History Behind The Card: “Bleriot XI” Monoplane
Card #38 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Louis Charles Joseph Blériot, July 1, 1872 in Cambrai, France – August 1, 1936, Paris, France.
Louis Charles Joseph Blériot was a success at pretty much everything he put his hands upon.
A decent, but unspectacular student, Blériot was rather more successful in the so-called real world.
In fact, he was one of the first to create his own aviation company.
But who was Blériot?
He was the guy who designed the first practical headlight for a car, utilizing a compact integral acetylene generator.
Soon after in 1897, Blériot opened a showroom in Paris and began selling his headlights to Renault and Panhard-Levassor, two of the foremost automobile manufacturers of the day, with the latter now actually a part of Renault nowadays as Renault Trucks Defense.
But who was Blériot?
Well, he was the type of man who, when eating lunch in a restaurant saw a woman eating lunch… telling his mother that he would marry her or marry no one.
He went back to this restaurant near his showroom, bribed a waiter for her name – Alice Védères, the daughter of a retired army officer – and began to woo her. Yes, I used the word ‘woo’ in 2016. On February 21, 1901, they were married. Now that’s determination.
But who was Blériot?
He was the type of man who like anyone of the era, had an interest in aviation, but it was after seeing pioneer Clément Ader and his Avion III aeroplane at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, he thought – heck, I’m doing well at the headlight business, but why don’t I also see if I can make my own aeroplane.
I do stuff like that, too – only I don’t follow through… probably because I lack the money and inclination to start my own headlight business.
God help us all, Blériot began experimenting with ornithopters… machines shaped liked birds that attempted to mimic flight by flapping wings. Needless to say, his experiments were not successful.
Luckily, in April of 1905, Blériot met Gabriel Voisin, the guy who would design and build Europe’s first manned, engine-powered, heavier-than-air aeroplane capable of a sustained (1 kilometer), circular, controlled flight, including take-off and landing, made by Henry Farman on January 13, 1908 near Paris, France. More on Voisin HERE. More on Farman HERE.
At that time, Voisin was working for Ernest Archdeacon on his experimental gliders. Archdeacon has been mentioned in these pages a few times, by the way. He was a promoter and sponsor of aviation in France, offer financial prizes like the Coupe d’Aviation Ernest Archdeacon and the Deutsch de la Meurthe-Archdeacon prize), commissioning designs, and organizing tests and events… but he was most famous for co-founding in 1898 the the oldest aero-club in the world, the Aéro-Club de France.
Oh yeah, on May 29, 1908, Archdeacon became the first aeroplane passenger in Europe when he was flown around by Henry Farman. There’s that name again.
Blériot was present when Voisin first tested a floatplane glider on June 8, 1905, and actually filmed the flight… I’ve tried to present a YouTube video here, but the source was removed… look up Voisin floatplane glider 1905 and see what pops up under “videos” on Google.
Along with having one of the earliest films of flight, seeing Voisin fly had him ask Voisin to build him a similar plane, the Blériot II glider. On July 18, 1905 when Blériot had Voisin try and fly it, Voisin nearly drowned.
Undaunted, Blériot thought he and Voisin should team up – and they did, cancelling Voisin’s partnership with Archdeacon and then establishing Ateliers d’ Aviation Edouard Surcouf, Blériot et Voisin.
Over the next two years through 1906, they built two powered aircraft – the Blériot III and the Blériot IV (a rebuild of III) – but neither flew.
The two aeroplanes used lightweight Antoinette engines developed by Leon Levavasseur, and despite the failure of the aircraft, Blériot became a shareholder in Levavasseur’s company.
The Blériot IV was wrecked while taxiing on November 12, 1906, a fact made worse when on that same day Alberto Santos Dumas flew his 14-bis aeroplane for 220 meters (720 feet), and won the Aéro Club de France prize for the first flight of over 100 meters. See HERE for more on that.
How could it be even worse? While the Blériot IV crashed at Bagatelle, France, Alberto Santos Dumont succeeded at the very same place later that day, and was witnessed by Blériot.
