A History of Aeronautics

Author: Evelyn Charles Vivian

XV. The Channel Crossing

It may be said that Louis Bleriot was responsible for the second great landmark in the history of successful flight. The day when the brothers Wright succeeded in accomplishing power-driven flight ranks as the first of these landmarks. Ader may or may not have left the ground, but the wreckage of his ’Avion’ at the end of his experiment places his doubtful success in a different category from that of the brothers Wright and leaves them the first definite conquerors, just as Bleriot ranks as first definite conqueror of the English Channel by air.

In a way, Louis Bleriot ranks before Farman in point of time; his first flapping-wing model was built as early as 1900, and Voisin flew a biplane glider of his on the Seine in the very early experimental days. Bleriot’s first four machines were biplanes, and his fifth, a monoplane, was wrecked almost immediately after its construction. Bleriot had studied Langley’s work to a certain extent, and his sixth construction was a double monoplane based on the Langley principle. A month after he had wrecked this without damaging himself— for Bleriot had as many miraculous escapes as any of the other fliers-he brought out number seven, a fairly average monoplane. It was in December of 1907 after a series of flights that he wrecked this machine, and on its successor, in July of 1908, he made a flight of over 8 minutes. Sundry flights, more or less successful, including the first cross-country flight from Toury to Artenay, kept him busy up to the beginning of November, 1908, when the wreckage in a fog of the machine he was flying sent him to the building of ’number eleven,’ the famous cross-channel aeroplane.

Number eleven was shown at the French Aero Show in the Grand Palais and was given its first trials on the 18th January, 1909. It was first fitted with a R.E.P. motor and had a lifting area of 120 square feet, which was later increased to 150 square feet. The framework was of oak and poplar spliced and reinforced with piano wire; the weight of the machine was 47 lbs. and the undercarriage weight a further 60 lbs., this consisting of rubber cord shock absorbers mounted on two wheels. The R.E.P. motor was found unsatisfactory, and a three-cylinder Anzani of 105 mm. bore and 120 mm. stroke replaced it. An accident seriously damaged the machine on June 2nd, but Bleriot repaired it and tested it at Issy, where between June 19th and June 23rd he accomplished flights of 8, 12, 15, 16, and 36 minutes. On July 4th he made a 50-minute flight and on the 13th flew from Etampes to Chevilly.

A few further details of construction may be given: the wings themselves and an elevator at the tail controlled the rate of ascent and descent, while a rudder was also fitted at the tail. The steering lever, working on a universally jointed shaft—forerunner of the modern joystick—controlled both the rudder and the wings, while a pedal actuated the elevator. The engine drove a two-bladed tractor screw of 6 feet 7 inches diameter, and the angle of incidence of the wings was 20 degrees. Timed at Issy, the speed of the machine was given as 36 miles an hour, and as Bleriot accomplished the Channel flight of 20 miles in 37 minutes, he probably had a slight following wind.

The Daily Mail had offered a prize of L1,000 for the first Cross-Channel flight, and Hubert Latham set his mind on winning it. He put up a shelter on the French coast at Sangatte, half-way between Calais and Cape Blanc Nez. From here he made his first attempt to fly to England on Monday the 19th of July. He soared to a fair height, circling, and reached an estimated height of about 900 feet as he came over the water with every appearance of capturing the Cross-Channel prize. The luck which dogged his career throughout was against him, for, after he had covered some 8 miles, his engine stopped and he came down to the water in a series of long glides. It was discovered afterward that a small piece of wire had worked its way into a vital part of the engine to rob Latham of the honour he coveted. The tug that came to his rescue found him seated on the fuselage of his Antoinette, smoking a cigarette and waiting for a boat to take him to the tug. It may be remarked that Latham merely assumed his Antoinette would float in case he failed to make the English coast; he had no actual proof.

Bleriot immediately entered his machine for the prize and took up his quarters at Barraques. On Sunday, July 25th, 1909, shortly after 4 a.m., Bleriot had his machine taken out from its shelter and prepared for flight. He had been recently injured in a petrol explosion and hobbled out on crutches to make his cross-Channel attempt; he made two great circles in the air to try the machine, and then alighted. ’In ten minutes I start for England,’ he declared, and at 4.35 the motor was started up. After a run of 100 yards, the machine rose in the air and got a height of about 100 feet over the land, then wheeling sharply seaward and heading for Dover.

