One of the most interesting objects on my desk is a copper cigarette box with a bronze bas-relief on the lid of the above illustration. It commemorates the first flight across the English Channel in 1909 by French aviator, inventor, and engineer Louis Blériot (1872 – 1936).
The historic flight has been eclipsed by subsequent accomplishments in aviation and nearly forgotten, but at the time it was a very big deal. The Daily Mail newspaper offered a £500 prize in October 1908 for a successful flight being completed before the end of the year. However, when 1908 passed with no serious attempt being made, the prize money was doubled to £1,000 and the offer extended to the end of 1909. This would be like offering £100,000 (or $165,000) today. The Paris newspaper Le Matin commented that there was no chance of the prize being won.
Blériot, who intended on flying across the Channel in his Type XI monoplane, had three rivals for the prize: Hubert Latham, who was favored by both the United Kingdom and France to win; Charles de Lambert, a Russian aristocrat of French ancestry and one of Wilbur Wright’s pupils; and Arthur Seymour, an Englishman who reputedly owned a biplane. Wilbur Wright wanted to make an attempt and cabled his brother Orville in the US, but Orville—then recuperating from serious injuries sustained in a crash—replied not to make a Channel attempt until he could come to France and assist. The Wrights had already amassed a fortune in prize money for altitude and duration flights and had secured sales contracts for the Wright Flyer with the French, Italians, British, and Germans; both brothers saw the Channel reward of only a thousand pounds as insignificant considering the dangers of the flight.
Latham made an attempt on July 19, but 6 miles from his destination his aircraft developed engine trouble and was forced to make the world’s first landing of an aircraft on the sea. Latham was rescued by a French destroyer and taken back to France, where he heard the news that Blériot had entered the competition. Blériot, accompanied by two mechanics and a friend, arrived in Calais on Wednesday July 21 and set up a base at a farm near the beach near Calais. The following day a replacement aircraft for Latham was delivered. The wind was too strong for an attempted crossing on Friday and Saturday, but on Saturday evening it began to drop, raising hopes in both camps.
At 4:15 am on Sunday July 25, watched by an excited crowd, Blériot made a short trial flight in his Type XI, and then, on a signal that the sun had risen (the competition rules required a flight between sunrise and sunset), he took off at 4:41 for the attempted crossing. Flying at approximately 45 mph (72 km/h) at an altitude of about 250 ft (76 m), he set off across the Channel. Not having a compass, Blériot took his course from the Escopette, which was heading for Dover, but he soon overtook the ship. The visibility had deteriorated and he later said, “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.”
The grey line of the English coast came into sight on his left; however, the wind had increased and had blown him to the east of his intended course. Altering course, he followed the line of the coast about a mile offshore until he spotted the correspondent from Le Matin waving a large Tricolor flag as a signal. Blériot had not visited Dover to find a suitable spot to land, and the choice had been made by the correspondent, who had selected a patch of gently sloping land near Dover Castle. Once over land, he circled twice to lose height, and cut his engine at an altitude of about 66 ft (20 m), and made a heavy “pancake” landing due to the gusty wind conditions. The undercarriage was damaged and the propeller blade was shattered, but Blériot was unhurt. The flight had taken 36 minutes and 30 seconds.
News of his departure had been sent by radio to Dover, but it was generally expected that he would attempt to land on the beach west of town. The Daily Mail correspondent, realizing that Blériot had landed near the castle, set off at speed in an automobile and brought Blériot back to the harbor, where he was reunited with his wife. The couple, surrounded by cheering people and photographers, was then taken to an hotel. Blériot had become a celebrity.
When Louis Blériot became the first aviator to fly over the English Channel from France, his fragile plane was put on display for four days at Selfridges, the innovative London department store, drawing crowds of more than 150,000. The aircraft used in the crossing is now preserved in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
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