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How Louis Bleriot crossed from France to Dover without the aid of a compass


Bleriot’s monoplane is wheeled out ready for the Channel crossing

IN THE EARLY HOURS of July 25, 1909, Bleriot’s monoplane was wheeled out ready for the Channel crossing; Bleriot himself is seen standing in the cockpit. After a short test flight Bleriot took off again and headed his machine towards the English coast. He completed his flight thirty-seven minutes later. He was escorted for the first part by a French destroyer, which was soon left behind.

ALTHOUGH few people realized it at the time, Great Britain’s island supremacy was weakened if not destroyed on July 25, 1909, when Louis Bleriot flew over the English Channel and linked the two countries by aeroplane for the first time. That flight lasted less than forty minutes, but it was to cause a profound change in defence tactics. The flight roused great interest, but for the most part it was regarded as little more than a daring exploit on Bleriot’s part. The official mind of the day did not appreciate its significance, although less than six years later the first air raids were to be made on Britain, and that significance was to be brought home more forcibly.

Louis Bleriot’s fame rests on his Channel flight, but his other contributions to aviation were equally important. He was born at Cambrai, in France, in 1872, and like so many aviation pioneers was trained as an engineer. He invented a new type of motor lamp, from which he made a considerable amount of money.

His interest in aviation was first aroused in 1900 at the Paris Exhibition, where he saw the great bat-like machine built the year previously by Clement Ader. This machine had fixed wings, but Bleriot, inspired by Ader’s model, built another with movable wings, which were said to have flapped so violently that the machine shook itself to pieces. Afterwards Bleriot turned his attention to gliders. After many valuable experiments with them he and the Voisin brothers opened an aeroplane factory. Progress was too slow for Bleriot, however, and he left them and designed his first monoplane. From the very beginning his ideas were advanced, and his early machines were cleanly-designed tractor monoplanes. With his first monoplane, which was fitted with a 20 horse-power engine, he made his first flight, a distance of 80 metres. After he had made further flights with his first machine it crashed, but Louis Bleriot and crashes were to become almost inseparable. He crashed one machine after another, but nothing could discourage him. When he realized that a crash was inevitable, he would throw himself on to one of the wings and thus break his fall. In those early days he built machines almost as quickly as he crashed them, and up to 1909 he had built ten machines, most of which had been destroyed. By this time he had spent over £30,000 on flying, and his financial position was a precarious one. The money he had made from his invention had almost all been spent on aviation, but in 1909 he had an opportunity to recover a small part of his lost fortunes.

In that year the late Lord Northcliffe offered a prize of £1,000 for the first aviator to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane. Bleriot decided to try for this prize with his monoplane Type XI. His chances of success were reasonably good. He was a careful pilot, he would fly his own aeroplane (and he had no doubts about its merits), but in Hubert Latham he had a formidable rival, who was also eager to win the prize. Latham took his Antoinette to Sangatte, near Calais, and kept it in one of the disused sheds which had been part of the workings for the abandoned Channel Tunnel scheme.

From the first, Latham was ahead with his preparations, and at a quarter to seven on the morning of July 19, 1909, he took off from Sangatte. Louis Bleriot’s chance appeared to have gone, but Latham was not far over the Channel when the Antoinette’s engine failed and the aeroplane came down into the sea. The machine was badly damaged and was of no immediate use, but Latham was rescued, unhurt, by the French destroyer which had followed him.

Bleriot standing beside a modern replica of one of his early monoplanes

TAKEN IN RECENT YEARS, this photograph shows Bleriot standing beside a modern replica of one of his early monoplanes. During the years of 1914-18 Bleriot manufactured warplanes. The Spad aircraft, a famous type during the war, was produced by Bleriot at the Deperdussin aircraft factory which he had bought.

Latham was determined to be the first man to cross the Channel in an aeroplane, and within three days he had obtained another machine. By this time two other aviators were ready. One was the Comte de Lambert, who was at Wissant, near Boulogne, with a Wright machine, and the other was Louis Bleriot. Lambert was not thought to be a likely starter, and the public regarded the affair as a race between Latham and Bleriot.

On July 25 Bleriot was ready to leave. The weather was ideal, but Bleriot was not as fit a man as he should have been for so hazardous a flight. A few days earlier he had burnt his foot in one of his innumerable flying accidents. It was so badly burnt and so heavily bandaged that he was helped into his fragile machine.

Fears for Bleriot's Safety

He took off shortly after dawn on July 25, with the French destroyer, Escopette, steaming ahead of him.

Cross-Channel flying is now so commonplace that no one thinks it at all remarkable, but it is carried out with far more care than Bleriot gave to his own attempt. For the first ten minutes of his flight, Bleriot steered by the smoke from the funnels of the destroyer, but he soon passed her.

