[blA ryO'] first person to fly an airplane across the English Channel
Louis Blériot was born in Cambrai, France, on July 1, 1872. After getting a degree in arts and trades from École Centrale Paris, he established a very successful acetylene headlamp business, and amassed a small fortune. He used that fortune to fund his experiments with heavier-than-air craft.
Blériot began his flight experiments with towed gliders on the Seine River, and then moved on to motor-powered aircraft. In 1900 he built a machine called an ornithopter, which was supposed to fly by means of flapping wings; it failed. In 1903, he and fellow airplane innovator Gabriel Voisin formed the Blériot-Voison Company, which built and flew a floatplane glider in 1905. The company was dissolved in 1906, after which he began building and flying aircraft of his own design.
Like most other aircraft designers of the day, Blériot initially worked with a variety of biplane designs, but then moved on to designing monoplanes. After several failures and crashes, he finally came up with the Blériot VII, which in 1907 flew a distance of 1,640 feet over Bagatelle, France. In 1908 he built an airplane with a control system for pilots that is still used (with improvements) to this day. Improvements on these designs resulted in the Blériot XI, the world's first truly successful monoplane, which he first flew at Issy-les-Moulineaux on January 23, 1909. After winning a prize for flying cross-country, he set his sights on claiming the £1000-prize being offered by the London Daily Mail for the first successful flight across the English Channel.
Blériot's historic flight began at 4:35 a.m. on July 25, 1909, when he took off from Les Barraques, France. Although the French government had arranged for a naval destroyer to act as an escort for his flight, Blériot quickly outpaced the ship and was soon out of sight of both land and escort. According to his journal, Blériot soon found himself in a thick cloud bank and literally flew blind for about ten minutes. Since he had no compass he could only do his best to keep the plane on a straight course and hope that he would spot land before he ran out of either gas or luck (or both). When he finally spotted the hills of Dover he saw that he was slightly off his intended course, but he made the necessary flight corrections and subsequently landed in a field near Dover. His flight had lasted 37 minutes, making it the longest-duration flight by a heavier-than-air craft to that day.
Having achieved a place in aviation history, Blériot once again began experimenting with aeronautical design and engineering. In 1914, he became president of the floundering aircraft company Société pour les Appareils Deperdussin. He renamed the company Société Pour Aviation et ses Derives (SPAD) and then turned it into one of France's leading manufacturers of combat aircraft. During World War I, SPAD built more than 5,000 fighter planes for France, and even exported some to Great Britain and other countries. After the war he formed Blériot-Aéronautique, Aéronautique for the development of commercial aircraft. He continued making improvements to aircraft design until his death, which came on August 2, 1936.
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This page was last updated on October 14, 2014.