Have you heard of Louis Blériot, the early pioneer whose guts and determination inspired generations of aviators? As the first person to successfully fly a plane across the English Channel, and the father of the modern monoplane, Blériot’s story is a lesson in never giving up!
Born in Cambrai, France, in 1872, Blériot studied at the famous École Centrale in Paris, one of the oldest engineering schools in the country, before getting a job at an electrical engineering firm. Here, Blériot designed the world’s first practical headlamp for automobiles. He set up his own showroom and was soon selling lamps to Renault and Panhard-Levassor, making the money that would fund his hobby later in life!
Blériot’s interest in aviation got serious after he saw Clément Ader’s Avion III at the Exposition Universelle in 1900. He began to build his own designs, starting with ornithopters (aircraft with wings that flap like a bird). With limited success, he then commissioned Gabriel Voisin to build him a floatplane glider – the Blériot II.
Unfortunately, this glider was not the success Blériot hoped it to be; on its first flight, it crashed and Voisin nearly drowned! Blériot remained determined and the pair went on to build Types III and IV – but both were just as unsuccessful.
Blériot decided to set up a business on his own: Recherches Aéronautiques Louis Blériot. The Blériot VII was his most significant build, as it was recognised as the world’s first successful monoplane. Blériot went on to refine the monoplane and eventually made the Blériot XI, which would help him make history!
In 1908, the Daily Mail ran a competition promising £1000 to the first person to fly between Dover, England and Calais, France, crossing the 20.6-mile-wide English Channel. This feat was thought to be impossible, but on July 25 1909, Blériot made his attempt from Calais in his Type XI.
Taking off at 4:41am, flying at a speed of 45 mph and an altitude of 250ft, Blériot didn’t have a compass or instruments, so he tried to follow a ship headed for Dover. However, due to his speed, he overtook the ship and found himself in thick clouds in the middle of the Channel. Fearing he was lost, Blériot held his course and, about 37 minutes after take-off, finally landed in Dover to a hero’s welcome.
Blériot was now famous! He went on to build aircraft for the French military during World War I, and then played a key role in the development of commercial aircraft after the war. However, due to rapid progress in aviation in the years to follow, Blériot’s contributions became swamped. When he died in 1936, he was a forgotten man whose great feat in 1909 was now just one of many legendary flights.
Which important lessons can we learn from Blériot? Firstly, never give up. Secondly, attempt the impossible. And finally, flying can be an expensive hobby – but it’s addictive!
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