Wright brothers move over: Rio celebrates man Brazilians say was first to fly

Full-scale replica of legendary plane is centrepiece of display at a new museum honouring eccentric aviation pioneer Santos Dumont, who flew 61 metres in 1906 – three years after Wright brothers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 5:00pm

One of Brazil’s most famous and eccentric heroes, the aviation pioneer Santos Dumont, lifts off again with an exhibition in Rio’s new Museum of Tomorrow.

A full-scale replica of Dumont’s legendary airplane called “14 Bis” sits outside the museum, which is the centrepiece of a revamping of the Rio port area ahead of the Olympic Games starting in 100 days.

“The Flying Poet” is a big exhibit, the first of its kind dedicated to a man who, while weighing a mere 50kg, was a giant of aviation.

Although perhaps less well-known than the Wright brothers in the United States, Dumont is celebrated in Brazil as no less than the true first pilot.

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On October 23, 1906, he flew the “14 Bis” 61 metres outside Paris. Shortly thereafter, he flew 220 metres.

Although this was three years after the Wright brothers’ historic flight in North Carolina, his fans argue that only his exploit met the definition of a certified, independently powered flight.

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It’s a polemic rich with nationalism, but what’s sure is that Dumont, after whom Rio’s domestic airport is named, remains a fascinating figure.

“It was the stories of Jules Verne that inspired him to dream of flying. In this exhibit, 110 years after the flight of ‘14 Bis,’ we want to show the young that using the imagination is a way of promoting discoveries,” Gringo Caria, the curator of the exhibit, said.

“There’s never been a big exhibition on this inventor before and we have taken advantage of the brand new museum.”

The Franco-Brazilian Dumont, who lived from 1873 to 1932, had a reputation for eccentricity and imagination.

Before his feat in the “14 Bis” he was already famed for flights in balloons and dirigibles, including one he used to moor outside his house in Paris and used to fly to join friends across town.

He can also claim to have been one of the first to wear a wristwatch, having asked his friend – none other than the even more famous Louis Cartier – to make him something more practical for telling the time in the air than the traditional pocket watch.

“That’s how the first wristwatch was born and it was a real success, given how much of a dandy Dumont was,” says Hugo Barreto, secretary general of the Roberto Marinho Foundation, which co-sponsored the exhibit with the mayor’s office.

The often joyful story of Dumont ends sadly, however. He returned from France to Brazil in 1928 and in 1932 committed suicide.