Glen Curtiss
Alexander Graham Bell
Fort Meyer Trials
Louis Blériot
Reims air race
the first U.S. airshows
Santos Dumont
squaring up for war
the first bomb run
the amazing Dreadnought 1

Blériot crosses the English Channel

By now, flight attracted all sorts of people, including possibly more than its share of eccentrics and droll characters. Arguably, the best example of this is Louis Blériot, who went from a national joke to a national hero in the space of the thirty-seven minutes it took him to fly across  the English Channel. Blériot had made a fortune manufacturing gadgetry for the booming automobile market. He had an engineering degree, but his reputation was that he was clumsy and erratic, a charming walrus-moustached bear of a man, quick to anger, and just as quick to be gripped by some half-baked notion and run off with a gleam in his eye and a mutter on his lips.

Of all the avocations Blériot might have considered, aviation should have been last: he was a dreadful pilot. He did not seem to grasp aeronautics at even the most basic level, and he had an uncanny knack of being present when machines went wrong in extraordinary ways (Americans would call Blériot a “jinx”). None of the mishaps he endured or caused, and none of the designs  he kept ordering and crashing, deterred him from his goal of one day being hailed as a great aviator. They also failed to teach him much about aeronautics or aviation. Many of Blériot’s aircraft were built by the Voisins, who knew better and tried to dissuade him from some of his notions.

Most of the time they were not successful, and some of the designs are among the most misguided in the early history of flight. On one occasion, Blériot and Gabriel Voisin took one of their designs to the Bagatelle, a field in the Bois de Boulogne park in the middle of Paris. The aircraft had a tubular tail and looked like a beer barrel with wings. The aircraft was never tested since it fell apart while it was taxiing to the starting line. this was probably fortunate since it spared Blériot the pain of a crash. But on the same field that afternoon, November 12, 1906, the spectators who had gathered to watch Blériot still managed to witness history in the making, as Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his 14-bis on its historic first flight in Europe, to the  cheers and huzzahs of nearly everyone in the crowd. (Of all the luck!) With nearly all his fortune squandered.

Blériot’s aircraft being attended to by his frantic skeleton crew.

Blériot used a last-minute loan to enter the competition for Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail prize to the first to cross the Channel. It was, he realized, his last chance. Blériot faced stiff competition—men and planes that brought a great deal to the race. One pilot was the popular young aviator Hubert Latham, a sophisticated Frenchman of English ancestry, suave, debonair, and already a record holder for endurance flying.

His airplane was an Antoinette IV, an elegant tractor monoplane (in fact, with both engine and propeller in front) with an effective wing-warping system of control (though Latham was more comfortable with the ailerons with which the Antoinette was usually fitted), and with the Antoinette engine as the power plant. The plane and the engine were the work of a burly red-bearded engineer, Leon Levavasseur. The engine was a water-cooled V-8, meticulously crafted and able to produce 50 horsepower with a power-to-weight ratio of 1 to 4. It was already being widely used by European aviators. It had one fault, however: it had a tendency to cut out.

The other competitor was Count Charles de Lambert the first European trained to fly by the Wrights, who brought two Wright-built airplanes to Sangette, down the coast from Calais and the starting point for the competition. The Wright planes were considered in a class by themselves, the best in the world, but during a test run, de Lambert crashed one of the planes and decided to drop out of the race rather than risk the other plane.

Everything about Latham’s effort was first class—the ground crew, the hangars, the landing site—in marked contrast to Blériot. Blériot’s plane, the Blériot XI, was smaller and less powerful than the Latham craft, used an untested wing-warping system for control, and was barely fully constructed, with no instruments of any kind. To make matters worse, Blériot had been badly burned in a recent racing accident and could barely walk, let alone fly a plane as rickety as the Blériot XI. Worst of all, the engine was a homemade product of a coarse Italian motorcyclist named Alessandro Anzani. It was crude and sputtered hot oil and smoke on the pilot (something the injured Blériot did not need), but it nearly never faltered.

Blériot calculated that its meagre 25 horsepower would be enough if the engine would run for the half-hour he needed. On July 19, Latham took off from Sangette and headed toward Dover. Seven and a half miles out, the engine failed and Latham landed on the sea, smoking a cigarette while he waited to be rescued. On land he shrugged off the failure and declared that he would try again and that he would succeed. The Latham camp did not give Blériot much of a chance, and with de Lambert out of the race, believed they had the field to themselves. The Channel weather remained blustery for the next five days, but on the evening of July 24, the evening was calm and the next day promised to be clear.

Latham went to bed and left instructions that if the weather was good, he was to be awakened at 3:30 A.M. (The flight had to take place in daylight; the Daily Mail was not interested in a night flight, when no photographs could be taken.) But 3:30 came and went, and no one woke Latham up. As the dawn neared, it became obvious that the weather was going to be clear. A car was sent to Calais for Blériot; he had to be coaxed into going (as he was probably fighting off an infection from the burn injury). He finally roused himself, went to the hangar and, after seeing his wife onto a destroyer escort, donned his ridiculous aviator cap and boarded his plane.

Journalists were so certain that Latham would be first to cross the English Channel that illustrations showed the Antoinette making the crossing trailed by a French ship (later described as a Blériot)

The flag signalling sunrise went up at 4:41 A.M. on the morning of July 25, 1909. Blériot took off and headed into the dark western sky. In mid-flight, with not so much as a compass to guide him, Blériot flew on. Believing that he had been blown north, when he spotted some boats heading south, he guessed they were headed for Dover, so he followed them. He soon came upon the cliffs and searched for the pass through them to the field where Charles Fontaine, a newsman, was waiting for him. For once, luck was with Blériot—he found Fontaine waving a French flag in Northfall Meadow near Dover Castle, just as the newsman had said he would do.

Blériot often crashed on landing and this time was not an exception!

Blériot cut the engine and thumped into the field, crushing the landing gear and the propeller. It was only a thirty-seven-minute flight, and in many ways Wilbur Wright had been correct: it did not prove much. But Blériot had done it; he had beaten Latham and had been the first to cross the English Channel.

another shot of the bent 'plane

The effect Blériot’s achievement had on his own fortunes were immense. Orders for his Blériot airplane came pouring in and he was honoured everywhere with parades, banquets, and medals. The effect of the flight on the British was considerable as well. It drove home the point that Britain was vulnerable to attack from the air and that the English Channel would not provide the buffer it had in the past.

Blériot’s crossing of the English Channel in 1909 gave a boost to French aviation. In reality, Blériot did not fly over the Cliffs of Dover, but through a gap in the cliff wall.

Baron de Forest promptly offered a four- thousand- pound prize to the flier who crossed the Channel in the other direction, hoping to remind the Europeans that invasion was possible from either side. Hubert Latham attempted a crossing the next day anyway, but failed again when the engine cut out within sight of Dover. The Antoinette Company eventually failed and Latham retired from aviation, only to be trampled to death in 1912 while on safari in Africa. The only thing not affected by Blériot’s feat was Blériot’s flying. After he lost by a hair to Glenn Curtiss at Reims, he crashed his plane during a flight in Turkey later that year, sustaining a serious injury that took him out of flying. He died of a heart attack in 1936, after predictably squandering his second fortune.