In 1909, a British newspaper, The Daily Mail, offered a £1,000 prize to the first person to cross the twenty-one-mile English Channel in an airplane. Although many considered flight over water to be insane, by late July 1909, an aviator named Hubert Latham had already crashed his airplane into the channel waters, followed by a hair-raising rescue at sea.
Distance wise, crossing the English Channel sounded doable. After all, the Wright Brothers had been covering distances of up to twenty-four miles as early as 1905, but those flights had taken place within the relatively safe confines of Huffman Prairie, a large field near Dayton, Ohio.
Enter the Europeans, among them Louis Blériot. By 1909, he had designed a monoplane that could stay aloft at least an hour, more than long enough to make the 21-mile Channel crossing. He was confident he could capture the prize. Here’s a picture of Bleriot:
On July 25, 1909, Blériot rose at 2:30 a.m. to prepare for his flight. He first asked that a torpedo boat destroyer, the Escopette, launch into the Channel. The French government had provided the destroyer, apparently as both a potential rescue vehicle and landmark for navigation. Reflecting the state-of-the-art in aviation at the time, Blériot had no compass on his airplane.
At 4:30 a.m., it was light outside, but the English coast was lost in a morning haze. Undaunted and determined to complete the flight, Blériot took to the air, wearing blue cotton coveralls over his tweed clothes to ward off the cold.
Flying about 250 feet above the water, he soon spotted the Escopette below cruising at 26 miles per hour, but it proved useless for navigation – speeding along at 42 miles per hour, Blériot quickly left the destroyer behind. All alone now, the sea air rushing by the open cockpit felt invigorating, but the waves below were unsettling.
Ten minutes into the flight, Blériot was astonished that he could still see nothing. He pressed on for another ten minutes letting the airplane go where it may, totally lost, but unconcerned – he knew he had enough fuel to turn around and head back to France.
Blériot’s luck held out, and a few miles from land, he spotted the cliffs of Dover, but the wind had blown him off-course and he had passed his intended landing spot. He turned back, and the winds shrieking off the cliffs buffeted and slowed his fragile airplane as he creeped back to his destination. Although the windy landing looked like it would be sporting, Blériot couldn’t resist the urge to land – he had come too far to turn around now.
Above the landing field at seventy-five feet, Blériot turned off his engine and fell straight to the ground. The airplane crumpled as it crashed, but Blériot escaped unscathed to claim his prize.
In addition to his famous crossing, Blériot was the father of the monoplane concept that nearly all modern airplane designers use. Upon his death in 1936, the FAI established the Louis Blériot Medal in his honor. The medal is awarded to aviators who set certain world records. It is so distinguished that it has been awarded fewer than eighty times.
There will be no post next week as I take a break for the Memorial Day Weekend!