Classic History Books


William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

troubles then commenced. The wind was now in his face, and his engine-a small motor engine of about
15 horse-power-was unable to produce sufficient power to move the craft quickly against the wind. The

plucky inventor kept fighting against the-breeze, and at length succeeded in returning to his

starting-point; but he had exceeded the time limit by several minutes and thus, was disqualified for the

prize.

Another attempt was made by Santos Dumont about a month later. This time, however, he was more
unfortunate, and he had a marvellous escape from death. As on the previous occasion he got into great

difficulties when sailing against the wind on the return journey, and his balloon became torn, so that the

gas escaped and the whole craft crashed down on the house-tops. Eyewitnesses of the accident expected

to find the gallant young Brazilian crushed to death; but to their great relief he was seen to be hanging to

the car, which had been caught upon the buttress of a house. Even now he was in grave peril, but after a

long delay he was rescued by means of a rope.

It might be thought that such an accident would have deterred the inventor from making further attempts
on the prize; but the aeronaut seemed to be well endowed with the qualities of patience and perseverance

and continued to try again. Trial after trial was made, and numerous accidents took place. On nearly

every occasion it was comparatively easy to sail round the Tower, but it was a much harder task to sail

back again.

At length in October, 1901, he was thought to have completed the course in the allotted time; but the
Aero Club held that he had exceeded the time limit by forty seconds. This decision aroused great

indignation among Parisians - especially among those who had watched the flight - many of whom were

convinced that the journey had been accomplished in the half-hour. After much argument the committee

which had charge of the race, acting on the advice of M. Deutsch, who was very anxious that the prize

should be awarded to Santos Dumont, decided that the conditions of the flight had been complied with,

and that the prize had been legitimately won. It is interesting to read that the famous aeronaut divided the

money among the poor.

But important though Santos Dumont's experiments were with the air-ship, they were of even greater
value when he turned his attention to the aeroplane.

One of his first trials with a heavier-than-air machine was made with a huge glider, which was fitted with
floats. The curious craft was towed along the River Seine by a fast motor boat named the Rapiere, and it

actually succeeded in rising into the air and flying behind the boat like a gigantic kite.

12th November, 1906, is a red-letter day in the history of aviation, for it was then that Santos Dumont
made his first little flight in an aeroplane. This took place at Bagatelle, not far from Paris.

Two months before this the airman had succeeded in driving his little machine, called the Bird of Prey,
many yards into the air, and "11 yards through the air", as the newspapers reported; but the craft was

badly smashed. It was not until November that the first really satisfactory flight took place.

A description of this flight appeared in most of the European newspapers, and I give a quotation from
one of them: "The aeroplane rose gracefully and gently to a height of about 15 feet above the earth,

covering in this most remarkable dash through the air a distance of about 700 feet in twenty-one seconds.

"It thus progressed through the atmosphere at the rate of nearly 30 miles an hour. Nothing like this has
ever been accomplished before. . . . The aeroplane has now reached the practical stage."

 

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