With the destroyer no longer able to guide him, Bleriot had to risk where the wind would carry him. He had lost sight of the French coast, and the English cliffs were not visible. He had no compass. The destroyer was now too far behind to be of any help to him, and if he were forced down he would be in a more precarious position than Latham had been.

Bleriot made no attempt to steer, and for twenty minutes the aeroplane took its own course until he saw the English coastline. It was St. Margaret’s Bay and not Dover that he saw, the wind having carried him slightly off his course. He turned the machine and looked for the French flag which a journalist had promised to put down as a mark for landing place. A strong wind had sprung up, however, and Bleriot was obliged to land in a meadow behind Dover Castle; today the figure of an aeroplane, cut in stone, commemorates the flight.

Some accounts of the flight state that Bleriot’s machine glided gently to earth and that Bleriot himself was welcomed by enthusiastic Frenchmen who waved tricolours. This is not so. Bleriot damaged his aeroplane and slightly injured himself, but these were small things to a man who had crashed so many aeroplanes. As for there having been a crowd of Frenchmen to greet him, when Bleriot stepped out of his machine there was no one to see the completion of that historic flight. Several minutes passed before a policeman arrived, then came the French journalist who was to have marked the landing place, and he was followed by a small crowd of people.

Nowadays this Channel flight seems an insignificant thing, but in 1909 it attracted the public. The idea of a Channel crossing appealed to them, as the idea of a man swimming the Channel had appealed to them since Captain Webb swum across in 1875.

Bleriot’s was the first Channel crossing in an aeroplane, and to the lay mind it was a real flight; there had been hops and jumps and flights of a mile or so, but people regarded that spectacular crossing as real progress. And it was real progress. It not only gave a tremendous fillip to aviation, but it was also the high-water mark of a progressive year.

Bleriot's monoplane nearing the English coast after the Channel crossing

THE MONOPLANE nearing the English coast after the Channel crossing. Bleriot made £4,000 from his Channel flight, including a prize of £1,000 which had been offered by Lord Northcliffe. After the successful flight Bleriot opened a flying school at Pau, in France, and began to design and build aeroplanes which were to become world-famous.

After he had landed Bleriot went to have his breakfast. No fuss was made, no crowds rushed across a field or an airport to greet him and to pull him from his aeroplane. Aviators were not heroes in those days, and ten years or more were to pass before hysterical hero-worship was to greet almost every long-distance flying achievement, some of which had less merit than Bleriot’s attempt.

The small crowd of people that had welcomed him dispersed. We can only assume that they had been unimpressed by what they had seen, for it might be imagined that his feat would have been the talk of Dover almost as soon as Bleriot had arrived; but this was not so. When the destroyer Escopette reached Dover Harbour, some time after Bleriot had landed upon the cliff, not only was there no news of his feat, but neither was there any news of Bleriot himself; for some time it was feared that he had been drowned. Later, of course, when the news was generally known, his feat was widely acclaimed and soon forgotten. Only one or two far-seeing men realized that Great Britain’s traditional notions of strategy were to undergo revolutionary changes.

The story of this first Channel flight cannot be finished without further reference to the unfortunate Latham’s part in it. Having obtained a new machine, he too had been prepared to start his flight on the morning of July 25. With characteristic generosity, Bleriot had offered to share the prize of £1,000 when he learnt that Latham was to make another attempt. Latham, however, was fated not to make that crossing. When he went to bed overnight he understood that he would be called early in the morning if there was no wind. He was called early, at five o’clock, but this was not early enough, for Bleriot had left about twenty minutes earlier.

Although Bleriot now had a long lead, Latham was determined to try to catch him, and in any event there was always the chance that Bleriot, too, might come down in the sea. The Antoinette was wheeled out of the shed, but a strong breeze sprang up and Latham had to abandon the attempt for that day. But he was still determined to cross the Channel, even if he could not now be the first man to do so. Two days later he tried again, but within a mile of Dover his engine failed, and once more his attempt ended in the sea. He did not try again. The Type XI, in which Bleriot flew the Channel, had a length of 25 feet, a span of 25 ft 6-in and a main supporting surface of 150 square feet. The total weight of the machine, unloaded, was 462 lb. For the Channel flight the Type XI was fitted with a 24 horsepower, three-cylinder, semi-radial, air-cooled Antoinette engine.

The control surfaces consisted of a vertical rudder and a fixed tail, which had separate elevators pivoted about a horizontal axis. The angle of incidence of this fixed tail could be adjusted before the machine took off. The vertical rudder was controlled by a rudder bar in front of the seat, and the elevators were worked by a vertical lever terminating in an inverted cup-shaped fitting. The cup was free to rock about its centre, and wires could be attached to points on its circumference. Any two of these wires fitted diametrically opposite to each other formed one control. This method, with the control of the elevators, warped the wings.

