After the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, the name of Louis Blériot (1872 – 1936) is probably the most famous in aviation. The French aviator, inventor and automotive engineer, boldly went were no-one had gone before, and flew across the English Channel from Cap Gris Nez to Dover, setting Europe on its ear. A gifted student, Blériot had made his fortune inventing and manufacturing the first really practical car headlight, powered by acetylene. From 1905 onwards, at first in partnership with other French pioneers Charles & Gabrielle Voisin, then later on his own, he began producing a numbered series of experimental aircraft. The canard Blériot V was very interesting, technically, but crashed, and all suffered from underpowered, unreliable lightweight engines. After watching Alberto Santos-Dumont in his 14-bis make the longest flight to date in Europe (725 feet!) and win the Aéro Club de France prize, Blériot redoubled his efforts.
His Type XI monoplane was revolutionary, and had all the recognizable features of a modern aircraft (rudder, tailplanes at rear, ‘tractor’ propeller and engine in front of the pilot, who sat centrally) with one exception – it used ‘wing warping’ in place of ailerons to exercise control in the roll axis. It first flew on the 18th January, 1909, with an R.E.P. engine, but, like all others before it, this was subject to over-heating. Fortunately, there was a solution on the horizon, in the form of Alessandro Anzani, an Italian manufacturer of motorcycle engines. Anzani had developed a three cylinder engine, with the cylinders arranged in a ‘fan’ shape which produced around 25 hp, enough, thought Blériot, to power his Type XI.
Pretty soon, Blériot was breaking records at aviation meetings, and on the 13th July, 1909 made a cross-country flight of 25 miles, between Etampes and Orleans. He realized that the £1,000 prize offered by the British newspaper, ‘The Daily Mail’, for the first heavier than air flight across the English Channel - 21 miles at its shortest point - with no intermediate landings, was within his grasp (The Mail didn’t want any seaplanes making a short hop, then taxying the rest of the way). Only three days after his cross-country flight, Blériot informed the newspaper that he would be making an attempt on the Channel!
He had rivals, the most serious of whom was the half-French Hubert Latham with his Antoinette IV monoplane. Both men set up camp at Sangatte, near Calais, and waited for favourable weather. Latham was ready first and took off on 19th July; sadly, his motor overheated, and he made a forced landing half-way across the Channel. On the morning of Sunday, 25th July, 1909, Blériot rose before dawn, and saw his wife, Alice, safely onboard the French destroyer ‘L’Escopette’. If Blériot had been superstitious, he would have listened to his wife – who did NOT want him to attempt the flight; this premonition was reinforced when Blériot tested his motor, and a local dog ran into the whirling propeller and was killed. The aviator made a short hop to ‘test the air’, then, at 4.41am he pointed the nose of his Type XI west and took off for Dover. As the flight progressed, it looked like Blériot was going to suffer the same fate as Latham, as his motor began to overheat. By a stroke of good fortune, a passing rain shower drenched Blériot , the ‘plane and the overheated Anzani motor! Despite getting lost (he was flying at only 200 feet above the sea) and being blown off course by strong westerly winds, Blériot managed to make a heavy landing in Northfall Meadow just beyond Dover Castle, damaging his undercarriage and properller. He had made history, and changed the way the world looked at the aeroplane, in just 36 minutes! An article in the Daily Mail was truly prophetic, “Britain’s impregnability has passed away…Airpower will become as vital as seapower”. Blériot was treated to a gala dinner by the Royal Aero Club in London, before he, his wife and the remains of his Type XI returned to France on a destroyer.
Replica Blériot aircraft are fairly common today, usually powered by modern engines. However, despite the fact that Blériot’s company took more than 100 orders for Type XIs in 1909 alone, original machines are few and far between. Here we see the Shuttleworth Trust’s example, construction number 14, which is very similar to the record-breaking machine. It was used at the Bleriot School at Hendon in 1910, until a bad crash in 1912 caused it to be stored in a ‘lock up’ underneath Blackfrairs Railway Bridge in the centre of London. It was acquired many years later by Mr. A. E. Grimmer who first repaired it, then flew it successfully. Richard Shuttleworth saw the Blériot, and bought the machine in 1935; it became his first historic aircraft. Shuttleworth flew it at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s ‘Garden Parties’ in 1937, 1938 and 1939. The Bleriot went into store on the outbreak of WW2; Richard Shuttleworth joined the RAF, and was killed in the crash of a Fairey Battle on a training mission. The Bleriot XI became the core of the famed Shuttle Collection at Old Warden Airfield.
Not only is it airworthy (although it is now limited to straight hops across the grass airfield at Old Warden) it is the oldest flyable aircraft in the world! As well as that, it is powered by the oldest airworthy aero-engine, its original ‘fan-shaped’ Anzani of 25 hp. This means that this is a unique aircraft. As an aside, the Old Rhinebeck Collection, in upper New York State, also has a 1909 Blériot XI, powered by an Anzani ‘Y’ engine of 35 hp, but it is only 25% original (new wings, elevators, centre section, etc.) and its construction number is 56!
I have seen the Hughes H-4 Hercules flying boat, when it was at Long Beach, when it was referred to as the ‘Oh My God!’ ‘plane, because of the reaction of people when they saw it for the first time. Well, when you realize what you are looking at in the hangar at Old Warden, this Bleriot XI has a similar effect! This really is one of the most iconic objects you will find in any aviation museum.