On July 25, 1909, French aviator, inventor and engineer Louis Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air machine from Calais, France to Dover, England, in 37 minutes. Unfortunately, due to my American-centric education I suppose and despite a boyhood interest in aviation as it pertained to the Wright Brothers and Lindbergh, I don’t recall ever hearing about Blériot until I taught an English lesson in Thailand a few years ago. The course book we were using compared his feats with those of the Apollo 11 astronauts (“From Planes to Rockets in Sixty Years”). The students appeared to be more interested in giving examples as to why it was “impossible” for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and successive U.S. space missions to have landed on the Moon (many Thai people seem to believe it was all a hoax).
Now properly informed of Blériot’s short flight and other accomplishments, I am beginning to seek out stamps bearing him or one of his planes to add to my “Pioneers in Aviation” collection. In addition to his 1909 flight, he developed the first practical headlamp for cars and established a profitable business manufacturing them, using much of the money he made to finance his attempts to build a successful aircraft. Blériot was also the first to make a working, powered, piloted monoplane and was the founder of a successful aircraft manufacturing company.
Born on July 1, 1872, at No.17h rue de l’Arbre à Poires (now rue Sadi-Carnot) in Cambrai, north-eastern France, Louis Charles Joseph Bleriot was the first of five children born to Clémence and Charles Blériot. In 1882, aged 10, Blériot was sent as a boarder to the Institut Notre Dame in Cambrai, where he frequently won class prizes, including one for engineering drawing. When he was 15, he moved on to the Lycée at Amiens, where he lived with an aunt. After passing the exams for his baccalaureate in science and German, he determined to try to enter the prestigious École Centrale in Paris. Entrance was by a demanding exam for which special tuition was necessary: consequently Blériot spent a year at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris. He passed the exam, placing 74th among the 243 successful candidates, and doing especially well in the tests of engineering drawing ability. After three years of demanding study at the École Centrale, Blériot graduated 113th of 203 in his graduating class. He then embarked on a term of compulsory military service, and spent a year as a sub-lieutenant in the 24th Artillery Regiment, stationed in Tarbes in the Pyrenees.
He got a job with Baguès, an electrical engineering company in Paris. He left the company after developing the world’s first practical headlamp for automobiles, using a compact integral acetylene generator. In 1897, Blériot opened a showroom for headlamps at 41 rue de Richlieu in Paris. The business was successful, and soon he was supplying his lamps to both Renault and Panhard-Levassor, two of the foremost automobile manufacturers of the day.
In October 1900, Blériot was lunching in his usual restaurant near his showroom when his eye was caught by a young woman lunching with her parents. That evening, he told his mother “I saw a young woman today. I will marry her, or I will marry no one.” A bribe to a waiter secured details of her identity; she was Alice Védères, the daughter of a retired army officer. Blériot set about courting her with the same determination that he would later bring to his aviation experiments, and on February 21, 1901, the couple were married.
Blériot had become interested in aviation while at the Ecole Centrale, but his serious experimentation was probably sparked by seeing Clément Ader’s Avion III at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. By then his headlamp business was doing well enough for Blériot to be able to devote both time and money to experimentation. His first experiments were with a series of ornithopters, which were unsuccessful. In April 1905, Blériot met Gabriel Voisin, then employed by Ernest Archdeacon to assist with his experimental gliders.
Blériot was a spectator at Voisin’s first trials of the floatplane glider he had built on June 8, 1905. Cine photography was among Blériot’s hobbies, and the film footage of this flight was shot by him. The success of these trials prompted him to commission a similar machine from Voisin, the Blériot II glider. On July 18, an attempt to fly this aircraft was made, ending in a crash in which Voisin nearly drowned, but this did not deter Blériot. Indeed, he suggested that Voisin should stop working for Archdeacon and enter into partnership with him. Voisin accepted the proposal, and the two men established the Ateliers d’ Aviation Edouard Surcouf, Blériot et Voisin. Active between 1905 and 1906, the company built two unsuccessful powered aircraft, the Blériot III and the Blériot IV, largely a rebuild of its predecessor. Both these aircraft were powered with the lightweight Antoinette engines being developed by Léon Levavasseur. Blériot became a shareholder in the company, and in May 1906, joined the board of directors.
The Blériot IV was damaged in a taxiing accident at Bagatelle on November 12, 1906. The disappointment of the failure of his aircraft was compounded by the success of Alberto Santos Dumont later that day, when he managed to fly his 14-bis canard biplane a distance of 720 feet (220 m), winning the Aéro Club de France prize for the first flight of over 100 meters. This also took place at Bagatelle, and was witnessed by Blériot. The partnership with Voisin was dissolved and Blériot established his own business, Recherches Aéronautiques Louis Blériot, where he started creating his own aircraft, experimenting with various configurations and eventually creating the world’s first successful powered monoplane.
