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For the Brazilian band, see 14 Bis

The 14-bis, also known as (French for "bird of prey"), was a pioneer-era canard biplane designed and built by Brazilianmarker inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont. On 23 October 1906, in Paris, France, it performed the first officially witnessed European unaided takeoff and flight by a heavier-than-air aircraft. Other claims exist for this achievement, and the issue continues to stimulate controversy.

Conception, development, and initial tests

In June 1905, Gabriel Voisin tested a glider by having it towed by a fast boat down the Seinemarker. The glider's wing configuration was made up of Hargrave cells, a box-kite-like structure that allowed for great lift and structural strength with minimal weight. Voisin was towed into the air and flew for over 500 feet as the boat pulled him and his aircraft. In the aviation-crazy Paris of the early 1900s, this established the Hargrave cells as a configuration to be developed into heavier-than-air aircraft, not simply into kites. Santos-Dumont lived in Paris at the time, and was by then one of the most active "aeronauts" in Europe, having developed a long series of non-rigid airships that displayed unparalleled agility, speed, endurance, and ease of control.

During late 1905 and early 1906, French aviation authorities, seeing the rapid development in aviation at the time, offered prizes for the first heavier-than air machines to be flown for 25 meters and for 100 meters. Ferdinand Ferber, a captain in the French Army, was experimenting with gliders and kept in touch with Chanute and with the Wright brothers. Voisin teamed up with Louis Blériot to develop the boat-towed glider into a fixed-wing aircraft.

At around that time, while watching the Côte d'Azurmarker speedboat races, Santos-Dumont noticed that Antoinette-type engines, made by Léon Levavasseur, offered great power and were quite lightweight.

Putting all this together, Santos-Dumont had a Hargrave-cell biplane, powered by an Antoinette engine, built in secrecy. It was only known to his team of builders and craftsmen. The wings were at the very back configured in a dihedral, each wing containing three cells. The Antoinette sat between the wings, with the pilot's compartment immediately ahead (where the pilot stood), and with the pusher-propeller immediately behind. A movable cell at the nose, actuated by cables originally manufactured for church-tower clocks, allowed for steering and altitude adjustments. This forward-mounted-mini-wing layout would later come to be called a "canard", from the French word for "duck", after a Bleriot aircraft of the same layout was said to look like one. This name is still used to describe aircraft with wing-like surfaces placed near the nose, whether or not they are duck-like). The structures of the Santos-Dumont biplane were made of bamboo, with Japanese silk surfaces, and joints made of aluminum, a very exotic material at the time.

The aircraft was transported from Neuilly, where it was built, to nearby Bagatelle, where it could be tested. In order to simulate flight-like conditions, Santos-Dumont attached the aircraft to the belly of his latest dirigible, the Number 14, creating the first attempt to a hybrid airship. Due to this configuration, the plane came to be known as 14-bis. The forces imposed by the aircraft pulled at the dirigible in dangerous ways, nearly tearing it and allowing for limited control. The danger of such tests caused Santos-Dumont and his team to quickly abandon them, although some constructive information was obtained that led to adjustments in the balance and weight placement of the plane.

Santos-Dumont then connected a steel cable to the tops of two tall poles, one taller than the other. The aircraft was hung by a rope and attached by a pulley to the steel cable. It was then pulled by a donkey until it rested by the taller pole, and then released and allowed to slide down the cable towards the lower pole. In this manner, the center of gravity of the aircraft was established and adjusted, and much was learned about its stability. (Photographs of these tests show the vehicle being pulled up along the cable by the donkey back to the higher position. This gives the appearance that the plane was tested while being pulled by a donkey, which is not accurate).

By August 1906, the aircraft was transported back to Bagatelle, where Santos-Dumont performed what we would today call fast-taxi tests. The engine was found not to be powerful enough to safely reach flight speeds, and was replaced by a Antoinette, a V-8 design capable of 1,500 rpm. Early September saw greater speeds in ground tests, as well as a minor accident. On the 7 September 1906, the wheels left the ground during an extremely quick hop.

Announcements were made about Santos-Dumont trying for all the aeronautics prizes. Crowds and aviation authorities gathered on the morning of the 13 September 1906. Not all the cylinders were firing during an initial takeoff attempt, but quick repairs allowed for the second run to result in a 13-meter (43 ft) hop, an altitude of about 1 meter having been reached. This did not qualify for the prizes, but earned Santos-Dumont a great deal of attention.

The 14-bis landed at a high angle of attack, and the propeller at the back struck the ground. Repairs were undertaken. On the 23 October, after a series of engine tests and high-speed ground runs (one of which ended as one wheel came loose, but this was quickly fixed), Santos-Dumont finally pulled the 14-bis into the air. The aircraft flew for over 200 feet at an altitude of about . This earned Santos-Dumont the first of the aviation prizes, 3,000 francs for a 25-meter-or-greater flight.

The plane required more repairs, as the landing had again damaged it, and Santos-Dumont announced that he should be ready to attempt the 100-meter prize on 12 November. The 14-bis was repaired, and ailerons were added to the middle of each outermost wing cell (similar to the aileron layout later used in the famous Curtiss Model D Pusher). These ailerons were actuated by cables attached to the pilot's flightsuit at the shoulders. Movement of the shoulders thus actuated roll control, similarly to the hip-movement roll-actuation control on the Wright Flyer.

On the morning of 12 November 1906, the crowds gathered. In a surprise to nearly all there, Voisin also brought a biplane that he and Bleriot had built, and also powered by an Antoinette. Voisin made several takeoff attempts, until one of them damaged the vehicle such that it could not be tested further before being extensively repaired.

