Commentary
6:30 am
Wed July 25, 2012

Bleriot's Flight Across the English Channel

On this day in 1909, a man named Louis Bleriot, a French engineer, was the first to fly across the English Channel, 21 miles from Calais in France to Dover, England.  Dayton photographer Dan Patterson is an aviation historian, and he's traveled the world to photograph significant aviation history sites.  A few years ago he went to see the places where Bleriot took off and landed.

The stone marker at Bleriot Plage near Calais on the coast of France.
Credit Dan Patterson

Just outside Calais in Bleriot Place, which means Bleriot Beach, there's a small stone monument in a residential neighborhood commemorating the events of July 25, 1909.  Near this spot, Bleriot made a short test flight in the dark at 4:15 am.

He was flying a tiny frail monoplane with a three cylinder Anzani motorcycle engine that had a tendency to explode if it overheated - or after about 30 minutes, whichever came first.

The flight across the channel would take about 40 minutes.  It was a calculated risk.

Bleriot was not the only person trying to cross the channel in late July 1909.  The Daily Mail, a London newspaper, had a put up a thousand pound prize to the first person who could do it.

To be official, the flight had to happen in daylight, and at 4:41 when the sun was officially over the horizon, Bleriot took off.

He had no instruments.  The weather was blustery and misty.  Visibility was not good.  A French destroyer was positioned half way across the channel to help guide him, but legend as it - he got lost.

Bleriot cut his engine and came to Earth pretty hard, breaking his propeller and landing gear, and proving again that any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

The bad weather worked to his advantage, though.  A rain shower cooled his engine.  He had his way to the English coast, spotted someone waving a flag to signal the landing spot near Dover Castle.  Bleriot cut his engine and came to Earth pretty hard, breaking his propeller and landing gear, and proving again that any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

Today the open grassy field where Bleriot landed is overgrown with dense shrubs.  But as you walk through the thicket, suddenly you find yourself in a wonderful clearing, and you can stand where history happened.  The outline of his plane has been set down and memorialized in marble.  Like many small airplanes that made history, you are surprised at how small it is. 

Bleriot won the prize money and became the next great aviator to become world famous in an instant, but those were the days when flying records were made and broken quickly. 

Ten weeks later, our own Wilbur Wright flew up the Hudson River in New York more than 40 miles over open water, with a canoe attached to the undercarriage - just in case.  That canoe, by the way?  You can see it at Carillon Park.