The first of these, the canard configuration Blériot V, was first tried on March 21, 1907, when Blériot limited his experiments to ground runs, which resulted in damage to the undercarriage. Two further ground trials, also damaging the aircraft, were undertaken, followed by another attempt on April 5. The flight was only of around 20 feet (6 m), after which he cut his engine and landed, slightly damaging the undercarriage. More trials followed, the last on April 19 when, travelling at a speed of around 30 miles per hour (50 km/h), the aircraft left the ground, Blériot over-responded when the nose began to rise, and the machine hit the ground nose–first, and somersaulted. The aircraft was largely destroyed, but Blériot was, by great good fortune, unhurt. The engine of the aircraft was immediately behind his seat, and he was very lucky not to have been crushed by it.
This was followed by the Blériot VI, a tandem wing design, first tested on July 7, when the aircraft failed to lift off. Blériot then enlarged the wings slightly, and on 11 July a short successful flight of around 84-100 feet (25–30 meters) was made, reaching an altitude of around 7 feet (2 m). This was Blériot’s first truly successful flight. Further successful flights took place that month, and by July 25 he had managed a flight of 490 feet (150 m). On August 6, he managed to reach an altitude of 39 feet (12 m), but one of the blades of the propeller worked loose, resulting in a heavy landing which damaged the aircraft. He then fitted a 50 hp (37 kW) V-16 Antoinette engine. Tests on September 17 showed a startling improvement in performance: the aircraft quickly reached an altitude of 82 feet (25 m), when the engine suddenly cut out and the aircraft went into a spiraling nosedive. In desperation Blériot climbed out of his seat and threw himself towards the tail. The aircraft partially pulled out of the dive, and came to earth in a more or less horizontal attitude. His only injuries were some minor cuts on the face, caused by fragments of glass from his broken goggles. After this crash Blériot abandoned the aircraft, concentrating on his next machine.
This, the Blériot VII, was a monoplane with tail surfaces arranged in what has become, apart from its use of differential elevators movement for lateral control, the modern conventional layout. This aircraft, which first flew on November 16, 1907, has been recognized as the first successful monoplane. On December 6, Blériot managed two flights of over 500 meters, including a successful U-turn. This was the most impressive achievement to date of any of the French pioneer aviators, causing Patrick Alexander to write to Major Baden Baden-Powell, president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, “I got back from Paris last night. I think Blériot with his new machine is leading the way”. Two more successful flights were made on December 18, but the undercarriage collapsed after the second flight; the aircraft overturned and was wrecked.
Blériot’s next aircraft, the Blériot VIII was shown to the press in February 1908. This was a failure in its first form, but after modifications it proved successful, and on October 31, 1908, he succeeded in making a cross-country flight, making a round trip from Toury to Arteny and back, a total distance of 17 miles (28 km). This was not the first cross-country flight by a narrow margin, since Henri Farman had flown from Bouy to Rheims, the preceding day. Four days later, the aircraft was destroyed in a taxiing accident.
Three different aircraft were displayed at the first Paris Aero Salon, held at the end of December: the Blériot IX monoplane, the Blériot X, a three-seat pusher biplane and the Blériot XI, which would go on to be his most successful model. The first two of the designs, which used Antoinette engines, never flew, possibly because at this time, Blériot severed his connection with the Antoinette company, because the company had begun to design and construct aircraft as well as engines, presenting Blériot with a conflict of interests.
The Blériot XI was a tractor-configuration monoplane with a partially covered box-girder fuselage built from ash with wire cross bracing. The principal difference was the use of wing warping for lateral control. The tail surfaces consisted of a small balanced “all-moving” rudder mounted on the rearmost vertical member of the fuselage and a horizontal tailplane mounted under the lower longerons. This had elevator surfaces making up the outermost part of the fixed horizontal surface; these “tip elevators” were linked by a torque tube running through the inner section. The bracing and warping wires were attached to a dorsal, five-component “house-roof” shaped cabane consisting of a pair of inverted V struts with their apices connected by a longitudinal tube, and an inverted four-sided pyramidal ventral cabane, also of steel tubing, below. When first built it had a wingspan of 7 m (23 ft) and a small teardrop-shaped fin mounted on the cabane, which was later removed.
