A hero fit for the big screen

Published Feb. 28, 2014
In the books I read I encounter dozens of stories that would make good movies without resorting to tiresome tales of superhuman good guys wielding destruction at every turn, ghouls dripping blood from nails and fangs, and cute couples having falling-outs and predictable reunions. The tale of Alberto Santos-Dumont and his amazing flying machines is a perfect example.
Santos-Dumont was born the son of a prosperous coffee grower in July 1873 in Brazil and was fascinated with Jules Verne stories, airships and flying machines. He went to Paris in 1892 to pursue his dream of conquering the air, studied science with a private tutor, and made his first ascent in a hired balloon in 1897 near Versailles. Next, in a balloon built to his specifications, he studied techniques of ballooning and became an accomplished aeronaut by the end of 1897, after 25 ascents, and that winter he worked on the design of his first airship.
He made his first test flight on Sept. 18, 1898. Balloonists convinced him to take off downwind, as in a balloon, contrary to his wish to take off into the wind, and the ship crashed into a group of trees. He repaired the minor damage and two days later took off into the wind, performing a circle above the large crowd below. He was delighted, but he saw the gas bag was sagging in the center and was saved by some boys who grabbed a rope and ran into the wind, slowing his fall. The ship was badly damaged, but he was convinced he was on the right track. Santos-Dumont became a familiar sight over Paris in 1899. Young, courageous, dashing, charming and handsome, the Brazilian fashion plate endeared himself to Parisian society, and his French admirers stood behind him when the Aero Club tried to deny him his rightful prize.
Wealthy financier Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe, in April 1900 at a meeting of the Aero Club, offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the airman who could fly from the club’s headquarters just outside Paris to the Eiffel Tower and back, seven miles, in half an hour. Santos-Dumont, in Airship No. 5 in July 1901, reached the Eiffel Tower but crashed into a tree on the return trip when the engine stalled. A footman of the Rothschild estate where he crashed climbed up a ladder with a picnic basket for the stranded airman.
During a second flight in No. 5, the ship lost gas through a defective valve and began falling. Santos- Dumont tried to land in the Seine, but the envelope caught on a chimney pot atop the Trocadero Hotel and burst, and while the keel and basket dangled by their wires several stories above the ground Santos-Dumont climbed onto a window ledge and was rescued by a fire brigade to cheers of the crowd below.
Santos-Dumont and his crew built Airship No. 6 in 22 days, and he took off on Oct. 19, 1901, in gusty winds. He made it to the Eiffel Tower in nine minutes, but when the engine began misfiring 500 yards from the tower Santos-Dumont climbed from the basket with no safety harness, inched along the keel to the engine and repaired the engine. He reached the starting line in 29 minutes and 30 seconds and took another minute or so to land.
Under the original rules he had won, but the Aero Club had recently changed the rules stating the time was from launch to landing rather than from start to finish, hoping a Frenchman would win the prize. Santos-Dumont had missed by 40 seconds, but two weeks later the club bowed to the public’s wishes and named him the winner.
Santos-Dumont continued to build airships over the next few years, but eventually he realized that airships were limited and in 1905 turned to airplanes and in 1906 was the first man in Europe to achieve sustained flight in a heavier-than-air machine. But at age 37, in 1910, his health began to fail, and he was diagnosed with MS. He went into a severe and lasting depression and killed himself in 1932. Brazil formally mourned him for 32 days.
There you have it. No weapons necessary. Our hero has all the characteristics of a leading man, and the setting of Paris at the turn of the last century is ideal for a visually appealing film. This story would be a good choice for Steven Spielberg, who loves historical pieces. I can’t wait to see it on the screen.

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