlike most aeronautical pioneers, Santos refused to patent his more than 20 airship designs, giving them to the world as a gift.

ALAN CALASSA: Santos-Dumont looked toward the future; he wasn't into commercializing his aircraft. He wanted humanity to have a vehicle for the future, one that would give humanity means of traveling through the immensity of our planet earth.

TOM CROUCH: Santos did want to share this dream of his, a personal sort of aviation, the potential for anybody to fly, so he did make the plans widely available, something the other aviators didn't necessarily do.

NARRATOR: Today, the legacy of Santos's sporty Demoiselle lives on in ultra lights: small, aerobatic planes that, like the Demoiselle, are personal flying machines.

Guy Wardavoir is one of France's top ultra light pilots. He flies for many of the same reasons as Santos.

GUY WARDAVOIR (Ultra Light Pilot): It's difficult to describe the feeling that flying brings on. There is a pure pleasure of being in the air that's even more difficult to describe. It's a feeling of plenitude, to be up above, to see the ground, to see the towns, to see civilization under your wings. For me, it's a need as much as breathing.

NARRATOR: Not surprisingly, Wardavoir feels a strong kinship with Santos and his Demoiselle.

GUY WARDAVOIR: I understand Santos-Dumont completely. He is like a grandfather, a genetic grandfather, because why else would I have felt the urge to fly?

NARRATOR: Today's ultra lights are built from sturdy and light carbon fiber, making them both fun and safe to fly. Sadly, for all its grace and beauty, Demoiselle would betray her creator.

In January, 1910, Santos was at an altitude of 100 feet, when a bracing wire snapped, collapsing the wing, hurdling Demoiselle and Santos earthward.

PAUL HOFFMAN: After that, he had all sorts of problems, I mean, vertigo, I mean, he had some head injuries from it. It's possible he had multiple sclerosis. It's not clear. There's a debate about that. But he certainly had physical problems.

NARRATOR: Santos was 36 years old. He would never fly again.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): To obtain these results it was necessary for me, not only to invent, but also, to experiment, and in these experiments, over 10 years, I have had the most terrible shocks. I felt my nerves were worn out. I told my friends of my intention to end my career as an aeronaut, and I had the approval of them all.

NARRATOR: In 1911, a year after his crash, Santos leaves Paris for good, retreating to the French countryside. The 20th century's first great aeronautical showman becomes a recluse.

Then came the Great War, the first war fought with flying machines, many of them designed by Santos's French contemporaries, Voisin, Farman and Blériot.

It was not what Santos had in mind for his airships.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): Those, who like myself, were the humble pioneers in the conquest of the air, had in mind more the creation of new means of peaceful expansion of the peoples of the earth, than furnishing them with new methods of destruction.

RICHARD HALLION: World War I absolutely shattered him. I mean, he felt that he had a very strong personal responsibility for the death and destruction caused by aircraft, along the Western front and everywhere else. And he saw these airships as his babies, and the idea that the Germans were using them to kill people, I mean, did him in.

NARRATOR: After the war, Santos checks in and out of sanatoriums, ever in search of a mental peace he cannot find. In 1927, he was even too ill to accept an invitation from Charles Lindbergh to join him at the celebration of his transatlantic flight.

RICHARD HALLION: The really sad thing about Santos is this very bright, attractive, intelligent, achieving individual was a very tormented individual.

NARRATOR: In 1931, seeking to calm his troubled nerves, his family brings Santos home to Brazil. Shortly after his return, civil war breaks out. On July 23, 1932, while at a beach resort near Sao Paulo, Santos sees military aircraft fly overhead.

PAUL HOFFMAN: Now brothers are killing brothers with the flying machines that he invented. So this troubled him even more than anything that aircraft had done before. And he was in his hotel, and there was an aircraft that was shot down within, you know, probably a mile of the hotel, where you could hear it.

NARRATOR: Returning to his hotel room, the elevator operator hears Santos mutter to himself.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT (Dramatization): I never thought my invention would cause bloodshed between brothers. What have I done?

