First in Flight? Possibly not the Wrights, says N.C. State filmmaker
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First in Flight? Possibly not the
Wrights, says N.C. State filmmaker

Keith's film does not diminish the work of the Wright brothers, whose memorial she visits (top left; photo by Will Keith), but clarifies the significance of the 1906 public flight from a level-ground take-off by Santos-Dumont (bottom left; photo courtesy Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace, Le Bourget, France.)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk. The country is poised to celebrate the first machine-powered flight and arguably the greatest invention of the 20th century.

But a documentary produced by an N.C. State employee brings to light a South American competitor for the “first flight” title.

Simone Keith, videographer and editor in the College of Agriculture and Life SciencesCommunication Services Department, has produced “Heavier Than Air,” a documentary film that tells the story of Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian inventor who some claim was the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine by means of its own propulsion.

“‘ Heavier Than Air’ is my personal journey to discover who Santos-Dumont really was and why he was overshadowed by the Wrights,” said Keith, a countryman of Santos-Dumont who hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil. “It is also a look at how Brazil dealt with its most important national hero and what has become of his legacy today.”

The debate on who was first in the air is centered on whether the Wright brothers’ famed Flyer of 1903 had any additional help to get airborne. Supporters of Santos-Dumont say that the Wrights used a rudimentary catapult system on an inclined plane to throw their machine into the air. Supporters of the Wrights say that the brothers didn’t invent the catapult system used for their airplanes until 1904 – a year after the inaugural flight – and flew their Flyer on level ground. The Wrights later used the catapult system to avoid aircraft damage that occurred taking off from a soft field.

“ I set out on my journey to prove that Santos-Dumont was really the first in flight,” Keith said. “But as my research developed, I discovered that the differences between the American and Brazilian claims focused primarily on the way people define a ‘flight.’ It became clear to me early on that this was not the way I wanted to go with the documentary. Santos-Dumont was bigger than the controversy, and I wanted people to know who he really was instead of getting hooked on the controversy.”

Santos-Dumont is credited with being the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine in Europe, in the fall of 1906, and was the third man in the world to fly a powered aircraft. The First Flight Society has inducted him into its hall of fame.

A wealthy Brazilian aviation pioneer who was born in 1873, Santos-Dumont moved to Paris when he was 18 to live and study. He attempted his first dirigible – a hot-air balloon capable of being steered, similar to today’s blimp – flight in 1897 and had his first successful dirigible flight in 1898. In 1901, he flew his hydrogen-filled airship from St. Cloud, France, around the Eiffel Tower and back. It was the first such flight and won him the Deutsch Prize and a prize from the Brazilian government. In 1902 he attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea in an airship but crashed into the ocean.

He returned to Brazil in 1928. Depressed over the use of aircraft for warfare, Santos-Dumont committed suicide in 1932.

To tell his story, Keith spent two-and-a-half years researching Santos-Dumont in Brazil, France and the United States. Another semester was spent editing the film for its April 21 debut at N.C. State Campus Cinema, which drew more than 100 people.

“ It is not your typical History Channel piece, but it is a historical account of who he was, told by me as the narrator,” Keith said. “There are interviews with aviation experts, as well as with Santos-Dumont’s great-niece, who is still alive in Brazil.”

While at N.C. State, Keith has been working on her master’s of arts in liberal studies – a program geared toward full-time working adults that offered the flexibility she needed to design her own study program. This film is part of the final project for her degree.

— NCSU News Services

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