Alberto Santos Dumont was the son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee-planter.
His first dirigible was 25 m (8½ ft) long and contained 180 cubic metres (6400 cubic feet) of hydrogen gas beneath which he suspended a 3½ hp petrol engine. On 18 September 1898 he took off from the jardin d’acclimatisation in the Bois de Boulogne and promptly ended up in a clump of trees. Know-all bystanders had advised him to take-off downwind. Two days later he was back, this time rising effortlessly into wind to complete a figure of eight 400 m (1300 ft) above an astonished, cheering crowd. ‘Le Petit Santos’ — for he weighed just 49 kg (108 lb) — was an instant hero.
Santos embarked on an ambitious development programme after this modest triumph, and soon became a familiar sight puttering over the Paris suburb of Neuilly-Saint James on his latest dirigible. In the summer of 1901 he made two attempts to win a 125,000-franc prize offered by Henri Deutsche de la Meurthe for a flight from the parc d’aerostation at St Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back, a distance of about 12 km (4 miles), in half an hour. The first began on 13 July. With a following wind Santos’s No. 5 dirigible was soon rounding the Eiffel Tower, but on his return trip the little airship could make no headway, the time limit elapsed and the engine stopped. Santos valved off hydrogen and settled into a large chestnut tree in the grounds of Edmund de Rothschild’s house. During his second attempt, on 8 August, Santos again circled the Eiffel Tower but was foiled on the way back, crashing noisily and explosively on to the roof of an hotel at Trocadéro. Shaken and singed he climbed through an attic window and was held by the manager on suspicion of cat burglary.
Another dirigible was hastily constructed to replace the wrecked No. 5, and on 19 October 1901 Santos just succeeded in making the round trip within the specified 30 minutes. Typically philanthropic, he divided the prize between his workers and the Parisian poor, keeping not a centime for himself. Santos built 14 airships in all, of which his diminutive No. 9 was the best-known and most successful. On this personal runabout he challenged a friend’s after-dinner remark that his dirigibles were no more than ‘scientific curiosities’ by flying right into the heart of Paris, landing in the Avenue des Champs-Elysées and mooring it on the railings of his house on the corner of Rue Washington while he went inside for coffee. Thereafter Parisians became quite blasé about the sight of No. 9 parked outside fashionable restaurants or in the grounds of the country houses of Santos’s many friends.