In 1922, the First Air Crossing of the South Atlantic made such an impression that the Portuguese aviators who accomplished the feat, Sacadura Cabral and Gago Coutinho, were reduced to this unique achievement, eclipsing what they had done in many other areas. Now, 150 years after the birth of Carlos Viegas Gago Coutinho, we can now go beyond the shadow cast by the famous deed that first connected Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil by air – a celebration that can be seen at the excellent Gago Coutinho – Traveller | Explorer exhibition at the Museu da Marinha, in Lisbon, on show until 24th May.
Prevented from studying engineering in Germany due to a lack of funds, Gago Coutinho joined the naval school aged 17. In 1898, he began working as a geographer in Africa and Timor, assertively tracing the Equator, on Ilhéu das Rolas, in São Tomé. On the continent, he delimited borders, such as those of Angola with Congo and Mozambique, where he showed his capacity for innovation and rigour: from taking the stars’ pulse with a sextant, to using the time signal transmitted by telegraph cable to ensure accuracy. A simple, witty man, he left immortal quotes, like his response to crossing Africa on foot: “How else? With worn out boots, so the water could escape more easily, because it would always get in.”
In Africa, he began working with Sacadura Cabral, who got him interested in aviation after reading the exploits of pioneers like Santos-Dumont. This led him to focus on the issue of air travel with Sacadura, culminating in the famous Crossing. The result? In addition to their epic achievement, there are the sextant that bears his name today (his solution to observing the stars aboard a plane) and the path corrector (accounting for wind intensity and direction), both essential tools to fly aircraft safely from A to B. These would also be key to future transatlantic air routes, which he could already foresee when Zeppelins were the only craft to transport passengers across the Atlantic.
Always someone who knew his own mind, he spoke and acted accordingly. He also shed new light on the achievements of the Portuguese in the Discoveries by combining knowledge of nautical science with historical hypotheses. An illustrious geographer, navigator, historian, inventor, sportsman, he was one of the greatest figures of science and technology in Portugal.
by Ricardo Reis
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