Louis Blériot

Louis Bleriot graduated with a degree in Arts and Trades from Ecole Centrale Paris. After successfully establishing himself in the business of manufacturing automobile headlamps, at age 30 he began his lifelong dedication to aviation. In 1907 he made his first flight at Bagatelle, France, in an aircraft of his own design, teaching himself to fly while improving his design by trial and error. In only two years his new aviation company was producing a line of aircraft known for their high quality and performance.

Louis Bleriot achieved world acclaim by being the first to fly an aircraft across the English Channel, a feat of great daring for those times. On July 25, 1909, in his Model X125 horsepower monoplane, he braved adverse weather and 22 miles of forbidding sea and flew his machine from Les Barraques, France to Dover, England. This 40 minute flight won for him the much sought after London Daily Mail price of 1000 pounds sterling.

In the 1914-1918 War his company produced the famous S.P.A.D. fighter aircraft flown by all the Allied Nations. His exceptional skill and ingenuity contributed significantly to the advance of aero science in his time, and popularized aviation as a sport. He remained active in the aero industry until his death on August 2, 1936.

The Flight

First Channel Crossing by Air

At the first light of dawn on the morning of July 25, 1909, Frenchman, Louis Blériot gave his crew the signal to release his small wood and fabric Model XI aeroplane. It crossed the grassy paddock and bounded into the air crossing the cliffs at Sangatte France, near Calais, and ventured out over the English Channel. Travelling at just over 40 miles per hour, and at an altitude of about 250 feet, the little monoplane out-paced its naval escort ship, the Escopette, which carried his wife Alicia. Within minutes Blériot was on his own over the channel and due to weather conditions could not see either coast for part of the flight. Finally, thirty-six minutes after his departure, fighting dangerous cliff-side gusts, Blériot put down on English soil near Dover Castle. It must have been a dramatic scene for the small group of on-lookers as his plane dodged several brick buildings, was tossed about in the wind, and as Blériot cut the motor the craft dropped into a grassy field smashing the propeller and undercarriage. His daring effort had landed him the coveted Daily Mail Prize of 1,000 Pounds Sterling.

Thirty-six minutes was not one of the longer flights of 1909. There had been a number of duration and distance records considerably longer, but no one had yet successfully crossed the channel. Record flights were typically conducted over earth, and not water, so that when problems occurred (and they usually did) one could set down in a field or on a road. Fellow aviator Hubert Latham attempted the cross the Channel just days earlier (July 19th) and had ditched his Antoinette IV in the channel when his motor quit.

1909 aircraft were extremely unreliable -- the hobby of visionaries and wealthy eccentrics. Most were under-powered and the engines were prone to failure for one reason or another. Aircraft design was more of an art than a science, and control systems were still being invented. There were no airborne radios to call for help, and flight instrumentation was limited.

The day had begun badly and if Blériot had been a superstitious man he probably wouldn’t have taken off. He could walk only with the aid of crutches, having burned his foot in an earlier incident. During preparation for takeoff a neighbourhood dog had wandered into the arc of his propeller blade and was killed. His wife did not share his enthusiasm for flight and had begged him not to go. Once in the air his Anzani 3 cylinder motor overheated, as motors of that day were prone to do. Fortunately, luck was on Blériot’s side that day and rain showers cooled the motor enabling him to complete the crossing.

A channel crossing is a non-event today, but in 1909 this half-hour flight captured the world's attention. Transcontinental travel was suddenly possible and the protective barrier between England and the European continent disappeared. The British newspapers warned that airplanes flying over the Channel could also be used as instruments of war. "Britain's impregnability has passed away...Airpower will become as vital as seapower," one London newspaper trumpeted. Considering Britain’s status as the world’s leading military power, these headlines were arresting.

Louis Bleriot (R) and observers and his Model XI after Channel crossing and rough landing.

Louis Bleriot: Trial and Error

Bleriot was first attracted to the problem of flight when he visited the 1900 Paris Exhibition and saw Clement Ader's strange bat-wing contraption, the Avion No.III. As a result, he built his own bat-wing aeroplane, but unlike Ader's his had flapping rather than fixed wings. Unsurprisingly, it was not a success and flapped itself to pieces on the ground.

Then, in 1905, Bleriot became acquainted with the Voisin brothers, Charles and Gabriel, who had built several Wright-inspired gliders for prominent Aero-Club de France member, Ernest Archdeacon. Their latest model was fitted with floats for towing behind a motor boat on the River Seine. Louis Bleriot commissioned them to build a similar machine for himself. It had a wide biplane tail, connected by side-curtains to form a box-kite, short stubby wings connected by more side-curtains, and a monoplane forward elevator. Long floats stretched from the elevator back to the tail. He had realised that he still had a lot to learn about flight before he could hope to build a powered machine. Hopefully the glider experiments would solve the problem of aerial stability. A motor could then be added and powered flight attempted. Both gliders were tested by Gabriel Voisin on the Seine near Paris. They both rose from the water, but yawed, dipped and dropped their wings dangerously. Both were damaged by striking the water while out of control. Fortunately the pilot was uninjured and bravely continued with the tests each time the machines were reconstructed. The problem was that the machines only had one flying control: a front elevator. They relied on their own, very imperfect, inherent stability to keep straight and level. The tests continued into 1906 and the third Bleriot-Voisin glider was fitted with an Antoinette petrol engine. (The Antoinette had also powered the motor boat.) But whether it was flown on floats or on wheels as a land plane, the design remained a failure.

