1/72 Santos-Dumont Demoiselle
KIT #:  
REVIEWER: Chris Peachment
NOTES: Scratch-built


Alberto Santos-Dumont is the father of European aviation. He was one of the most famous men in his day, and is still a much lauded hero in his native Brazil. Born in 1873, into a large very wealthy family of coffee producers. His father used the most modern technical equipment on his coffee plantation and Alberto was using the steam tractors and other vehicles from an early age. When his father became a paraplegic, he sold the plantation for a vast sum, and Alberto settled in Paris, where he began experimenting with balloons. He designed and built the first dirigibles, which was the first time a balloon could be steered. And he won a prize for flying a circuit which involved circling the Eiffel Tower.

He would often steer these small craft down the length of fashionable boulevards about 20 feet above the traffic and crowds, and then tether the craft to a nearby tree while he took lunch at his favoured restaurant. He would also visit friends by air, tying the craft to whatever was to hand, sometimes on the roof of the house.

A small, dapper man, he started a fashion for his high collars, and also for his wide brim panama hat which he always wore. He even had a special high table and chairs made, so that he could dine about 12 feet above the ground and get used to being aloft. One cannot help but wonder if his very small stature, he was no more than 5 feet tall, had something to do with his desire to see the world from above. Everyone attested that he had perfect manners.

His first heavier than air machine, the 14bis, took to the air under its own power (as opposed to the Wright Brothers machine which used launch rails), in October 1906, and was the first heavier-than-air aircraft flight to be certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). It was also the first flight to be witnessed by large crowds, as the Wright Brothers had flown alone. In France the few who had heard of the Wright Brothers' flight treated it with some suspicion, if not disbelief. As far as Europe was concerned Santos-Dumont was king.

The 14bis had a fairly conventional layout by modern standards, with fuselage, a biplane cell, a biplane tail and petrol engine with airscrew. The extraordinary thing about it was that it appeared to fly backwards, at least judged by our own standards of subsequent aircraft. The pilot sat in a cockpit close to the wings but facing towards the tail. And the propeller was a pusher rather than tractor.

Santos-Dumont's next and final designs were the Demoiselle monoplanes (Nos. 19 to 22). These aircraft were used for his personal transport. The fuselage consisted of three specially reinforced bamboo booms, and the pilot sat a seat between the main wheels of a tricycle landing gear. The Demoiselle  was controlled by a tail unit that functioned both as elevator and rudder, and by wing warping.

As far as design goes, he undoubtedly got every element about this light aircraft right, and down to this day, microlight aircraft adopt the same principles. Albeit with modern additions such as ailerons.  And there are many close replicas here in the UK, including one at Brooklands Museum, which regularly take to the air.

It is the only pre-WWI pioneer aircraft which I would unhesitatingly strap myself into and take to the air, with perhaps the one modern addition of an air speed indicator. The balance of aerodynamic forces in the airframe design is perfect and while it looks flimsy, its well-balanced framework of struts make it strong and light. 

Sadly, Santos-Dumont contracted multiple sclerosis, which led to increasing depression. He returned to his native Brazil, feted as a national hero, and retired to a country house which he had designed. It was here that he died by his own hand in 1932.

His name lives on as the father of European aviation, but also in the famous Cartier Santos watch, which Cartier designed especially for him in the form of a wristwatch so that he did not have to fumble with a pocket watch while timing his flights. The design continues to this day. As do the innumerable micro-light aircraft which copy the layout of the Demoiselle.

Demoiselle is French for a damselfly, a delicate flying insect a little like a dragonfly. It also means a young lady, and we get the word damsel from it.


The nice thing about this little scratch build is that the results look satisfyingly complicated, and yet the construction is simple and should be possible by anyone with some experience of scratch building, even if only small parts for injection kits. The initial impetus came when I discovered an etched spoke wheel set in 1/72 made by Eduard, in varying sizes. This simple discovery opens up a whole new realm of possibilities in early aircraft.

The first difficulty was in discovering from the many plans and photos available (see below) that no two aircraft looked alike. Some had a king post just ahead of the tail. Some did not.  Some had the petrol tank above the wing, some below. And the layout for the engine differs from one model to the next. I suggest you choose the one which you like and which has the most coverage to enable you to get as accurate as is possible. And bear in mind that many replicas in museums around the world are not always as accurate as they might be.

I cut out the wing in one piece first from 20 thou plastic card, and scored the ribs underneath with a biro and steel rule. Then tape it around a largeish cylinder, or length of pipe, to get the right camber which is quite marked. This can then be put aside.