Like its predecessor, it had the engine mounted directly in front of the leading edge of the wing and the main undercarriage was also like that of the Type VIII, with the wheels mounted in castering trailing arms which could slide up and down steel tubes, the movement being sprung by bungee cords. This simple and ingenious design allowed crosswind landings with less risk of damage. A sprung tailwheel was fitted to the rear fuselage in front of the tailplane, with a similar castering arrangement.
When shown at the Paris Aero Salon in December 1908, the aircraft was powered by a 35 hp (26 kW) 7-cylinder R.E.P. engine driving a four-bladed paddle-type propeller. The aircraft was first flown at Issy-les-Moulineaux on January 23, 1909, but although the aircraft handled well, the engine proved extremely unreliable and, at the suggestion of his mechanic Ferdinand Collin, Blériot made contact with Alessandro Anzani, a famous motorcycle racer whose successes were due to the engines that he made, and who had recently entered the field of aero-engine manufacture. Importantly, Anzani was associated with Lucien Chauviere, who had designed a sophisticated laminated walnut propeller. The combination of a reliable engine and an efficient propeller would contribute greatly to the success of the Type XI.
On May 27, 1909, a 25 hp (19 kW) Anzani 3-cylinder fan-configuration (semi-radial) engine was fitted. The propeller was also replaced with a Chauvière Intégrale two-bladed propeller made from laminated walnut wood. This propeller design was a major advance in French aircraft technology and was the first European propeller to rival the efficiency of the propellers used by the Wright Brothers.
During early July, Blériot was occupied with flight trials of a new aircraft, the two-seater Type XII, but resumed flying the Type XI on July 18. By then, the small cabane fin had been removed and the wingspan increased by 31 inches (79 cm). On June 25, he made a flight lasting 15 minutes and 30 seconds, his longest to date, and the following day increased this personal record to 36 minutes 55 seconds. On July 13, Blériot won the Aero Club de France’s first Prix du Voyage with a 26-mile (42 km) flight between Etampes and Orléans.
The Blériot XII, a high-wing two-seater monoplane first flown on May 21, and for a while Blériot concentrated on flying this machine, flying it with a passenger on July 2, and on July 12 making the world’s first flight with two passengers, one of whom was Santos Dumont. A few days later the crankshaft of the E.N.V. engine broke, and Blériot resumed trials of the Type XI. At the end of June, he took part in an aviation meet at Douai, where he made a flight lasting over 47 minutes in the Type XII on July 3: the following day he flew the Type XI for 50 minutes at another meet at Juvisy, and on July 13, he made a cross-country flight of 25 miles (41 km) from Etampes to Orléans. Blériot’s determination is shown by the fact that during the flight at Douai made on July 3 part of the asbestos insulation worked loose from the exhaust pipe after 15 minutes in the air. After half an hour, one of his shoes had been burnt through and he was in considerable pain, but nevertheless continued his flight until engine failure ended the flight. Blériot suffered third-degree burns, and his injuries took over two months to heal.
On June 16, 1909, Blériot and Voisin were jointly awarded the Prix Osiris, awarded by the Institut de France every three years to the Frenchman who had made the greatest contribution to science. Three days later, on June 19, he informed the Daily Mail of his intention to make an attempt to win the thousand-pound prize offered by the paper for a successful crossing of the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft.
The Daily Mail prize was first announced in October 1908, with a prize of £500 being offered for a flight made before the end of the year. When 1908 passed with no serious attempt being made, the prize money was doubled to £1,000 and the offer extended to the end of 1909. Like some of the other prizes offered by the paper, it was widely seen as nothing more than a way to gain cheap publicity: the Paris newspaper Le Matin commenting that there was no chance of the prize being won.
The English Channel had been crossed by an unmanned hydrogen balloon in 1784 and a manned crossing by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries followed in 1785.
Blériot, who intended to fly across the Channel in his Type XI monoplane, had three rivals for the prize, the most serious being Hubert Latham, a French national of English extraction flying an Antoinette IV monoplane. He was favored by both the United Kingdom and France to win. The others were Charles de Lambert, a Russian aristocrat with French ancestry, and one of Wilbur Wright’s pupils, and Arthur Seymour, an Englishman who reputedly owned a Voisin biplane. De Lambert got as far as establishing a base at Wissant, near Calais, but Seymour did nothing beyond submitting his entry to the Daily Mail. Lord Northcliffe, who had befriended Wilbur Wright during his sensational 1908 public demonstrations in France, had offered the prize hoping that Wilbur would win. Wilbur wanted to make an attempt and cabled brother Orville in the USA. Orville, then recuperating from serious injuries sustained in a crash, replied telling him not to make the Channel attempt until he could come to France and assist. Also Wilbur had already amassed a fortune in prize money for altitude and duration flights and had secured sales contracts for the Wright Flyer with the French, Italians, British and Germans; his tour in Europe was essentially complete by the summer of 1909. Both brothers saw the Channel reward of only a thousand pounds as insignificant considering the dangers of the flight.
