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1906, the anti-Wright skeptics in the European aviation community had
converted the press. European newspapers, especially in France, were
openly derisive, calling them bluffeurs (bluffers). The Paris
edition of the New York Herald summed up Europe's opinion of the
Wright brothers in an editorial on February 10, 1906: "The Wright
have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not
possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to
fly. It's easy to say, 'We have flown.'"
And the French had some reason to be cocky. The French aeronautical
revival, inspired by Octave Chanute's address to the Aero-Club de France
in early 1903, was beginning to bear fruit. At the urging of
Ferdinand Ferber, French aviators had experimented with
gliders derived from Wright designs. Their success was limited — none of
them repeated the careful research in lift and drag that had enabled the
Wrights to build their record-breaking 1902 glider. More importantly, they
misunderstood the function and necessity of the Wright's control system
and discarded it. Instead, the French endeavored to build an inherently
stable flying machine that would need little control input, and they were
satisfied with their own results. Ernest Archdeacon recruited a young
Gabriel Voison, to pilot glider of a design that
had come to be known as an aeroplane de type Wright. After testing
it for several weeks, Voison was making flights up to 65 feet in length,
and Archdeacon gleefully announced to the Aero-Club de France that Voison
had mastered skill of piloting an aircraft. It mattered little that the
Wrights had made flights almost ten times as long in their 1902 glider.
Archdeacon was confident that the French could now design a glider that
would "do as well as the Wright brothers."
To spur the progress of aviation in Europe — especially France —
well-heeled enthusiasts offered rich prizes. Archdeacon himself put up the
Coupe d'Aviation Ernest Archdeacon, a silver trophy that would go
to the first person to fly a powered airplane 25 meters (80 feet). The
Aero-Club de France offered a prize of 1500 francs to the first person to
fly 100 meters, or 330 feet. And Archdeacon collaborated with Henri
Deutsch de la Meurthe to establish the Grand Prix d'Aviation, a
prize of 50,000 francs to the first person to fly a kilometer in a circular
Europe got to work. Voison and Louis Bleriot — a manufacturer of
automotive components —designed and flew improved gliders. Samuel F.
Cody, an American cowboy is Great Britain, flew a kite-glider with
ailerons. Ferdinand Ferber added a 12-horsepower engine to his most
successful glider to date, but it could not sustain flight. Rumanian
Trajan Vuia made a series of short hops in a monoplane powered by a
carbolic acid motor. In Denmark, J. C. R. Ellehammer made a 42-meter
circular flight in an odd biplane while tethered to a post. Leon
Levavasseur perfected two light airplane engines of 24 and 50 horsepower
he named "Antoinette" motors after his daughter. These engines
would become the mainstay of European aviation during its earliest years.
But the aviator that captured Europe's attention was
Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian-born immigrant to France and the son of a
wealthy coffee-plantation owner. Santos was a talented engineer who began
racing motorized tricycles, then turned to lighter-than-air flight. He
puttered about in odd-shaped dirigibles of his own design over the
rooftops of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, often crashing
slowly and safely into trees and chimneys. In 1904, he visited the St.
Louis Exposition in the United States, where he saw demonstrations of
Octave Chanute's gliders and heard about the work of the Wright brothers.
Inspired, he turned his talents to powered aircraft.
In July of 1906, Santos-Dumont suspended an odd-looking airplane beneath his
dirigible Airship No. 14 for flight testing. Called the 14-bis ("14
encore"), this aircraft was a type de Wright, but the wings
met a sharp upwards angle or "dihedral" to give it stability. At
the front was a pivoting box-kite assembly that acted as both an elevator
and a rudder. A 24-horsepower Antoinette engine turned a single propeller
that stuck out from behind. The pilot stood upright in a wicker basket,
much like a balloon pilot.
On September 13, 1906, Santos coaxed his ungainly aircraft off the
ground for a brief hop of 7 meters (23 feet) and made a hard landing.
After making repairs and refitting the craft with a 50-horsepower
Antoinette, Santos tried again. On October 23, he flew the 14-bis 60
meters (198 feet), winning the Archdeacon prize. He modified the craft
once again, adding ailerons and eliminating the rudder function of the
front control surfaces. On November 12, he flew 220 meters (726 feet),
capturing the 1500 franc prize from the Aero-Club for the first 100-meter
flight. It hardly mattered that the craft cumbersome and uncontrollable,
or that Santos abandoned the design a few months later, never to use it
again. He had flown — in public — and the French were beside
themselves with aeronautical optimism and national pride.
Ferdinand Ferber in his chariot automobile designed
to test propeller thrust.
Ferber's interpretation of the Wright glider, as
described by Chanute in 1903.
Archdeacon's interpretation of the Wright glider.
The 1905 Voison Archdeacon glider of was
mounted on pontoons and launched by towing it behind a motorboat.
The 1906 Vuia could hop but not sustain flight.
The 1906 Ellehammer flew tethered to a pole.
Santos-Dumont flew his 14-bis suspended from
a dirigible in August 1906.
Alberto Santos-Dumont in the cockpit of the 14-bis.
The prize-winning flight of the 14-bis on
October 23, 1906.