The fuselage is simply a question of cutting three lengths of rod according to side plan, and then joining them with short struts to form an inverted pyramid, or fuselage of triangular cross section with the single spar at the top, and two base spars below.

So far so easy. Now, is the best time to rig the fuselage, which is fiddly but easy enough. The wires go diagonally from joint to joint, and are made from lengths of elastic thread, and held with small dots of superglue gel applied with a sharpened toothpick, A couple of hours under a strong lamp, with some reading lasses in your nose should see it done. I used two pairs of my normal reading glasses, perched on the end of my nose. One of those large magnifying glasses on a stand would be a nifty aid for all this, but I haven't got around to acquiring one yet. No doubt advancing years will make it imperative sometime soon.

Once done, sit back with a small reward (I find a glass of single malt is a well deserved prize) and admire.

The wing now needs a narrow triangular section cut out from the centre towards the rear, so that it can sit atop the fuselage but have the trailing edges lower than the top spar. Check the photos.

The engine was fashioned from rod of different diameter. It is basically two horizontally opposed cylinders on each side of a crank case. There are also four struts on top, forming a pyramid, which will support the forward king post. These are best added now. The whole was painted matt black with oily steel cylinders and some gunmetal drybrushing. It can be mounted on the leading edge centre of the wing. 

Strangely the engine was usually water cooled, rather than air cooled, with cooling tubes mounted within and beneath the wing in the centre sections. Four short copper pipes carry the coolants to and from the engine and I made these from copper wire. Fortunately they aren't regular in shape, and were obviously just bent in situ to fit.

Before turning to the undercarriage, a seat was made from a length of Tamiya masking tape, and wound around the lower spars.  It seems that Alberto didn't favour a backrest. It probably kept him from relaxing, something which I doubt any of those early pilots ever did.

Then the undercarriage can be addressed. As I said at the beginning it looks complex, but in fact is not. The inner struts and axle were put in place first. And then the wheels made up from the etched set.  Now comes the trickiest part of the build. First a couple of old wheels were selected from the Big Bag of Wheels in the spares box. The centres were taken out, first by drilling and then by a motor tool, with a grinding wheel on it.  And believe me, holding a tiny piece of ring shaped plastic over a grinding tool with your fingers concentrates the mind wonderfully. Rather like early aviation. Except that here you will lose a fingernail and not your life. If you have a pair of rubber o-rings the right size, then use those.

Then the spoked wheels must be dished. The Eduard card of instructions suggests using a ball bearing to push down heavily on the wheel, while supported beneath by the right shaped dish. Having neither, I improvised by using the wooden handle of an old chisel, and a wad of some blue tack underneath. The results aren't too bad, although it helps if you anneal the etch first, by holding over a naked flame for a while until it colours. This softens the metal somewhat. I still haven't eradicated the wavy rim effect completely, so I am now wandering around the streets, my eyes downcast, hoping to come across a ball bearing.

And don't make the mistake of glueing the rims together first. Add them to the tyre on each side. You can safely guess how I know this.

Superglue the wheels in place, noting they have a distinct toe-out, producing a knock-kneed effect. Then add tiny outer axles at an angle, from plastic rod, and brace those with a couple of struts. You will need these little stub axles for rigging, which can now take place on the underside. Elastic thread, superglue gel, sharpened toothpick, once again.

Once all dry, let it sit on its wheels and tailskid (bent rod), and cement the three upper kingposts in place. One on top of the pyramid on top of the engine. Then rig those. Same deal as above.

Make a fuel tank from sprue sanded into two conical sections. Paint it copper. Make a conical forward propeller support from sanded sprue. Get a prop from the big Bag of Props in your spares box, sand to shape, paint brown with clear orange topcoat, cement in place.


And there you have it, one exquisite little Damselfly. It is so light but so sturdy, that when I knocked off the shelf, it fluttered to earth like a sycamore leaf and didn't break. It was the first really viable aircraft, all made on the first aircraft production line, and so good that anyone could fly it. In fact Santos-Dumont was so kind-hearted he would sell the plans for very little money, and suggest that it would only take about 15 days to make the plane for anyone with basic mechanical skills. It wasn't even patented, so keen was he to promote world wide flying. I think even I could have a crack at a full sized one. A motorbike engine would fit the bill for power.  And those fuselage ribs are only bamboo, after all.











May 2014

Chris Peachment

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