Disappointed, Blériot and Voisin parted ways, with Blériot opting to create his own aviation company, Recherches Aéronautiques Louis Blériot (Louis Blériot Aeronautical Research), where he started creating his own aircraft, experimenting with various configurations and eventually creating the world’s first successful powered monoplane – you know, what we fly nowadays.
His first monoplane was the Blériot V, flying it (after numerous ground tests) on April 5, 1907 lifting up and ‘flying’ for six meters (20-feet). On April 19, 1907, he reached a speed of 50 kph (30mph), with the nose leaving the ground… but Blériot overcompensated when the nose rose up, causing the aircraft to flip onto its nose, somersaulting.
He was lucky to have survived, considering the motor was situated immediately behind his pilot seat.
The Blériot VI was a tandem-wing aircraft, first flying on July 11, 1907 achieving flight of about 25–30 meters (84–100 feet), soaring to a height of two meters (seven-feet).
This was his first successful flight, but by July 25, 1907, Blériot was able to fly a distance of 150 meters (490 feet). On August 6, 1907, he managed to reach an altitude of 12 meters (39 feet), but a propeller blade got loose and he crashed.
After adding a 50-horsepower V-16 motor, on September 17, 1907, the aircraft rose to 25 meters (82 feet) before the engine cut out, falling into a spiral nosedive.
Blériot climbed out of his seat and threw himself towards the tail, and with the weight on the back, the plane sort-of pulled itself out of the nosedive so that it crashed horizontally. Owtch.
Next, was the Blériot VII that looks like a modern aircraft, except he used a differential elevator control for side-to-side movement. This is the first truly successful monoplane, first flying on November 16, 1907.
On December 6, 1907, he did two flights of over 500 meters and even managed a U-turn. Unfortunately, the plane was wrecked on December 18, 1907.
Oh well… up comes Blériot VIII – a failure when it first debuted in February of 1908, he made modifications, and on October 31, 1908 he flew it (in France) from Toury to Arteny and back to Toury over a distance of 28 kilometers (17 miles).
Of course, that Farman guy actually had the first cross-country France flight from Bouy to Rheims… one day earlier. Four days later, the Blériot VIII was wrecked while taxiing.
Blériot decided to exhibit three of his aircraft at the first ever Paris Aero Salon event held at the end of December 1907 – the Blériot IX monoplane; the three-seat pusher biplane Blériot X; and his most successful aeroplane ever, the Blériot XI – which is pictured on the Wills’s tobacco card at the very top.
Planes IX and X never flew. This was by choice. They each used an Antoinette engine, but because the Antoinette company had also just decided to begin constructing its own planes, Blériot noted a conflict of interest and scrubbed flights with them.
Now… the Blériot XI… she’s a beauty. In the photo above, she’s using an REP (Robert Esnault-Pelterie) motor. While it flew well, the engine did overheat, so Blériot purchased a motor from motorcycle-engine developed Alessandro Anzani, and because of him, added a laminated walnut propeller designed by Lucien Chauviere.
Still, never satisfied, Blériot started flying the Blériot XII, a high-wing two-seater monoplane, flying it first on May 21, 1908. He flew it with a single passenger on July 2, and then with two passengers on July 12, 1908 – the first to do so. By the way, one of those two passengers was Santos Dumont.
The E.N.V. 30-horsepower engine’s crankshaft broke a few days after, so Blériot went back to his Blériot XI.
- June 25, 1908: flew for 15 minutes and 30 seconds;
- June 26, 1908: flew for over 36 minutes;
- July 3, 1908 at an aviation event in Douai, France he flew for 47 minutes;
- July 4, 1908, he flew for 50 minutes at an aviation meet in Juvisy, France;
- July 13, 1908, he flew for 41 kilometers (25 miles) from Etampes to Orleansin France.
On June 16, 1909, Blériot and Voisin were both awarded the Prix Osiris by the Institut de France – awarded every three years for whomever had made the greatest contribution to science.
