Brazil's Daredevil of the Air

Article excerpt

IN THE RESORT TOWN of Petropolis, where the Brazilian royal family once repaired to avoid the tropical diseases that ravaged Rio de Janeiro during the summer months, a peculiar structure resembling an oversized bird house in the style of a Swiss chalet clings unobtrusively to the side of a hill. The steps from the street are so narrow that a visitor must climb sideways to mount them. The tiny abode, painted white with green trim and topped by a rust-red roof, houses curiosities such as a dining table twice the height of standard furniture, with chairs to match, and what a placard celebrates as the first hot-and-cold-water shower in Brazil, a contraption dating back to 1918.

There is a strong scent of eccentricity in every corner of what has come to be known as the "Enchanted House." And rightly so, for it was designed and inhabited by one of Brazil's most creative and lovable eccentrics, Alberto Santos-Dumont.

In his native land they hail him as the "Father of Aviation." The French, among whom he lived for many years, bestowed upon him the affectionate nickname "Petit Santos". Writer Marcio Souza called him o brasileiro voador ("the flying Brazilian"), and used the phrase as the title of his fictionalized biography of the fearless birdman whose derring-do was the talk of Paris during the belle epoque. Santos-Dumont is an unusual denizen of the Brazilian pantheon of national heroes because he performed his epic feats abroad. Yet his accomplishments were so extraordinary and his style so Brazilian that his fellow citizens took, and continue to take, great and justifiable pride in one of aviation's most fascinating pioneers.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, the last of eight children, was born in 1873 in the sugar-growing region of southern Minas Gerais, near what is now the main highway between Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. His father, the scion of a humble merchant of French descent, managed to earn an engineering degree from a university in France. He returned home to Brazil, married into a traditional Brazilian family and began to farm. In 1879 he acquired a coffee plantation in the state of Sao Paulo. Using modern technology to increase its production, he became an extremely wealthy man.

The young Alberto was a wiry wisp of a boy with dark hair and eyes and large ears. The machinery he encountered on the farm intrigued him, and he set about learning how everything worked. Shy and full of dreams, he immersed himself in the novels of Jules Verne and fantasized about air travel. In 1891 a fall from a horse left Alberto's father partially paralyzed. He took Alberto with him on a trip to Lisbon and Paris, where he consulted with specialists about his condition. The boy fell under the spell of the "City of Lights," and was mesmerized by an internal-combustion engine that was on display at a science exposition. He used his allowance to purchase a Peugeot roadster, the intricacies of which he quickly mastered, and he brought the car back with him to Brazil. It may have been the first automobile to appear in South America.

Realizing that he did not have long to live, Alberto's father decided to emancipate his youngest son and let him return to Paris to continue his education. "We'll see whether you'll make a man of yourself," he wrote in a letter to the 19-year-old boy, whom he advised to study physics and chemistry. "Don't forget," he wrote, "that the future of the world lies in mechanics." Alberto, a reed-thin, diminutive lad, followed his father's counsel. On his own in Paris, he took private classes in the applied sciences, and also traveled to England to attend lectures at the University of Bristol. His education spanned a period of four years.

These were exciting days for anyone interested in technology, which was bursting beyond its frontiers and into territory hitherto inhabited by science-fiction writers. The young Brazilian, after a brief return to his homeland, went back to Paris and immersed himself in the infant science of ballooning. …