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Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight
By Paul Hoffman
HC, 369 pg. US$24.95/C$36.95
ISBN: 0-7868-6659-4

A passion for life and flight

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 7, 2003

Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of FlightMention the name Alberto Santos-Dumont in Brazil and there's a good chance you'll be greeted with a smile and the argument that it was he, and not the Wright brothers, who was the first person to fly an airplane. The large number of streets and buildings named after Santos-Dumont bares testament to the fact that Brazilians believe as fervently as Santos-Dumont did himself that he had been robbed of his glory of being the first man to conquer the sky in a heavier than air machine.

As Paul Hoffman's Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight aptly illustrates, Santos-Dumont may have not been the first person to fly an airplane but his story is no less compelling. Equal parts genius and eccentric, with a generous measure of flamboyance thrown in for good measure, Santos-Dumont was the very personification of the colorful men we imagine who threw themselves into the air.

Santos-Dumont's story begins in Brazil where he was born into wealth and interested at in early age in mechanics and flight. He arrived in Paris, the epicenter of ballooning, in 1891 at the age of 18 and a few years later took his first flight. By 1898 he began designing his own balloons, ones powered by small engines and were capable -- usually -- of being steered. Through constant refinement and trial and error Santos-Dumont pushed the envelope of what balloons were capable. It wasn't surprising that he believed the potential for powered balloon flight was unlimited.

It's tempting to think of ballooning as a gentleman's sport but the reality was it was a very dangerous hobby. By the time Santos-Dumont entered the field hundreds of people had died in horrific crashes, explosions or falls. He himself had survived several narrow escapes and quickly developed the reputation of a daredevil. Contemporary newspaper accounts chronicled his adventures and he soon became famous across the world for his achievements -- not to mention for living to talk about his occasional crash landing onto the property of the well-to-do or the roofs of the more humble.

The playful side of the driven Santos-Dumont occasionally comes out in Hoffman's story. He delighted in one of his airships that served as a personal craft, flying it around Paris and parking it his favorite restaurant or in front of his home. He also thrived on competition, though he was so far ahead of everyone else that it seemed he was alone in his own race, and demanded of himself that he be the first to set a new mark.

Unfortunately for him, while Santos-Dumont was working with lighter than air, the Wright brothers were experimenting with powered heavier than air flight. In 1903 they flew their plane in secret -- so secret that when Santos-Dumont took his first flight in 1906 it was believed he had been the first to achieve the feat. When the Wright brothers managed to convince even the most nationalist Frenchman of their case Santos-Dumont's mainstream fame evaporated quickly. He eventually fell into a world of depression and ill-health, exacerbated by the knowledge that aircraft, both balloon and airplanes, were being used for warfare instead of bringing the world closer together.

That Santos-Dumont wasn't the first to fly an airplane doesn't make his story any less vital to the history of aviation. As Wings of Madness proves, Santos-Dumont's greatest contribution may have been more important than a simple date. His single-minded devotion to aviation and the benefits it would bring humanity inspired others to believe in the future of flight. Hoffman's touching account of Santos-Dumont's life and achievements does justice to a man that proved life isn't always about who crosses the finish line first but sometimes how he ran the race.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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