URBANA, OH.- It was as if the ghosts of the first men to fly were hovering above, keeping a watchful eye.
Inside a tiny hangar that nudges a western Ohio cornfield, workers assembled a rare replica of the Demoiselle, a 1908 airplane designed by Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont.
A few feet away sat a replica of a Wright brothers' plane, and 20 miles south was Huffman Prairie, the sacred ground where Wilbur and Orville Wright developed and perfected their airplanes.
The Demoiselle has gone on exhibit in Wright brothers country and is expected to stay for at least a year, the longest it will have ever been in the United States. Aviation historians are hoping the Wright-Dumont combination will fire up new interest in the birth of flight.
The Demoiselle is on loan to the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana by Brazilian industrialist Fernando de Arruda Botelho. It arrived last week from Brazil and was assembled Monday, a week before the 104th anniversary of Wilbur Wright's 24 miles in the air at Huffman Prairie the first controlled flight.
"He wanted to bring a plane back here and keep it in the United States so that we could do things together," Anthony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance in nearby Dayton, said of Botelho.
Sculimbrene is hoping to display the Demoiselle at various sites in Dayton, hometown of the Wright brothers.
The Demoiselle was built two years after Santos Dumont flew one of his planes outside Paris in 1906. Although it was nearly three years after the Wright brothers made their first flight on the sand dunes of North Carolina, the 1906 flight was the first that Europeans had seen, and Santos Dumont was hailed by some as the inventor of the airplane. He is widely regarded as the father of aviation in Brazil.
Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., said that the Wright brothers were the first to fly in a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air plane, but that Santos Dumont was a pioneer in his own right.
"He deserves a lot of credit," Crouch said. "Santos Dumont's great dream was to produce a relatively simple and inexpensive plane that ordinary folks could buy or build and operate. He wanted to share the joy of flying with the masses."
The Wrights' plane had two propellers and two 40-foot-long wings connected by wooden struts and wires, and the pilot sat between the wings. The much lighter Demoiselle had one propeller, and the pilot sat beneath its one wing, which was less than half the length of the Wright wings.
Only a handful of local people saw the Wright brothers' first flights at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and at Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905, Crouch said.
And he said the Wrights didn't fly at all from 1905 until 1908 because they were waiting for the government to approve their patent and for a signed contract for the sale of their machine. They feared that without such protection, unscrupulous rivals would pirate their ideas, he said.
In terms of public acknowledgment of their feats, though, "the brothers did not help themselves by keeping their early experiments so secretive," said Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of the Wright brothers.
Lane welcomes local display of the Demoiselle replica and was on hand to watch workers assemble its white nylon wings, aluminum-tube framing and wooden propeller.
"There were so many other young men also devoting a lot of time to solving the problem of human flight," she said of the early aviation pioneers.
Winning the right to put the Demoiselle on display is bit of a coup for the fledging museum.
The museum hangar, just completed in January, also houses a B-25, an aircraft that gained fame for the Tokyo raid led by Jimmy Doolittle during World War II. The hangar will also soon house a B-17 Flying Fortress, which is being restored.