Louis Blériot


LOUIS BLÉRIOT (Cambrai 1872Paris 1936

25th July 2009

by Graham Woods

South Foreland: for Dover turn left; right for St. Margaret's Bay

I was there! I was there when Yves Rossi arrived by jet-propelled wing at the South Foreland lighthouse on top of Albion’s cliffs between Dover and St. Margaret’s Bay. I knew he was coming that day but I arrived quite by accident at the right time after a visit to Dover.

I came upon a crowd on the cliff road; I heard the helicopters first and, after an age, finally saw him strapped to his model airplane wing parachuting down from a cerulean blue sky, it was Friday, September 26th 2008...

Yves Rossi over the sea
YVES ROSSI (Switzerland 1959 - 20**)

Notice Board at Memorial

Dover is an odd place, this coast is truly liminal as well as littoral, it is a place that aliens head for and from where natives hurry away. Today's two-way traffic sees, it seems, every dispossessed wretch from overseas aiming for Dover in the back of a truck while wealthy patriots head for holiday homes in the Dordogne or Tuscany driving smart 4x4s.

In history, Julius Caesar landed on this coast in 55BC and fought on the beaches between Dover and Deal with the woad tattooed, promiscuous, drinking and brawling Brittunculi (no change there then). Claudius came later in AD43. The Romans eventually made Dover their port of entry, building and maintaining a pharos on the cliffs either side of the port for their ships to aim for. The Germans had Dover in their sights for Operation Sea Lion during WWII.

In 1909, Louis Blériot was another heading this way...

Yves Rossi had had to wait for the weather like Blériot a century before him, Rossi leapt from a plane at 2500-m and his journey took 9 minutes; Blériot took off from a Calais beach and took 37 minutes. Rossi had an epoxy carbon fibre cloth wing, Blériot used double skin Continental fabric [Unbleached linen and nitrocellulose dope, one imagines] Rossi used Jet-A1 in four jet-turbines, Blériot used kerosene in three cylinders, Rossi had a chase helicopter, Blériot a fast boat. Both followed the same flight path and crossed the same 35-km stretch of water a ten decades apart. In this centenary year, I look back on Louis Blériot and his achievement in an article I wrote some time ago using text taken from the notice board above for details.

Blériot Memorial Dover before its 2009 clean-up

From the air - click on the image for the wider bird's eye view

It’s damp, very damp... it’s now October. The rain seems to be never ending. As I park, the rain turns to a steady spray, a mist gassing from a leaden, saturated sky. I make my way down a muddy path lush and slippery with fluorescent green mosses. I brush past dank thicket festooned with water droplets hanging like diamond cabochons; they soak me more than the drizzle ever could.

I step into a small clearing and here it is—the monument to one man’s historic achievement almost a century ago—a 6-m granite silhouette set in the grass. Ten decades ago, this was a very different place; there was no blackthorn or bramble just a long-lost grass and wild-flower meadow. The information board explains the heroic exploit of a bygone age. I try to imagine what it was like then...

The year was 1909, the tail end of La Belle Époque in France and of the Edwardian Era in England; it was 25th July when Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the English Channel. Blériot was, in fact, the first man to make an overseas flight. He gained worldwide recognition; new technologies came thick and fast in those days and they were publicly celebrated widely.

The Channel Crossing was the culmination of 9 years of experimentation for the French auto engineer and inventor and the final lap of a gentlemanly race that was going on at the time. M. Hubert Latham, a rival Frenchman had failed, just 6 days earlier, to make the crossing in HIS monoplane, the Antoinette. But for Latham's accident his name might have been the name to go down in the history books.

Louis Blériot

Side & Plan View


The drama began at around 4.30am, dawning had occurred some 40 minutes earlier, we are told. Dressed in his French-blue engineer’s overalls, covering tweed clothes lined with wool for warmth, Louis looked around him determined to accomplish a historic flight. With his close fitting cap pulled tight about his head and ears, he spoke to friend M. Le Blanc who was scanning the horizon endeavouring to catch sight of Albion under Aurora’s light. Le Blanc said the wind was light and from the southwest. “Tout est prêt!”, he said.

At 4.41am French time, when Blériot took off into the mist, a throng of spectators had gathered on a Sunday morning to witness the making of history. Louis is said to have wryly asked an English reporter covering the event, "Weech way eez Do-verr?", for there were no aerial navigation devices in those days. The aircraft climbed away from the sand dunes of Les Baraques, a small village near Calais, shaking under the strain of its 1200 revolutions as it cleared the telegraph wires along the cliff.

His takeoff was the prelude to a perilous flight. Blériot had injured himself days earlier in a fuel explosion and his rival, Latham, too had recently had a ditching accident; one imagines Louis felt ready, if a bit serious minded, after the watery events that overtook his rival Hubert Latham.

Blériot's only piece of safety equipment was an inflatable rubber tube in the middle of the fuselage, just less than 2-metres long, that he hoped might provide some buoyancy should he have to ditch in the channel. Fortunately, a fast rescue boat, the Escopette, was at hand in the event of an accident.