Bleriot had no means of telling direction, and any change of wind might have driven him out over the North Sea, to be lost, as were Cecil Grace and Hamel later on. Luck was with him, however, and at 5.12 a.m. of that July Sunday, he made his landing in the North Fall meadow, just behind Dover Castle. Twenty minutes out from the French coast, he lost sight of the destroyer which was patrolling the Channel, and at the same time he was out of sight of land without compass or any other means of ascertaining his direction. Sighting the English coast, he found that he had gone too far to the east, for the wind increased in strength throughout the flight, this to such an extent as almost to turn the machine round when he came over English soil. Profiting by Latham’s experience, Bleriot had fitted an inflated rubber cylinder a foot in diameter by 5 feet in length along the middle of his fuselage, to render floating a certainty in case he had to alight on the water.

Latham in his camp at Sangatte had been allowed to sleep through the calm of the early morning through a mistake on the part of a friend, and when his machine was turned out—in order that he might emulate Bleriot, although he no longer hoped to make the first flight, it took so long to get the machine ready and dragged up to its starting-point that there was a 25 mile an hour wind by the time everything was in readiness. Latham was anxious to make the start in spite of the wind, but the Directors of the Antoinette Company refused permission. It was not until two days later that the weather again became favourable, and then with a fresh machine, since the one on which he made his first attempt had been very badly damaged in being towed ashore, he made a circular trial flight of about 5 miles. In landing from this, a side gust of wind drove the nose of the machine against a small hillock, damaging both propeller blades and chassis, and it was not until evening that the damage was repaired.

French torpedo boats were set to mark the route, and Latham set out on his second attempt at six o’clock. Flying at a height of 200 feet, he headed over the torpedo boats for Dover and seemed certain of making the English coast, but a mile and a half out from Dover his engine failed him again, and he dropped to the water to be picked up by the steam pinnace of an English warship and put aboard the French destroyer Escopette.

There is little to choose between the two aviators for courage in attempting what would have been considered a foolhardy feat a year or two before. Bleriot’s state, with an abscess in the burnt foot which had to control the elevator of his machine, renders his success all the more remarkable. His machine was exhibited in London for a time, and was afterwards placed in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, while a memorial in stone, copying his monoplane in form, was let into the turf at the point where he landed.

The second Channel crossing was not made until 1910, a year of new records. The altitude record had been lifted to over 10,000 feet, the duration record to 8 hours 12 minutes, and the distance for a single flight to 365 miles, while a speed of over 65 miles an hour had been achieved, when Jacques de Lesseps, son of the famous engineer of Suez Canal and Panama fame, crossed from France to England on a Bleriot monoplane. By this time flying had dropped so far from the marvellous that this second conquest of the Channel aroused but slight public interest in comparison with Bleriot’s feat.

The total weight of Bleriot’s machine in Cross Channel trim was 660 lbs., including the pilot and sufficient petrol for a three hours’ run; at a speed of 37 miles an hour, it was capable of carrying about 5 lbs. per square foot of lifting surface. It was the three-cylinder 25 horse-power Anzani motor which drove the machine for the flight. Shortly after the flight had been accomplished, it was announced that the Bleriot firm would construct similar machines for sale at L400 apiece—a good commentary on the prices of those days.

On June the 2nd, 1910, the third Channel crossing was made by C. S. Rolls, who flew from Dover, got himself officially observed over French soil at Barraques, and then flew back without landing. He was the first to cross from the British side of the Channel and also was the first aviator who made the double journey. By that time, however, distance flights had so far increased as to reduce the value of the feat, and thenceforth the Channel crossing was no exceptional matter. The honour, second only to that of the Wright Brothers, remains with Bleriot.


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Chicago: Evelyn Charles Vivian, "XV. The Channel Crossing," A History of Aeronautics, ed. Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904 in A History of Aeronautics Original Sources, accessed July 24, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CNL6WUUTGEHY39B.

MLA: Vivian, Evelyn Charles. "XV. The Channel Crossing." A History of Aeronautics, edited by Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904, in A History of Aeronautics, Original Sources. 24 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CNL6WUUTGEHY39B.

Harvard: Vivian, EC, 'XV. The Channel Crossing' in A History of Aeronautics, ed. . cited in , A History of Aeronautics. Original Sources, retrieved 24 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CNL6WUUTGEHY39B.