12 May 1902: Aeronaut Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão and engineer Georges Saché lifted off aboard the semi-rigid airship Pax, which Severo had designed, at Vaugirard, Paris.
This was Severo’s second airship. He had designed and built a larger craft, Bartolomeu de Gusmão, eight years earlier in Brazil. It had been destroyed by gusty winds. After raising enough money to build a new ship, he went to Paris, France. His new airship was a semi-rigid keel-and-girder type. The envelope was silk but it was given some rigidity by a structure of bamboo.
The craft was approximately 30 meters (98.4 feet) long and 12.4 meters (40.7 feet) in diameter. The volume of the hydrogen gas used for buoyancy was about 2,330 cubic meters (82,283 cubic feet). A gondola was suspended below.
Though he had planned to power the craft with electric motors and batteries, time and money forced Severo to substitute internal combustion engines. Pax was propelled by two Société Buchet engines, with a 24-horsepower engine driving a 6 meter (19.7 feet), two-bladed propeller in a pusher configuration at the rear, and a second, 16 horsepower engine driving a 5 meter (16.4 feet) propeller in tractor configuration at the front of the airship. The propellers turned at 50 r.p.m.
Augusto Severo had designed both of his airships with a new method which increased their stability in flight. The gondola, rather than being suspended by ropes or cables, was rigidly attached to the envelope above with a structure of bamboo. This structure continued inside the envelope from front to rear and formed a trapezoid. This prevented the oscillation that was common with a more flexible arrangement.
Very early on the morning of 12 May 1902, Augusto Severo took his new airship on its first flight. It soon reached approximately 1,200 feet (365 meters). It then exploded, caught fire and fell to the ground near Monteparnasse Cemetery. The descent took approximately 8 seconds. Both men were killed.
A contemporary newspaper article reported the accident:
M. SEVERO AND HIS ASSISTANT KILLED.
TERRIBLE SCENE IN MID-AIR
At an early hour one morning recently all Paris was startled by the report that M. Severo, the Brazilian deputy, and his assistant, M. Sachet, had been killed while making an excursion in the steerable balloon Pax.
M. Severo and his mechanician left the balloon shed, which is behind the Montparnasse Railway Station, at half-past five in the morning in the Pax. The Brazilian, in his eagerness to make the free ascent, had slept alongside the balloon for the last few nights, waiting until the weather should be entirely propitious.
At daybreak he decided that the favourable moment had arrived. Workmen were hastily summoned, the last preparations completed, and the motors started. The Pax left the shed of M. Lachambre for her first free voyage in the air.
The Brazilian deputy, who was naturally of a gay and genial temperament, was delighted with the ideal morning. He and M. Sachet got the machinery ready, while M. Lachambre and his assistants held on the guide-rope, until Pax should be clear of the surroundings.
As M. Severo cried “Let go!” amid much fluttering of handkerchiefs the Pax rose quietly and steadily, and the calm, blue sky seemed to promise a pleasant excursion.
For the first few minutes all went well, and the motors seemed to be working satisfactorily. The airship answered the helm readily and admiring exclamations rose from the crowd. “Let’s follow her,” cried those on bicycles and motor-cars, and immediately a mad race commenced in the direction taken by the balloon.
But as the Pax rose higher she was seen to fall off from the wind, while the aeronaut could be seen vainly endeavouring to keep her head on.
Then M. Severo commenced throwing out ballast, and M. Lachambre, anxiously watching the balloon from his premises remarked that something had evidently gone wrong.
THE AIRSHIP IN FLAMES.
All this time the Pax was gradually soaring higher and higher, until, just as the balloon was over the Montparasse cemetery, at the height of probably 2000ft, a sheet of flame was seen to shoot up from one of the motors, and instantly the immense silk envelope, containing 9000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, was enveloped in leaping tongues of fire.
The aeronauts were distinctly seen to be gesticulating despairingly, but no mortal aid could reach them.
As soon as the flames came in contact with the gas, a tremendous explosion followed, an din an instant all that was left of the beautiful airship fell with lightning swiftness to the earth.
“I shall never be able to forget the awful sight,” said a spectator; “it made me dizzy, and I was compelled to turn my head away. When I looked again everything had disappeared, and all the people in the street were running towards the spot where the balloon had fallen.
“When I reached the Avenue du Maine the Pax, mangled beyond description, was lying across the street almost at the corner of the Rie de la Gaite, and the two ill-fated passengers lay dead amid the ruins. M. Severo had fallen on his feet. The upper part of his face was uninjured, but blood was flowing from his mouth an dears. The lower part of his body was crushed and horribly mutilated.
“Near him was Sachet, who had fallen on his face, which was dreadfully burned and congested. His hands, and, in fact, his whole body were covered with blisters where he had been burned, and he had also sustained several fractures. It was a gruesome sight, and it must have been a fearful death.”
A TERRIFIC REPORT.
“The noise of the explosion,” declared one spectator, “made me jump out of bed. I thought of Martinique and wondered if out turn had come, and when I ran to the window, there were two men lying, crushed beneath the remainder of the balloon.”
Another bystander told how Mme. Severo, wife of the aeronaut, whom he had laughingly kissed only twenty minutes before he met his death, fell unconscious to the ground as she witnessed the calamity which overtook her husband.
Poor woman! He had embarked his all in the airship which carried him to his death, and now she is left with seven children and no resources.
M. SANTOS DUMONT’S OPINION.
“I cannot tell you how very sorry I feel at what has happened, ” says M. Santos Dumont, “but I am not greatly surprised. M. Severo did not know anything about airships. He had only been up once or twice in his balloon, and was quite incapable of managing it. The fact that he commenced throwing out ballast when the balloon was going up showed how little he knew.
“Then his escape-valve was only about three yards from the motor, and my opinion is that, as in going up the balloon dilates and the gas must escape through the valve, in so escaping it came in contact with the motor, which was far too near the balloon, and that caused the explosion. Or if the valve did not work, the balloon may have burst and the gas immediately took fire; but a balloon must be built very stupidly to catch fire.
“From the construction of the Pax, however, it seems to me as if it had been made on purpose to kill somebody.”
M. Severo was thirty-eight years old and a member of the Brazilian Parliament. After the catastrophe his watch was found flattened in his waistcoat pocket. It had stopped at 5.40 a.m., the moment of the accident. The body will be taken to Rio Janeiro for interment. His fellow victim, the mechanic Sachet, was only twenty-five years of age and unmarried.
The balloon which began and ended its career in disaster was cigar-shaped, 100ft long, and 36ft in diameter. It was driven by screw fore and aft.
— The Star, Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday 30 June 1902, No. 7411, Page 2, Column 7. (The photographic images are from other sources and were not a part of the newspaper article.)
© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes
4 thoughts on “12 May 1902”
It’s a fantastic article, and a great tribute to Augusto Severo, a scientist and a kind-hearted man, who spent his last cents in favor of science. His memory is being erased in his homeland, which is a terrible damage to Brazil’s and aviation’s history. Congratulations.
Thank you, Ms. Valle, for your gracious words. He must have been an interesting man. And thank you for visiting my blog.
Brave, Mr. Swopes.