The undercarriage of the Type XI consisted of two wheels at the front and a single wheel at the rear.

Bleriot’s successful Channel crossing marked a change in his own fortunes. He won the £1,000 offered by Lord Northcliffe, and he won also a £2,000 prize offered in France. Altogether he made £4,000 out of his flight. He then opened a flying school at Pau, France, and began to design and build aeroplanes which were to become world-famous. He obtained a contract with the French Government, and between 1909 and 1914 he built eight hundred machines of forty different types. One of the most famous of these was the Type Onze. It won the Paris-Rome race (when it had to cross the Alps) and the Paris-Madrid race (when it had to cross the Pyrenees). It was the first machine to cross the Andes, and the first machine to cross the Alps from Switzerland to Italy.

First aviator to fly the Channel

THE UNDERCARRIAGE WAS DAMAGED and Bleriot himself slightly injured when he landed after his Channel flight. This picture shows Bleriot with his wife beside the monoplane on the day after his flight. No one saw Bleriot land. The first people to arrive were a policeman and a French journalist.

THE HISTORIC SPOT where Bleriot landed is marked today by the figure of an aeroplane cut in stone. Bleriot had intended to land in a field marked by a flag. A strong wind, however, forced him down in a meadow behind Dover Castle. St Margaret’s Bay was the first part of the English coast which Bleriot saw.

Bleriot was a man of high moral courage and integrity. In 1912 the French Government was concerned at the number of fatal accidents to monoplanes. Bleriot was asked to investigate the cause of these accidents and report to the Government. In each of these crashes the monoplane wings had collapsed when the pilot had pushed the stick forward. Bleriot discovered that the act of pushing the stick forward caused considerable strain on the top surface of the wings and that the landing wires, which were designed merely to support the wings at rest on the ground, were unable to bear this extra load.

When he was asked to make the investigation Bleriot was not only the largest maker of monoplanes in the world, but he was also the chief contractor to the French Government. These facts did not deter him from making a frank report to the Government. He knew that it might mean personal ruin, but he was a pilot who had risked his own life, and nothing could have influenced him to do anything that would risk the lives of others. The French Government then decreed that no Service monoplane must fly again until it had been reconstructed on the lines suggested by Bleriot.

Some of the most outstanding achievements of the early days of the aeroplane were made on Bleriot machines.

Claude Grahame-White won the Gordon-Bennett Cup Race in America in 1910. Grahame-White had taken a Henri Farman machine to America, but when he saw that nearly all the foreign competitors had fast monoplanes, he cabled to Bleriot and asked for one of his racing monoplanes. Bleriot sent a single-seat racing monoplane, and with this machine, which was fitted with a 14-cylinder rotary Gnome engine, Grahame-White won the contest.

In the same year and with the same machine Grahame-White won the thirty-three miles race round Boston, America, and he also won the thirty-three miles race from Belmont Park, round the Statue of Liberty and back to Belmont.

Many of the most important races of 1911 were won by pilots who flew Bleriot machines. Gustav Hamel won the race from Brooklands to Brighton, and Lieut. de V. Conneau won the European Circuit and the Circuit of Britain.

The first Aerial Derby in Great Britain was won by T. O. M. Sopwith, in 1912, when he flew the circuit of London on a Bleriot fitted with a Gnome engine.

When the war of 1914-18 came, Bleriot’s machines were in great demand. Single-seaters and two-seater tandems of the Type Onze were used at the beginning of the war, but Bleriot machines as such were not subsequently used in large numbers. The reason for this was that Bleriot concentrated his efforts on the Deperdussin works, which he had bought. The aeroplanes from those works were made by Bleriot, and among the most famous was the Spad, a type which was flown by British and French pilots during the war. At the end of the war Bleriot’s works were making eighteen aeroplanes a day.

After the Armistice and until his death, in August 1936, Bleriot personally supervised the designs and construction of a wide variety of aircraft, including high speed machines and large four-engined flying boats.

THE PASSENGER AEROPLANE flown by Bleriot at the first Rheims air meeting in 1909. To avoid onlookers, Bleriot was forced to make a quick landing in this machine when carrying a passenger. The landing was successful, but the aeroplane ran along the ground into a fence. No one was injured.

[From Part 18 and Part 19, published 5 and 12 July 1938]

You can read more on “Conquest of the North Atlantic”, “The First to Australia” and

“World-Wide French Services” on this website.

Louis Bleriot: The First Aviator to Fly the Channel