Shortly after his little plane took off and disappeared into the low cloud at 100-metres, Blériot lost sight of his motor torpedo ‘chase boat’ below. It was chosen for its 21-knot speed though it was not fast enough to keep up with the 38-knot monoplane! If this was worrying then the imminent failure of his unreliable Anzani 25 cheveaux engine as it began to overheat and lose power must have started to panic him. Providentially, a pantheon of capricious weather gods was watching Louis keenly that morning as they threw a small squall at him: the sudden downpour cooled his three tiny engine cylinders and he was able to push on.

Modern Replica

The squall, of course, interrupted the south-westerly zephyrs of the early morning with 20-knot gusts that buffeted his fragile plane and threw if off course. Unbeknown to him, he was heading towards St. Margaret’s Bay, too far north. Nevertheless, Blériot spluttered on blindly, blithely unaware exactly where, or even if, he would make landfall; he must have been relieved to see the English Coast, the White Cliffs and the Castle. He turned south and made for Shakespeare Cliff on the other, southern side, of Dover harbour.

Blériot arrival at North Fall Meadow, note Tricouleur and Dover Castle


As he approached the coast, Blériot searched for the gap in the cliffs and saw a man, a friend, M. Charles Fontaine, waving a ‘French Tricoleur’. Fontaine had been charged with finding a landing site. At 5.12am the intrepid Frenchman ‘landed’ on English soil after a 37 minute flight from Calais at 5:14 local time, his average speed was just 39-knots.

"The speed was almost incredible...",
said the chief at the Dover Custom's station. Blériot bent his propeller and landing gear on arrival on the hillside called ‘North Fall Meadow’ in the shadow of the forbidding castle. Fontaine had made his way to the landing site after he received a telegram reporting a takeoff from France. Funnily enough, Fontaine had actually been expecting Latham and was shocked to see Blériot tumbling from the crashed craft.

This historic feat of aviation, however, did not overwhelm H.M. Customs who promptly arrived to register Blériot’s arrival in England. Being the first foreign aeroplane to cross British borders there were no official forms for the aircraft and, presumably, largely being of 'string and canvas', it was finally registered as a yacht!

An excited crowd welcomed him in Dover; then he was fêted in London where Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail presented him a silver cup and his £1000 winnings (two £500 notes); later, his aircraft was put on display in Selfridge’s Department store where 12,000 people are said to have queued to see Gallic leading edge technology! The store owner donated £200 to a London hospital for the privilege. A Blériot monument was cut the following year in February; it sports a memorial stone presented to the Royal Aero Club. (see image below)

Hubert Latham crashes into sea just short of English coastTHE RIVALRY

Herbert Latham and another flier, the Compte de Lambert, were already in Calais with their machines when Blériot arrived for the ‘dash for cash’, as we would say these days. A few days earlier as I mentioned, Latham had tried a crossing, he had taken off from the cliffs at Cap Grand Nez for England and flown 12-km. before his engine failed and he crashed in the sea. Semi-submerged, he and his aircraft were rescued by a motor boat.

On that fateful morning of the 25th July, Latham’s advisers had let him sleep late as they thought the wind was too strong for an attempt at the prize. Latham learned later that day that he was beaten but still made a second attempt to cross the channel four days later on the 29th when the weather improved. That mission failed too - he crashed into the sea just 500-metres out from the English shore (image right). He did, however, win a prize later in the year for recording the highest ever altitude gain of 155-metres.

                                            THE AEROPLANEBlériot monoplane, note RFC roundel

Blériot was an avid inventor and aeroplane builder, one of his inventions being the Calcium Carbide/acetylene car lamp. The 25-hp monoplane in which he made the flight had a three cylinder air-cooled Anzani engine; it was his eleventh aircraft - hence its novel name - the Blériot XI! He had experimented with towing gliders by motor boat on the River Seine and then, as lightweight engines became available, he developed aircraft of various types ranging from box-kite look-alikes, to a canard monoplane to a strange floatplane with elliptical wings. The impetus for the flurry of French coast activity was the prospect of winning the £1000 reward for the first successful channel crossing offered by the Daily Mail which he won.


There were political consequences of the flight — Lloyd George,
the farsighted Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer made:

"Flying machines are no longer toys and dreams, they are established fact.
The possibilities of this new system of locomotion are infinite, I feel as a Britisher,
rather ashamed that we are so completely out of it.”


Airframe improvements and larger, more reliable engines led to several single and two seat versions of the aircraft. Blériot was later associated with the makers of the famous Spad fighter. After the war, he formed his own company for the development of commercial aircraft. He died in Paris in 1936. Blériot went on to build somewhere around 10,000 aircraft for the French government and the Allies during World War I. By the next year, the Blériot XI was in use by the French and Italian military. Britain began flying it in 1912. When WWI began, there were eight squadrons of Blériot XI variants in the French Air Service, seven in the Royal Flying Corps and six in the Italian Air Service.

Graham Woods

Now click here for Harriet Quimby Centenary

Memorial stone