the third Blériot-Voisin glider with Antoinette engine in 1906

When the gliders met with no success, Bleriot decided to pursue his own ideas once more. Unlike most other experimenters of the day, he was particularly attracted to the idea of the monoplane. After Santos-Dumont's successful flights of 1906 he knew flight was a real possibility, and thus encouraged he built a tail-first monoplane, influenced by Dumont's tail-first 14-bis. It was christened the Canard ('duck') because its long 'neck' stretched out in front like a duck in flight. (Since then, all tail-first aeroplanes have been known as canards.) Its wings were covered with varnished paper and it was powered by a 24 h.p. Antoinette. It was first tested at Bagatelle on 21 March 1907, and on 5 April Bleriot made a flight of 5 to 6 yards. He made further short hops at Issy on 8 and 15 April but the machine was basically too fragile and was destroyed in a crash on 19 April. Bleriot was unhurt.

The Blériot Canard of 1907 at Bagatele. The pilot seems to be testing the wing warping: left wing is down and the right wing up

Unlike the Wrights or Otto Lilienthal, Louis Bleriot did not take a careful, scientific approach to the problem of flight, testing and refining each component until a good machine was arrived at. Instead he impulsively jumped from one concept to another until he found something that worked. It was the philosophy of trial and error, and it was something of a miracle that Bleriot survived the numerous early crashes that this method entailed. He always tested his own machines.

After the crash of 19 April he abandoned the canard and built a plane along the lines pioneered by the American, Professor Langley. It had two sets of wings, the one behind the other, and was called the Libellule ('butterfly'). The front set of wings had a form of aileron fitted that Bleriot would return to in later designs: the wing tips could be swivelled on pivots to change the angle at which they met the air. However, they worked independently and were not connected to each other, as modern ailerons are. There was no elevator. Bleriot established longitudinal stability by moving his body weight on a sliding seat! The Libellule was more successful than the Canard. At Issy it managed 25 yards on 11 July 1907, and then 160 yards on 25th, and 150 yards on 6 August. Finally, on  17 September, Bleriot climbed to a height of 60 feet, but he lost control and the machine plunged to the ground. It was destroyed, but again Bleriot was fortunate in not being seriously hurt.

The Blériot Libellule of 1907. It was flown briefly during the summer

Bleriot's third plane in one year was of a type that came to be the standard layout for monoplanes up to the present day. That is to say the engine was at the front near the wings, with the rudder and elevator at the rear on a long tail. The main undercarriage wheels were under the engine and there was a smaller wheel towards the tail. This was completely revolutionary in 1907. But by inspired guesswork, Bleriot had hit on a winning formula. All his future aeroplane designs were variations on this theme. The first of these ground-breaking machines was the sixth aeroplane Bleriot had built (including gliders) and so it was simply called No.VI. It was doubly innovative because, in addition to its layout, it had a completely covered fuselage and no external bracing wires - giving it a very modern appearance. It flew 80 yards with a 20 h.p. engine, in November, before crashing.

the prophetic Blériot VI, also of 1907

In the new year, 1908, Bleriot built another, No.VII, which similarly crashed, and then another, No.VIII, which met the same fate! These planes were covered with rice paper to keep weight to a minimum. Bleriot's tenacity and enthusiasm sprang from his "passion for the problems of aviation" - his own words for his devotion to flying. And his persistance was paying off. His new machines were generally better than their predecessors and in No.VIII he flew for 800 yards at Issy. This machine had a 50 h.p. Antoinette, and good controls, including large 'modern' ailerons on the trailing edge of the wing. On a modified version, the VIII-bis, Bleriot accomplished the second cross-country flight from town to town, on 31 October 1908, the day after Henry Farman had achieved the first! However, Bleriot succeeded in flying back to his starting point, making it the first return cross-country in Europe. The flight was made from Toury to Artenay.

Apart from getting the shape of his aeroplanes right, another great achievement of Louis Bleriot was in designing the modern control system. He linked the ailerons and elevator together so that they were both worked from a central 'joystick', while rudder control was via a bar at the pilot's feet. If Bleriot wanted to climb, he pulled the stick back. If he wanted to yaw right, he pushed his right foot forward. If he wanted to bank left, he moved the stick left. This is exactly how modern control systems work. By contrast, the Wright brothers had linked their wing-warping (in place of ailerons) to the rudder. This was logical, but was not copied.

The Blériot VIII-bis near Dambron during 31 Oct 1908 cross country flight from Toury to Artenay. The wing-tip ailerons are clearly visible.

The little Frenchman made another first, on 12 June 1909, when he became the first pilot to take two passengers up at the same time. The others in the plane with him were Alberto Santos-Dumont and Andre Fournier.

After crashing No.IX and No.X, Bleriot was facing bankruptcy when he took his No.XI to the cliffs at Calais to try and win the £1000 prize for flying across the English Channel. His fortune had nearly all been consumed in his passion for aviation. He needed this flight to succeed.