Conqueror of the Channel

PUBLISHED: 16:30 27 July 2010 | UPDATED: 16:07 20 February 2013

The 'bat-like' machine that first attracted Blériot. This one seen in the grounds of Mereworth Castle in 1908

The 'bat-like' machine that first attracted Blériot. This one seen in the grounds of Mereworth Castle in 1908

Among the many aviation anniversaries to be celebrated during 2009, the conquest of the English Channel must be one of the most significant. Kent Life reports on a remarkable man and an epic flight

Searching for a suitable starting point from which to develop the story of Louis Blriot's conquest of the English Channel, we must go back to May 1909 when J T C Moore-Brabazon became the first Englishman to fly a limited distance in the UK.

This kick-started flying in England at Shellbeach near Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, but in France, Louis Charles-Joseph Blriot had designed planes before this with more advanced ideas. Not for him the usual 'boxkite' design and construction as favoured by the Wright Brothers; from the beginning he displayed an eye for streamline and his aircraft were
clean-looking monoplanes.

Born in Cambrai in 1872, Blriot graduated from the Ecole Centrale Paris with a degree in arts and trades. His first line of business was manufacturing automobile headlamps and with this he amassed a fortune.

His passion, however, lay in attempting to fly, inspired by the fact that on 13 January 1908, Henry Farman had succeeded in flying a circular course of one kilometre in his Voisin aeroplane, gaining him the Deutsch-Archdeacon prize of 50,000 francs.

This planted the seed of flight in the mind of Blriot which was further fuelled when, visiting a local exhibition, he saw Clement Adler's early bat-wing shaped aeroplane. Over the next few years he began to build model aircraft, progressing later on to full-size gliders which he attempted to fly, only to crash on several occasions.

All of this was to put a drain on Blriot's personal finances and just as he was on the point of giving it all up, he designed and constructed a plane which flew relatively well and safely. This was the Blriot XI, the aircraft that would eventually cross the Channel.

Powered by a small, 25hp Anzani engine, the tiny aircraft had already been flown on several occasions.

A week previous to the Channel attempt, Blriot had flown cross-country for a distance of 25 miles in 44 minutes. This proved to the pilot that the crossing to England could
be done, given the right conditions.

He was not alone in thinking a Channel crossing was possible. Also considering the conquest was Henry Farman, a Russian aristocrat, Charles de Lambert, and Hubert Latham, the latter an Englishman who made his home in France and had previously flown the Channel in a balloon.

Another temptation to attempt the crossing came by way of The Daily Mail, which offered a cash prize of 1,000 for the first person to fly across the Channel; considered a risky proposition at this time.

The race to Dover

By July 1909 these intrepid aviators had set up their workshops and homes around the area of Sangatte, the closest point to Dover. Hubert Latham had bought his aeroplane, the Antoinette monoplane, from England and was re-assembling it in the old Channel tunnel workings while de Lambert had leased a field near Wissant to house his Wright Flyer.

It fell to Hubert Latham to make the first attempt to cross. Monday 19 July 1909 saw a calm Channel with ideal, clear flying conditions. Weather reports were received by the Latham team and everything looked favourable for an attempt. Moving his Antoinette monoplane to the cliffs at Sangatte at 6.16am, the firing of three guns aboard the French warship Harron signalled Latham to go. At 6.42am the Antoinette cleared the cliffs and was over the sea. With his escort destroyer Harron below him, Latham got out his camera to take photos of the ship and the sea, but as he did so his small engine coughed and spluttered and he began to lose height. Sadly, his attempt to become first had failed as he gently put his machine down on the calm sea, as close as possible to the destroyer.

Meanwhile de Lambert had suffered broken bones in a crash while testing his own aircraft, leaving the way clear for Blriot to attempt a crossing.

Even though he was suffering from burns on his foot caused by a broken petrol pipe during trials, Blriot was determined to go at the first opportunity. His desire to be the first was given further impetus when he found that Latham had gone to Paris to acquire a new Antoinette monoplane, and that it was due to arrive within days!

Sunday 15 July 1909 saw Louis Blriot with his wife Alicia taking a motor ride at 2.30am, a dark but clear morning, to clear his head. The weather forecast the night before had been favourable but for a slight wind. Testing conditions by taking the early car ride, he found that it had dropped and by 3.30am he was back at his aircraft where the groundcrew strapped him in ready for a test flight. With words of encouragement, the courageous little Frenchman flew for 10 minutes before landing and confirming that conditions were perfect for an attempt on the Channel. Sending a message to the escort destroyer Escopette, he was sitting in his machine ready to go at 4.40am. With much hand waving and clapping, Louis took off from the cliffs and pointed his Blriot XI towards England. With no clock or compass to help him navigate his course, he flew in what he considered a straight line and within 10 minutes, had lost sight of the French coast.

With his Anzani engine behaving perfectly, he soon overtook his escort and realised that he was at the point of no return. If his aircraft did fail, he would fall into the sea.

In the event it did not fail and 20 minutes into the flight, he spotted Deal on the Kent coast, and realising that he was not looking at Dover, his intended landing place, he turned left and flew a short distance along the cliffs. Looking down Blriot saw a flag waving at the intended landing spot.

This was a French journalist who had travelled to Dover in the hope of being the first man to record the historic landing. Unfortunately Blriot could not make the chosen field, but managed to land in a nearby valley, having made the flight in just 40 minutes and covered around 31 miles.

A hero's welcome

Immediately people appeared from nowhere to welcome the brave aviator. Among the crowd was Alexander Duckham of the Duckham Oil Company, whose company supplied the fuel for the flight. Congratulating Louis with a bottle of Champagne, they later became friends.

Hailed as a hero both here and in his native country, Blriot's crossing captured the world's imagination and forced the pace of aviation progress. He continued in aviation until his death on 2 August 1936.

Some time after his successful landing near Dover Castle, Duckham persuaded the Aero Club to commemorate the landing by making a permanent memorial in the shape of a stone replica of his aircraft. This can still be seen today and is a reminder of a great aviator and one whose achievement will be celebrated this August. In Sweden, Mikael Carlson is building a replica Blriot XI to fly and re-create Louis Blriot's famous flight.

He hopes to cross the Channel at exactly the same time and day as the original flight. There could be no better memorial.

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