Latham arrived in Calais in early July, and set up his base at Sangatte in the semi-derelict buildings which had been constructed for an early attempt to dig a tunnel under the Channel. The event was the subject of great public interest; it was reported that there were 10,000 visitors at Calais and a similar crowd at Dover. The Marconi Company set up a special radio link for the occasion, with one station on Cap Blanc Nez at Sangatte and the other on the roof of the Lord Warden Hotel in Dover. The crowds were in for a wait: the weather was windy, and Latham did not make an attempt until July 19, but 6 miles (9.7 km) from his destination his aircraft developed engine trouble and was forced to make the world’s first landing of an aircraft on the sea. Latham was rescued by the French destroyer Harpon and taken back to France, where he was met by the news that Blériot had entered the competition. Blériot, accompanied by two mechanics and his friend Alfred Leblanc, arrived in Calais on Wednesday July 21 and set up their base at a farm near the beach at Les Baraques, between Calais and Sangatte. The following day a replacement aircraft for Latham was delivered from the Antoinette factory. The wind was too strong for an attempted crossing on Friday and Saturday, but on Saturday evening it began to drop, raising hopes in both camps.
Leblanc went to bed at around midnight but was too keyed up to sleep well; at two o’clock, he was up, and judging that the weather was ideal woke Blériot who, unusually, was pessimistic and had to be persuaded to eat breakfast. His spirits revived, however, and by half past three, his wife Alice had been put on board the destroyer Escopette, which was to escort the flight.
At 4:15 am on the July 25, 1909, watched by an excited crowd, Blériot made a short trial flight in his Type XI, and then, on a signal that the sun had risen (the competition rules required a flight between sunrise and sunset), he took off at 4:41 for the attempted crossing. Flying at approximately 45 mph (72 km/h) and an altitude of about 250 feet (76 m), he set off across the Channel. Not having a compass, Blériot took his course from the Escopette, which was heading for Dover, but he soon overtook the ship. The visibility deteriorated, and he later said, “for more than 10 minutes I was alone, isolated, lost in the midst of the immense sea, and I did not see anything on the horizon or a single ship”.
The grey line of the English coast, however, came into sight on his left; the wind had increased, and had blown him to the east of his intended course. Altering course, he followed the line of the coast about a mile offshore until he spotted Charles Fontaine, the correspondent from Le Matin waving a large French Tricolor as a signal. Unlike Latham, Blériot had not visited Dover to find a suitable spot to land, and the choice had been made by Fontaine, who had selected a patch of gently sloping land called Northfall Meadow, close to Dover Castle, where there was a low point in the cliffs. Once over land, he circled twice to lose height, and cut his engine at an altitude of about 66 feet (20 m), making a heavy “pancake” landing due to the gusty wind conditions; the undercarriage was damaged and one blade of the propeller was shattered, but Blériot was unhurt. The flight had taken 36 minutes and 30 seconds.
News of his departure had been sent by radio to Dover, but it was generally expected that he would attempt to land on the beach to the west of the town. The Daily Mail correspondent, realizing that Blériot had landed near the castle, set off at speed in a motor car and took Blériot to the harbor, where he was reunited with his wife. The couple, surrounded by a cheering crowd and photographers, were then taken to the Lord Warden Hotel at the foot of the Admiralty Pier; Blériot had become a celebrity.
The Blériot Memorial, the outline of the aircraft laid out in granite setts in the turf (funded by oil manufacturer Alexander Duckham), marks his landing spot above the cliffs near Dover Castle. The aircraft which was used in the crossing is now preserved in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
Blériot’s success brought about an immediate transformation of the status of Recherches Aéronautiques Louis Blériot. By the time of the Channel flight, he had spent at least 780,000 francs on his aviation experiments. To put this figure into context, one of Blériot’s skilled mechanics was paid 250 francs a month. Now this investment began to pay off: orders for copies of the Type XI quickly came, and by the end of the year, orders for over 100 aircraft had been received, each selling for 10,000 francs.
At the end of August, Blériot was one of the flyers at the Grande Semaine d’Aviation held at Reims, where he was narrowly beaten by Glenn Curtiss in the first Gordon Bennett Trophy. Blériot did, however, succeed in winning the prize for the fastest lap of the circuit, establishing a new world speed record for aircraft.
