Who Flew First?

The Wrights -v- Santos Dumont Controversy

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"Only after all of us had flown,
the Americans made their appearance."
-- Alberto Santos-Dumont
"We deduce that Mr Santos Dumont has first to make a run over a long level field. With the aid of the starting-off pillar that we use, Orville and I go right up into the air in a much more practical fashion.
-- Wilbur Wright

To this day many Brazilians still believe, as he did, that Alberto Santos-Dumont was the first man to achieve true powered flight. The controversy centres on the launching rail that the Wright brothers used to get their machine flying.

A Wright Type A sitting on its launching rail (while the ground crew wait for better weather)

The Wrights' machine was not designed with wheels. Instead the brothers built a launching device to which the Wright Flyer was attached. This consisted of an iron and wood rail about 60 feet long with a rope running twice along its length, through a pulley at one end. At the other end was a short tower about 16 feet high and the rope was attached to a 600 lb weight suspended from this tower. The free end of the rope was then attached to the Flyer which sat on the rail. On take off, the weight was dropped which catapulted the Flyer along the rail and into the air. Thus opponents of the Wrights have claimed that their aircraft did not take off under its own power alone, and so the honour of achieving the first truly independent powered flight should go to Santos-Dumont.

Ground crew stand by the starting pillar during a flight by Wilbur in 1908

A less scientific argument is that it appears from the documentary evidence that only five people witnessed the Wrights' historic flight of 17 December 1903 and one of these was a fellow named 'Jack Daniels'. This line of criticism goes back to the idea that the Wrights' were just mercenary conmen and does not deserve serious consideration.

The brother's secrecy between 1903 and 1908 has also fueled doubts about what exactly they achieved. Although he was full of respect for the Wrights' hard work and ingenuity, Santos-Dumont himself commented, "The partisans of the Wright brothers claim that they flew in the United States from 1903 to 1905 near Dayton, in a field along one of whose sides a streetcar used to pass. During three and a half years, the Wrights made innumerable mechanical flights and no journalist of the perspicacious press of the United States took the trouble to go and see the flights and write up the most interesting interview of all time."

Supporters of the Wrights point out that the brother's only used a launch rail because it was an elegant solution to the problem of take off and ensured that the Flyer did not suffer damage by rolling at speed over a rough field. And they claim that with the engines that were fitted the Flyer was capable of taking off under its own power anyway. The brothers wanted secrecy because they were waiting to file their patents and thought, rightly, that there would be widespread imitation of their ideas as soon as they went public. As for Santos-Dumont, there must be serious doubts about the controllability of the 14-bis.

The consensus remains that Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first sustained and controlled powered flight in the world.

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