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100 years ago today: Blériot’s English Channel Crossing

One hundred years ago today, pilot Louis Blériot became the first person to cross a ‘large body of water’ in a ‘heavier than air’ aircraft.

The successful aircraft was the Blériot XI, a replica is shown below.
Blériot XI Plane

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Blériot flew 22 statute miles (36.6 km) from Les Barraques (near Calais, France) to Dover, England (landing at Northfall Meadow). The trip took 37 minutes. The challenge was backed by a £1,000 prize from the Daily Mail.

Some interesting tidbits from the Flight archive:

Leading dimensions of the XI were: span, 28ft.; chord, 6ft.; length, 25ft.; all-up weight, 715 lb ; wing loading, 3.9 lb/sq.ft. Control was by wing-warping, an orthodox rudder, and “elevating tips” at the tailplane ends. Its 24 h.p. “fan-type” three-cylinder air-cooled Anzani engine had automatic inlet valves and mechanical exhaust valves supplemented by auxiliary exhaust ports. The crossing was made at a speed of about 45 m.p.h., in a wind of variable direction which blew initially at about l0kt, fell light in mid-Channel (where the pilot was out of sight of land to 20kt at Dover).

Going into the competition, Blériot had a large share of naysayers. He entered the competition injured (during a test flight in his VIII craft, a gasoline line broke and left him with a burnt foot). Flight reported that observers “reckoned he was only going to make a short trial flight, and that the wind would prove too much for him.”

Bleriot reported in a telegram to the Washington Post that he throttled his engine to 1,200 revolutions per minute, almost the top speed of the engine, to clear telegraph wires at the edge of the cliff near the runway field at Les Barraques. Then he lowered the engine speed to give the XI an average airspeed of approximately 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour) and an altitude of about 250 feet (76 m).

Upon reaching England, Flight reported, “A decidedly worried-looking Customs officer had appeared on the scene, complete with a big batch of official forms. He wanted to make certain Bleriot had not brought any contraband goods across the Channel with him by air, and among the forms the airman was called upon to sign was one to the effect that his ‘vessel’, of which he was described as the ‘master’, was free from anything in the nature of infectious disease.
The XI was put on display after its flight and 120,000 people visited it over the course of four days.

On the 40th anniversary of the flight, Flight’s Harry Harper poignantly wrote:

“Such a great pioneer as Bleriot, though he realized well enough the grim possibilities the air conquest might open up, told me he was confident in his own mind that the ability to travel through the air at speeds impossible by land and sea would, in the end, prove a boon rather than a menace to mankind”

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