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In November 1907 the world's first successful light aircraft completed its maiden flight in Bagatelle, France. With its bamboo construction and 18-20 horsepower engine mounted between the upswept wings, the tiny 235-pound aircraft bore a startling resemblance to an insect. Thus, it was nicknamed Demoiselle (Dragonfly). At the controls was the plane's designer, the daring Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Santos-Dumont, who had taken up residence in Paris in 1898, was famous as a pioneering balloonist and airship pilot. He became interested in powered aircraft in 1904 when he visited the United States to see the St. Louis Exposition. He met Octave Chanute, an American engineer who had designed several successful gliders, and he learned about the Wright brothers' powered flights. This encouraged him to conduct his own experiments with powered aircraft and he started work on a biplane he called the 14-bis. Although difficult to control, this aircraft completed the first Officially recorded powered flights in Europe.
Santos-Dumont's crowning achievement,However, was the Demoiselle. He conceived it as a plane that anyone could use for personal transportation and willingly let others make use of his design. The fuselage consisted of a specially reinforced bamboo boom, and the pilot sat beneath the wing within the tricycle landing gear. The demoiselle was controlled in flight partially by a tail unit that functioned both as an elevator and a rudder. In addition, another elevator was installed in front of the aircraft, and the pilot could help control the plane's lateral movement by shifting his weight from one side to another.
Santos-Dumont's first Demoiselle made two short flights before damaging its propeller in a crash landing. The aviator then designed improved models, one of which had a strengthened tail section and a more powerful 35-horsepower tail engine, and was turned by wing warping. This successful model generated increased interest in Santos-Dumont's work, and he was able to sell several similar aircraft to other fliers.
As the plane designed to popularize flying, the Demoiselle was ahead of its time. Nevertheless the remarkable little aircraft heralded the future and remains a tribute to the genius of its designer.
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"The Great Airplanes Sterling Silver Miniature Collection", published by The Franklin Mint, 1979.
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Updated: March 12, 2004