Tuesday 13 August 2013

Louis Bleriot: Pioneer of Flight


When Charles Lindbergh was a mere seven years old, Louis Bleriot was flying monoplanes in France.  On July 25, 1909, wearing a khaki jacket, a cap and overalls, Monsieur Bleriot planned to steer his monoplane across the English Channel. Without a compass, and with the wind driving him off course, would he reach his destination?

Louis Bleriot was always one determined individual.  In October of 1900, he saw a pretty girl dining with her parents in a French restaurant and proclaimed to his mother:  "I saw a young woman today.  I will marry her or I will marry no one."  The following February, they walked down the aisle.

His wife would be a champion of his work, first as an engineer and later as an aviator.  One day, Madame Bleriot saved a young child from falling to his death; his parents were so grateful that they gave her husband 25,000 francs towards his aviation work.  Monsieur Bleriot was able to build Bleriot XI.  In the meantime, the young pilot picked up a London Daily Mail newspaper and noticed a contest for a flight across the English Channel, coupled with a 1000-pound reward.  While the Paris newspaper Le Matin predicted that there was "aucune chance" anyone would win the prize, Bleriot went ahead and registered for the contest.


Bleriot had three main rivals:  Arthur Syemour, an Englishman, did nothing but submit an entry; Charles de Lambert, a Russian aristocrat of French heritage, who established a training base, but went no further: and Hubert Latham who piloted Antoinette IV part way across the English Channel only to ditch it at sea.


Enter Louis Bleriot.  Donning his pilot attire, he climbed into his monoplane early on the morning of July 25, 1909.  After making practice runs around the airport, he made his takeoff for the Channel, black smoke belching out of his exhaust.  Bleriot took 1200 revolutions just to clear the telgraph wire along the French coast.  He built of speed, eventually tracking 68 kilometres an hour.  The unpleasant motion of the waves 30 yards below his monoplane bothered him, but he persevered.


With no compass, he found himself off course at Margaret's Bay part way through the flight; the next ten minutes were filled with nothingness.  Suddenly, Bleriot spotted the French tri-colour flag flying over Dover, England.  Thirty six minutes after taking off, he managed to make a rough but controlled landing near Dover castle, collapsing the landing gear in the process.  A small crowd was there to greet the French pilot including soldiers, policemen and his wife, all happy to see him in one piece.


Bleriot collected his 1000-pound prize, becoming somewhat of a celebrity in France.  Le Matin, the newspaper that had made the prediction that no one would collect the prize money, had to eat its words. The money he had spent on making Bleriots I-XI was recouped once he started selling reproductions of Bleriot XI.

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