Late great engineers: Louis Blériot - aviation pioneer  

As the first to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft across the English Channel, Louis Blériot is among the greats of aviation. He was also a brilliant inventor, engineer and entrepreneur. Written by Nick Smith 

Louis Bleriot standing in the driving cab of the 'Bleriot IX' airplane which he constructed himself
Louis Bleriot standing in the driving cab of the 'Bleriot IX' airplane which he constructed himself - Alamy

In one of the most celebrated accomplishments in the pioneer era of aviation, on 25 July 1909 French engineer Louis Blériot flew his Blériot Type XI monoplane across the English Channel. It was the first time a heavier-than-air aircraft had achieved such a feat, with the Calais to Dover flight taking a mere 36.5 minutes. Although the prize of £1000 (well over £100k in today’s money) was awarded by the Daily Mail newspaper, it would be left to its rival the Daily Express to dramatically steal the limelight by proclaiming that ‘Britain is no longer an Island’. While the achievement made Blériot an overnight celebrity – the aircraft was even put on display in Selfridges – it also resulted in a hundred orders for the Blériot XI, assuring the future of his aircraft manufacturing business Blériot Aéronautique. But, as Brian A Elliott notes in his biography Blériot: Herald of an Age, we should avoid defining the French aviator’s career by ‘this one event that made him a household name the world over’.

Louis Charles Joseph Blériot was born in Cambrai, northern France, in 1872, a city that during his lifetime would be obliterated by the guns of the Central Powers in the First World War. While Blériot would later become involved in that war – notably with the production of fighter biplanes such as the SPAD S.XIII – his formative years centred on a demanding education in which he excelled at engineering drawing. After graduating from the prestigious École Centrale in Paris, he served his compulsory military service as a sublieutenant in the 24th Artillery Regiment, stationed in Tarbes in the Pyrenees. He then entered civilian employment with the electrical engineering company Baguès where he developed the world’s first practical automobile headlamp based on a compact integral acetylene generator. By 1897 Blériot had left Baguès to establish a headlamp showroom in Paris, the success of which led him to become a supplier to two of the leading carmakers of the day, Renault and Panhard-Levassor. Wealth generated as a manufacturer of headlamps and other automobile accessories would fund his early work in aeronautics.

While at the 1900 Paris Exposition, Blériot came across French mechanical engineer Clément Ader’s steam-powered aircraft Avion III, which would spark his interest in aviation. His first experiments were with ornithopters (aeroplanes that fly by flapping their wings), which were unsuccessful. In 1905 Blériot witnessed the first of Gabriel Voisin’s floatplane glider trials – even shooting cine footage on 8 June 1905 – and was sufficiently inspired to lure Voisin away from his job with Ernest Archdeacon (who founded the Aéro-Club de France) to set up Ateliers d’Aviation Edouard Surcouf, Blériot et Voisin. Thought to be the world’s first aircraft manufacturing company, the firm produced two unsuccessful aircraft before being dissolved, leaving Blériot free to start a new business under the name Recherches Aéronautiques Louis Blériot that would produce the first successful powered monoplane.

This experimental phase of Blériot’s career saw the evolution of the eponymous aircraft, with successive models designated by ascending Roman numerals. Blériot V was in the canard configuration, while Blériot VI was a tandem wing design. The real breakthrough came with Blériot VII that was recognisably in the modern conventional plane layout, which first flew on 16 November 1907, and has been credited by authorities such as C H Gibbs-Smith’s A history of Flying (1953) as being the earliest successful monoplane. As British aeronautical pioneer Patrick Alexander wrote to the President of the Royal Aeronautical Society Baden Baden-Powell: “I think Blériot with his new machine is leading the way.”

