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LET’S CELEBRATE Louis Blériot, his Type XI and its historic flight across the English Channel. The “Type Onze” generated great excitement with this July 25, 1909 flight, in no small way because it was part of a huge media event.
Lord Northcliff, proprietor of the London Daily Mail newspaper, offered a prize of ₤1000 “For Perseverance and Valor” to the first person to fly the English Channel “in Either Direction. Between Sunrise and Sunset without intermediate landings.”
This was in early 1909, after a ₤500 prize by the same newspaper for the same challenge went unclaimed during 1908. Indeed, many thought there was no chance of such a flight any time soon—it was nothing more than Northcliff hype.
It was, however, quite a monetary incentive, ₤1000 being $5000 at the time, something like $116,000 in today’s dollars.
Louis Blériot was already a successful businessman, having developed the world’s first practical automotive lighting. Prior to electrical headlights, these used a compact built-in acetylene generator. The likes of Renault and Panhard-Levassor depended upon his company as a supplier.
Blériot certainly satisfied Lord Northcliff’s criteria of perseverance and valor. Even before crossing that 23-mile expanse of water the French called La Manche, Blériot experimented with ten different designs. There were models, gliders and powered aeroplanes, some that flew, more than a few that left Blériot with bruises and worse.
As for valor, Frank Tallman (with more than 120 hours in replica Type XIs) said it was “hard to put into words readily explainable to any modern pilot how perfectly awful it is to fly the Blériot.”
Alice and Martin Provensen’s Glorious Flight is a children’s book, winner of The Caldecott Medal in 1984. Highly recommended with charming illustrations, it is wonderfully evocative of Blériot’s achievement.
Upon landing—and, true, he was not renowned for finesse in this activity—Blériot’s first question concerned his competitor for the prize, Hubert Latham. The latter was still on the French side, stymied by recurring winds that Blériot’s dawn departure had avoided.
For part of Blériot’s 37-minute flight, he was out of sight of land—and ahead of the Escopette, the intended escort ship carrying his wife. Though one of his crew had taped a compass to the aeroplane, Blériot never recalled the instrument’s presence. He continued to dead-reckon his course at roughly 43 mph and an altitude of 250 ft. above the water.
A light rain added to his isolation. It may have helped cool the 25-hp Anzani 3-cylinder powering the craft.
After seeing the cliffs of the English coast, Blériot followed three ships presumed to be steaming toward the harbor. “Suddenly,” he said, “at the edge of an opening in the cliffs, I saw a man energetically waving a tricolor… screaming bravo! bravo!”
It was a Blériot colleague pointing the way to North Foreland Meadow, near Dover Castle, where a London Daily Mail celebration ensued.
Celebrations continued beyond the meadow. London department store magnate Gordon Selfridge donated ₤200 to the London Hospital for the right to exhibit the Type XI for three days. Everyone agreed to a fourth day, and that evening Selfridge’s was forced to remain open until midnight to accommodate the crowd.
It was indeed a glorious flight. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013