Blériot followed his flights at Reims with appearances at other aviation meetings in Brescia, Budapest, Bucharest in 1909 (making the first airplane flights in both Hungary and Romania). Up to this time he had had great good luck in walking away from accidents that had destroyed the aircraft, but his luck deserted him in December 1910 at an aviation meeting in Istanbul. Flying in gusty conditions to placate an impatient and restive crowd, he crashed on top of a house, breaking several ribs and suffering internal injuries: he was hospitalized for three weeks.
Between 1909 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Blériot produced about 900 aircraft, most of them variations of the Type XI model. Blériot monoplanes and Voisin-type biplanes, with the latter’s Farman derivatives dominated the pre-war aviation market. There were concerns about the safety of monoplanes in general, both in France and the UK. The French government grounded all monoplanes in the French Army from February 1912 after accidents to four Blériots, but lifted it after trials in May supported Blériot’s analysis of the problem and led to a strengthening of the landing wires. The brief but influential ban on the use of monoplanes by the Military Wing (though not the Naval Wing) in the UK was triggered by accidents to other manufacturer’s aircraft; Blériots were not involved.
Along with five other European aircraft builders, from 1910, Blériot was involved in a five-year legal struggle with the Wright Brothers over the latter’s wing warping patents. The Wrights’ claim was dismissed in the French and the German courts.
From 1913 or earlier, Blériot’s aviation activities were handled by Blériot Aéronautique, based at Suresnes, which continued to design and produce aircraft up to the nationalization of most of the French aircraft industry in 1937, when it was absorbed into SNCASO.
In 1913, a consortium led by Blériot bought the Société pour les Appareils Deperdussin aircraft manufacturer and he became the president of the company in 1914. He renamed it the Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés (SPAD); this company produced World War I fighter aircraft such as the SPAD S.XIII.
Before World War I, Blériot had opened British flying schools at Brooklands, in Surrey and at Hendon Aerodrome. Realizing that a British company would have more chance to sell his models to the British government, in 1915, he set up the Blériot Manufacturing Aircraft Company Ltd. The hoped for orders did not follow, as the Blériot design was seen as outdated. Following an unresolved conflict over control of the company, it was wound up on July 24, 1916. Even before the closure of this company Blériot was planning a new venture in the UK. Initially named Blériot and SPAD Ltd and based in Addlestone, it became the Air Navigation and Engineering Company (ANEC) in May 1918. ANEC survived in a difficult aviation climate until late 1926, producing Blériot-Whippet cars as well as several light aircraft.
In 1927, Blériot, long retired from flying, was present to welcome Charles Lindbergh when he landed at Le Bourget field completing his transatlantic flight. The two men, separated in age by 30 years, had each made history by crossing famous bodies of water. Together, they participated in a famous photo opportunity in Paris. Fittingly, the success of Lindbergh’s crossing was as much a success for Bleriot as he had been one of the few early pilots to have fostered and championed the monoplane design in the pioneer era. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was a monoplane.
In 1934, Blériot visited Newark Airport in New Jersey and predicted commercial overseas flights by 1938. Blériot remained active in the aviation business until his death on August 1, 1936, in Paris due to a heart attack. After a funeral with full military honours at Les Invalides, he was buried in the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles.
In his honor, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale established the “Louis Blériot medal” in 1936. The medal may be awarded up to three times a year to record setters in speed, altitude and distance categories in light aircraft, and is still being awarded.
On July 25, 2009, the centenary of the original Channel crossing, Frenchman Edmond Salis took off from Blériot Beach in an exact replica of Blériot’s monoplane. He landed successfully in Kent at the Duke of York’s Royal Military School.
I don’t (yet) have any Bleriot stamps from France, but I do have one from Germany (and one from North Korea). Germany released a set of four semi-postal stamps on April 13, 1978, promoting aviation (Scott #B549-552). The surtax went to benefit youth activities (Stamp World says “youth hostel”). The 30-pfennig + 15-pfennig value pictured a balloon ascent that occurred at Munich’s Oktoberfest in 1820 (Scott #B549), a 40-pfennig + 20-pfennig denomination portrayed the airship LZ-1 from 1900 (Scott #B550), the Grade monoplane of 1909 featured on the 70-pfennig + 35-pfennig high value (Scott #B552) while the Bleriot XI is on a 50-pfennig + 25-pfennig stamp (Scott #B551). These were printed by lithography and perforated 14.