The most beautiful dream that has haunted the heart of man since Icarus is today reality

Louis Blériot (1872-1936)

On 31 October 1908 the next incarnation of the ‘new machine’ made a 28km cross-country flight, narrowly missing out on becoming the first to achieve such a flight (Henri Farman completed a 27km flight in France the day before). By the time Type XI was developed Blériot was experimenting with better engines and crucially a sophisticated laminated walnut propellor. These technological innovations were to contribute to the success of the aircraft. In trials of the Type XII, Blériot set improved times and distances, but was to suffer serious burns when the asbestos exhaust insulation came loose. On 16 June, Blériot and Voisin were jointly awarded the Prix Osiris, awarded by the Institut de France every three years to the Frenchman who had made the greatest contribution to science.

While there was nothing new in flying across the English Channel – Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr John Jeffries had completed the journey in a balloon in 1785 – the Daily Mail was prepared to award a £1000 in 1909 for the first aeroplane flight to complete the challenge. This prize was offered in the hope of inducing Wilbur Wright (of Wright Brothers renown) to enter. Wilbur was in Europe at the time (while Orville was recuperating from a crash in the US), but could not be tempted, objecting that the prize was not on a scale that would justify the risks involved. This left the field open to Blériot and three rivals who, along with the 10,000 spectators at both Calais and Dover, were forced to wait until 25th July for conditions to clear.

Once the sun had risen, at 04:41 Blériot took off to attempt the crossing, his plan being to follow the French Navy destroyer Escopette that was to escort the flight. But the aircraft soon overtook the ship and his Blériot XI entered a bank of cloud, the pilot later recalling “for more than 10 minutes I was alone, isolated, lost in the midst of the immense sea, and I did not see anything on the horizon or a single ship.” Blown off course to the east, he eventually spotted Charles Fontaine, a journalist with Le Matin waving a Tricolour to signal that Blériot had reached the landing spot close to Dover Castle. He cut the engine and bumped to earth damaging the undercarriage and shattering a propellor blade. The Dover Historian adds a fascinating detail: “Although the British customs were not actually waiting when Blériot landed, they arrived only minutes after Blériot had touched down. However, they were flummoxed as to which category they should register the monoplane; eventually they decided it was a yacht.”

Blériot’s Channel crossing was followed by further success when in the same year he was placed second in the inaugural Gordon Bennett Aviation Trophy at Reims, during which he completed the fastest lap of the circuit and established a new world speed record for aircraft. In the years leading to WW1, Blériot dominated the aviation market, producing around 900 of the Type XI. But his commercial success was tarnished when the French Army grounded all monoplanes following safety concerns, while patent wrangles with the Wright Brothers rumbled on for years before the Americans’ claim was eventually dismissed. As noted in his entry in Britannica, Blériot “consolidated his position as a leader of the aviation industry in 1914 by taking over the makers of the famous Spad biplane, which was used extensively by the French, and later American, air forces during World War I.”

Following the war, Blériot’s various entrepreneurial projects in the field of aviation – including the launch of the British firm Air Navigation and Engineering Company (ANEC) – failed to reproduce the commercial successes of the pre-war years. This was in part due to his original aircraft design becoming outdated. To mitigate an overall decline in the aeroplane sector, ANEC diversified into the motorcycle and car market, producing the Blériot-Whippet 4-wheeled cyclecar. Several hundred were made, one of which was owned by the legendary automotive guru Alec Issigonis, who went on to design the Mini.

 After almost a decade in business, the Surrey-based ANEC stopped manufacturing in 1926 and closed down the following year. But Blériot never lost contact with the world of aviation, and was present at Le Bourget Aerodrome on 21 May 1927 to congratulate Charles A Lindbergh on the completion of the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight in his Spirit of St Louis. The two men, who shared the distinction of making history by being the first to use heavier-than-air powered machinery to cross international bodies of water, posed for a photograph in which the dapper Blériot embraces a clearly embarrassed Lindbergh. In 1934 the French aviator crossed the Atlantic to visit Newark Airport where, according to a headline in the New York Times, “Louis Bleriot Predicts Oversea Service Within Four Years.”

Louis Blériot died in Paris on 1 August 1936 of a heart attack and was given a funeral with full military honours at Les Invalides.