NARRATOR: Alberto Santos-Dumont, idol of millions, takes his life. But the official verdict is heart attack. No one wants to tarnish the reputation of Brazil's greatest hero.

Inventor, showman, idealist, genius, Alberto Santos-Dumont inspired a generation of aeronauts to push the limits of their courage and imagination to do what humans had never done before, fly any time, anywhere.

RICHARD HALLION: His work is elegant. It is deceptively simple, and yet underlying it are profound implications, profound implications for the mass transportation of society, for the freedom that it gives us. And when you find somebody such as Santos, who has such a hopeful, buoyant outlook, I think he really embodies for us everything that people quested for and looked for, in what we term "the dream of flight."

Stay tuned for more about NOVA.

On NOVA's Wings of Madness Web site, explore some of the most radical aircraft designs of Santos's day. Find it on

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Wings of Madness

Produced by
Chris Campbell
Timothy Smith

Directed by
Brian Breger

Based on the Book
Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight By Paul Hoffman

Narrated by
Kathryn Walker

Executive Producers for Docere Palace Studios
Chris Campbell
Timothy Smith

Senior Producer
Brian Breger

Paul G. Sanderson III
Wendy Lambert

Bernard Chabbert
Eve Chabbert

Coordinating Producer
Johanna Hamilton

Field Producers
Eric Boutry
Vanda Viveiros de Castro

Andre Jurieux
Claude Lazlo

Assistant Producers
Thierry Girou
Deborah A. Weingrad
Tom Moore

Edited by
Francis Sheehan
Tony Breuer

Directors of Photography
Jean-Marc Selva
Brian Dowley


Young Santos-Dumont
Marcel Miranda

Alberto Santos-Dumont
Pascal Gautelier

Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe
Bernard Bourgery

Rob Morsberger

Consulting Producer
Paul Hoffman

Assistant Editor
Martin Fleming

Audio Mix and Sound Design
Chris Nelson

Palace Digital Studios

Post Production Facility
Palace Production Center

Archival Research
Suzanne Levingston

Bohdan Kodiak
Nora Szilagyi
Johanna Hamilton

Production Accountants
Carole Tims
Erika Weber

Archival Material
Alan Calassa Collection
L'AeroClub de France
Aero Retro
Annette Sax
L'Anpe Herouville
L'Anpe Levallois-Perret
L'Accueil de Tournages Basse-Normandie
Archive Films
Chateau De Balleroy - Georges Lenoir, Manager
Collection of Paul Hoffman
Collection of John H. Allen
Culver Pictures
Fazenda Floresta, Minas Gerais, Brasil
Forbes Magazine
Fundaçào de Cultura, Petropolis, Brasil
Gaumont Pathé Archives
La Fondation Latercoere
Library of Congress
Ministério de Aeronáutica, Brasil
Museu Aeroespacial, Brasil
Musée De L'Air et de L'Espace, France
Museu Da Aeronàutical Fundaçào Santos-Dumont
Museu Paulista Da Universidade De São Paulo, Brasil
Museo De Astronomia e Ciencias, Brasil
Photographic Collection of Fundaçào Casa de Cabangu
Photographic Collection of Fundaçào Santos-Dumont
Producer's Library
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Salis Aviation
Societe Nouvelle D'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel
TV Globo
ULM France
U.S. National Archives

Program Executives for France 5
Ann Julienne
Philippe Le More

NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.

NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.

Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

NOVA Administrator
Ashley King

Eileen Campion
Anna Lowi

Gaia Remerowski

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Managers
Carla Raimer
Karen Lally

Raphael Nemes

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Assistant Editor
Alex Kreuter

Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner

Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by Docere Digital Studios, Inc. and Palace Production Center, Inc. for WGBH Boston in association with France 5 and Gros Biplan Rouge

© 2006 WGBH Educational Foundation, Docere Digital Studios, Inc. and Palace Production Center, Inc.

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