As Santos-Dumont allowed the 14-bis to run down the field, a car drove alongside, and Henry Farman would drop a plate out of the car each time he observed the wheels of the plane to leave the ground or to touch down again. The first attempt saw a flight of 40 meters, and the second saw two brief flights of 40 and 50 meters. A hurried landing after this second attempt (rushed due to the proximity of some trees) damaged the wheel axles, and these were fixed during a lunch break. In the afternoon, further flights were of 50 meters and then 82 meters. As the sun set, Santos-Dumont attempted one more flight. In order to ensure he would not hit spectators, who by this time were present all over the field, he flew at an altitude of 4 meters. After 22 seconds, he cut the engine power and glided into a landing. He had flown for 220 meters, or over 700 feet, qualifying for the second aviation prize offered for heavier-than-air-aircraft, 1,000 francs for a flight of 100 meters or more.

The first fixed-wing aircraft: The 14-bis versus the Wright Flyers

14-bis on an old postcard
Confusion occasionally still arises over whether the Wright 1903 Flyer I, or the 14-Bis was the first true airplane. In fact, only the Wright Flyer I and its successors met the modern definition of an airplane (i.e., manned, powered, heavier than air, fully controllable around all three axes, and capable of sustained flight). The Wright 1903 Flyer I met this definition on December 17, 1903, taking off under its own power along a level wooden guide rail.

While the Wrights later used a launch catapult for their 1904 and 1905 machines, those Flyers could also take off unassisted given sufficient wind. It should be noted that the Wright 1905 Flyer (also called the Flyer IIImarker) flew more than 20 miles in October 1905, a full year before the 14-bis made its first hop.

The 14-bis was marginally controllable at best and could only make wallowing hops. This remained true after Santos-Dumont, who was on the right track, installed primitive ailerons in November 1906. Unfortunately, they proved ineffective. On the plus side, Santos-Dumont and other Europeans used wheels whereas the Wrights stuck with skids for too long, which necessitated the use of a catapult in the absence of significant wind.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, founded in France at the beginning of the century to keep track of aviation records and other aeronautical activities, stated among its rules that an aircraft should be able to take off under its own power in order to qualify for a record. Many Santos-Dumont fans believe this meant the 14-bis was, technically, the first fixed-wing aircraft.

Most points that argue for Santos Dumont's airplane being the more practical, and thus the first, cite a letter from Wilbur Wright to French Army Captain Ferdinand Ferber, part of which says:

From this passage, Santos-Dumont fans could infer that while the Wright Flyer may have been superior in the air, its take-off apparatus made it overly impractical to operate and transport. Alternatively, Wright brothers fans could point to the implication that the scarcity of usable takeoff fields made the Flyer and "pillar" more practical, needing much less open, smooth and level space than the 14-bis.

The practicality of the 14-bis could also be questioned since it had very limited control, range, or endurance. Unlike the Wright Flyers, it could not make controlled turns, fly a circle, remain in the air more than one minute, carry a passenger, or gain sufficient height to safely clear trees and buildings.

Model of 14-bis
Opinions may vary on whether the Wright Flyer or the 14-bis was the more practical (and thus the "first") heavier-than-air flying machine. Both designs produced aircraft that made free, manned, powered flights. Which one was "first" or "more practical" is a matter of how those words are defined. No one could contest that the Wrights flew first, that the Flyer was more capable in the air, or that Santos Dumont took off on wheels before the Wrights and earned a variety of prizes and official records in France. Patriotic pride heavily influences opinions of the relative importance and practicality of each aircraft, thus causing debate. U.S. citizens prefer definitions that make the Wrights the "first" to fly, while Brazilians believe that Santos Dumont had the first "real", practical airplane, and that his nationality may have caused his accomplishments to not receive worldwide recognition.

Many other inventors could also claim the title to the first flying machine. From powered, heavier-than-air, but less-than-controllable airplanes, to gliders and balloons, a long series of "flying machines" separately achieved many of the individual criteria that are required of an "airplane". These achievements, most of them first accomplished in the 1800s, include being able to sustain flight (albeit lighter-than-air flight), using thrust to move wings through the air so as to generate enough lift to rise off the ground (albeit not controllably), and creating a winged vehicle that can stay in the air for more than a few seconds and that can be controlled to turn, dive, climb, etc (albeit only gliders that required a loss of altitude to "power" them). For example, Frederick Marriott's Avitor was a slightly-heavier-than-air dirigible that was fully controllable. It relied primarily on a large hydrogen gas bag for flight, but it had wings and could only get off the ground by moving forward so that the wings generated the additional lift needed to overcome its weight. Could such a hybrid be "the first heavier-than-air flying machine"? It is only one of many examples of a long history of flying contraptions, so this debate could easily be extended well beyond being about simply the 14-Bis versus the Wright Flyer.

Specifications (14-bis)

Related content

Related development: Santos Dumont's series of dirigibles, and then the Santos-Dumont Demoiselle

Comparable aircraft: Wright Flyer - Blériot III - Blériot V - Voisin-Farman I

Designation sequence: ... 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 14-Bis


  • Eu Naveguei Pelo Ar (I Flew Through the Air) by Joao Luiz Musa, Marcelo Breda Mourao, and Ricardo Tilkian, 2003
  • A Conquista Do Ar (The Conquer of the Air) by Alberto Santos Dumont, 1901
  • Hippolyto Da Costa, Fernando. Alberto Santos-Dumont: The Father of Aviation. transl: Soares, Hercillio A. VARIG Maintenance Base, Rio: 1973.
  • Lins de Barros, Henrique. Alberto Santos-Dumont. Associacao Promotora Da Instrucao, Rio de Janeiro: 1986.
  • Tobin, James. To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight. Free Press, New York: 2003.

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