The Demoiselles, 1907-1910

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Prototype No.19

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Santos-Dumont at Issy

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Demoiselle in flight

We could assume Santos-Dumont was a little crest-fallen when he, and the rest of Europe, discovered in 1908 that the Wrights had been streets ahead all the time. As if to compensate, he intensified development of his elegant Demoiselle ('damsel fly') monoplanes, and perhaps in deliberate contrast to the Wrights, he made the patents freely available to all! The prototype (No.19) had first flown in November 1907, and was of extremely lightweight construction. Its wings were only 5 metres long, with the tail supported on a single slender bamboo pole. The pilot sat under the wings and engine, and controlled the machine via a combined rudder and elevator at the rear, two rudders at the side, and a forward elevator. There was no control in roll other than the pilot leaning out from side to side!

Demoiselle in the snow
One of the Demoiselles at Issy in the snow

19-bis engine, chain-drive and propellerIn 1908 Santos-Dumont removed the forward elevator and side-rudders, and moved the engine down between the pilot's legs. It was linked to the propellor by a long belt drive. (Pictured right.) Presumably he hoped this would improve the Demoiselle's stability - it would certainly have proved awkward in the event of an engine fire! In any event, this 19-bis configuration was not a success and may never have flown. 
Demoiselle No.20 however was a definite success, and fully rewarded all the work Santos-Dumont had put into his monoplane concept. The engine was again located on the wings, there was a sturdy three-pole bamboo fuselage, a trademark combined rudder/elevator, and at last wing-warping for control in roll. This became the standard production Demoiselle and several were sold to enthusiastic amateurs into 1910. One of Santos-Dumont's aims in designing the Demoiselle was to make an aeroplane cheap and simple enough to popularize flying. For this reason, the Demoiselle is often considered the first 'light aircraft'. Although they proved tricky to fly and were only in vogue briefly, they influenced Germany's only heavier-than-air pioneer, Hans Grade, and did much to popularize the tractor monoplane layout we know today.

Santos-Dumont in front of a Demoiselle
The proud designer and onlookers

Alberto Santos-Dumont retired from aviation in 1910 and returned to Brazil in sad circumstances. He had learned that he had multiple sclerosis (a muscle-wasting disease) and would eventually loose all control of his limbs. He also became increasingly depressed at the military uses to which the aeroplane was being put. Perhaps the final straw was when Bolivia went to war with Paraguay in 1932. On 23 July 1932 Alberto Santos-Dumont took his own life. 

In Brazil, Santos-Dumont is still a national hero and controversy continues as to whether he did invent the aeroplane. He was posthumously created Honoury Air Marshal of the Brazilian Air Force in 1959, and declared 'Father of Aviation' by decree as recently as 1991! 

Santos-Dumont shares a stamp with the Apollo moon landing



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