France, especially in the north, has long had aeroplanes and aviation entrenched in its genes. There have been many great French air pioneers both male and female. Louis Bleriot was born in Cambrai and he was perhaps one of the greatest exponents.
Louis Bleriot, Aviator
Bleriot, from his earliest adult days, had an instinct for design, invention and engineering. He initially found success in the new and emerging motor industry. He made money by designing and producing a new and efficient form of car headlamp. His passion however, lay in the sky. He went on to develop the ‘Aeroplage’ or seaside beach-based land yacht. Later, Bleriot experimented with model Ornithopters. Then the American Wright brothers came along. They inspired him to get into building and flying his own man carrying aircraft. It would not be long before he made history.
Bleriot developed the monoplane: an aircraft with one set of wings instead of two. This was radical engineering stuff at the beginning of the twentieth century. Bleriot designed a number of similar types. He flew them himself and crashed them himself. He was able to walk away from the slow moving and impact absorbing structures on every occasion. He finally came up with the ‘Bleriot X1’ aircraft type. He fitted it with the Italian Anzani combustion engine that had a reputation for reliability. Engine types of the day could only run for about 20 minutes before they over heated and stopped. The Anzani engine would go on almost for ever and that was a game changer. Louis Bleriot became the first person to fly across the channel from France to England in his Italian powered French aeroplane on July 25, 1909.
The first flight across the English Channel
This was the first ever air link between England and France and it won Bleriot a British Daily Mail newspaper prize of a £1000. The flight took place from Baraques near Calais, and ended with a bump close to Dover castle in Kent. The flight took 36 minutes and 30 seconds. History had been made.
Bleriot was awake very early in the morning on the day of the flight. The weather report and observation looked good and the wind was just a gentle breeze. All was close to perfect conditions. He performed a short test flight of his aircraft across the French dunes and decided all was on for the attempt. He re-filled the fuel tank, made a few final checks and took off. He headed for the coast of England at 04.30 in the morning.
The French government provided a navel escort. The destroyer ‘Escopette’ set off at the same time and Bleriot’s new wife was on board.
Bleriot pointed his aircraft at what he could see of the English coast. He had no compass and apparently carried no watch. He climbed to about 150 feet and the speed settled at around 45 miles an hour. This was faster than the escorting vessel and he overtook it.
The wind strengthened a bit and mist began to form. Bleriot lost sight of everything and just looked down at the grey water beneath him. He kept the wings level and kept his aircraft as straight as he could. This was the pure pioneering of the greatest magnitude and Bleriot knew it in his very soul.
He was headed for St. Margaret’s Bay on the Kent coast but could not find it. He saw the English headland and turned left.
A successful landing
The arrival of Bleriot as he approached the English coast was heard by the British Chief Coastguard Officer at his station. He reported a loud, continuous buzzing noise whilst the aircraft was still some miles away. The coastguard station finally observed the aircraft arriving. They reported the speed as ‘almost incredible’ as the aircraft made landfall.
He landed through a gap in the cliffs at Northfall Meadow just by Dover Castle. He had sighted a flag waved by a representative of the supporting Le Matin group. A Mr P C Stanford was the one and only witness to view the landing of the very first flight to England from France. It finished with a mild collision with some trees and the aircraft was damaged but not too badly. Once again, Bleriot scrambled from the wreckage declaring ‘But I have crossed the channel’.
Bleriot was met by a British customs officer who was required to check for any contraband that was being imported illegally. The confused officer declared Bleriot to be just one of those ‘foreign aviator types’ and allowed to him to pass.
Temporarily, the aircraft was covered by a tent in its landing location. A fee of sixpence was charged to the many visitors who wished to view the aircraft at close quarters. The money was forwarded to charity.
Bleriot on his arrival was dressed to protect from the elements in a cork jacket and overalls on loan from a Mr. Hart O. Berg. Berg held the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and the clothing was adorned with the ribbon. Prior to the flight, Bleriot wanted to remove the decoration but Mr. Berg told him to keep it on. If he succeeded in the flight, Mr Berg said, the French Government would surely endow Bleriot with the same in any case. They certainly did. After breakfast the next morning, the French authorities made the award.
The damaged aircraft was acquired by Selfridges in London for a brief period. It was exhibited in their shop window in central London for everyone to see. It was an extraordinarily historic object to view.
Prior to the flight, Bleriot had arranged for the Italian Marconi radio company to provide a communication link across the channel. This was conducted from the French side and provided reliable warning of the aircraft’s approach. This was the first commercial use in the real sense of radio communication. A real double first for the Italians. Success of their Anzani engine and their invention of radio communication.
The start of modern aviation
Another Frenchman, Hubert Latham, had also attempted the air crossing of the English Channel. He set off a week before Bleriot but had failed and ditched in the sea. Latham was going to try again the same weekend as Bleriot but due to technical difficulties he remained on the French coast. Bleriot had always said that if Latham had succeeded at roughly the same time, he would have shared the Daily Mail prize with him.
After the flight whilst Bleriot was still in England, a huge civic reception was held in Dover and later a dinner in his honour at the Empire theatre in London. Animated films and photographs were shown as the flight events were imagined (no photos of film were taken during the flight).
These days a flight across the channel from coast to coast is nothing more than a quick hop. It has even been achieved in recent years by a one man, pedal powered flying machine. But in 1909, the flight was historic. It was a world event from which the extraordinary evolution of aviation moved on with a giant leap. It was a poignant achievement that has linked France and England in an aviation era ever since. The air forces of both nations fought as allies in the World Wars. Britain and France jointly together created the first supersonic airliner, Concorde. Nowadays, both nations are joined by a vast industrial link in the form of the world class Airbus Industries.
The original and restored Bleriot X1 aircraft flown on the celebrated flight can be visited in Paris. It is displayed in the Musee des Arts et Metiers.
More on the Aviation History of northern France
By Bob Lyons, ex pilot turned travel writer and total Francophile.