On July 19, 1909, he told the Great Britain Daily Mail newspaper that he would try and win their contest to cross the English Channel in a heavier-than-air-aircraft and win the £1,000 prize.
While the Channel had first been crossed unmanned in a hydrogen balloon in 1785, and in a manned crossing by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries later that year, no one thought the flight was possible in an aeroplane.
Along with Blériot, other serious in blasting the myth were:
- Hubert Latham flying an Antoinette IV monoplane;
- Charles de Lambert, a Russian aristocrat with French ancestry, and;
- Arthur Seymour of England, who supposedly owned a Voisin biplane.
With around 10,000 people in Calais, France and 10,000 people at Dover, England, and with the Marconi Company doing a radio broadcast… Latham tried first on July 19, 1909, but with windy winds, he made the first-ever landing of a plane on the sea about 9.7 kilometers (six miles) from the end.
On July 21, 1909, Blériot, two mechanics and friend Alfred Leblanc, arrived in Calais and began prepping for their attempt.
On July 22, 1909, Latham received a second craft for his attempt, but the winds remained too strong until July 24 (Saturday), the winds calmed a bit…
On July 25, 1909, Leblanc woke at 2AM, thought the weather was perfect and awoke Blériot… who wasn’t all that keen on flying…
At 4:14AM, after a quick trial flight, he awaited a signal that the sun had risen… the flight, according to the rules, had to be made during daylight… and took off at 4:41AM.
He flew at an altitude of 76 meters (250-feet) at a speed of approximately 72 kph (45 mph) across the channel.
With no compass, he followed an escort ship (carrying his wife Alice) to Dover, until his plane overtook the ship… and with poor visibility now happening (what, a fog in England?!), Blériot says: “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.”
But then he spied land, noting that a wind had blown him off-course, and then followed the coastline until he saw a newsman from the French-Swiss Le Matin newspaper waving a large tricolor flag to signal him.
Cutting his engine at 20-meters (66-feet), Blériot circled twice to lose height and proceeded to head for Northfall Meadow near Dover Castle – landing with a pancake splat thanks to the wind, damaging the Blériot XI‘s undercarriage, and a propeller blade.
All told, Blériot’s flight took 36 minutes and 30 seconds. Nice. For reference, if you were to drive the Chunnel today, it would take you 35 minutes. Longer with traffic.
You can see the Blériot XI at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
With the success, Blériot achieved financial success, with 100+ orders for new builds of the Blériot XI coming in by the end of the year… each selling for F10,000.
It was estimated, that before the flight Blériot had spent more than F780,000 on his experiments. Is that a lot? Well, he paid a skilled mechanic F250 a month.
I guess there’s a lot of money in car lights. Okay, he did win a few cash aviation prizes along the way, so he wasn’t hurting for cash.
You can see Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE for the results of the Grande Semaine d’Aviation held at Reims, France where he was narrowly beaten by Glenn Curtiss in the first Gordon Bennett Trophy. Blériot did, win a prize for the the fastest lap of the circuit, and a new speed record for aeroplanes.
Between 1909 and WWI in 1914, Blériot built about 900 planes – mostly variations of the Blériot XI.
The French government grounded all monoplanes in February of 1912, after four such planes had accidents, but the ban was lifted after he strengthened the landing wires.
In 1913, a consortium led by Blériot bought the Société pour les Appareils Deperdussin aircraft manufacturer, with him becoming its p[resident a year later.
He then renamed the company the Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés (SPAD)– one of the premier WWI fighters.
But, because Blériot never really improved on his Blériot XI design, his monoplanes became ‘dated’… and his company was eventually closed up in 1916.
Still, before that happened, he was already planning on opening the Blériot and SPAD Ltd. company in Great Britain… eventually forming into the Air Navigation and Engineering Company (ANEC) in May 1918, but while never a much of a success with its planes, it did also produce Blériot-Whippet cars.
Now retired from flying, but still famous in his own right, Blériot was on hand at Le Bourget field in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh finished his historic transatlantic flight in his Spirit Of St. Louis.
Blériot died on August 1, 1936, was given a funeral with full military honors and is buried in the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles.