Our 1909 Louis Charles Joseph Blériot is a frail spindly looking monoplane, which has led a most adventurous life. The Bleriot in my life has flown the English Channel in both directions; the Catalina Channel; over the San Francisco-Oakland, Transbay Bridge; in England, Canada, France, and about half of the states in the United States.
Over the years it has served me in much the same reliable way as our versatile present-day aircraft, although I am sure it is responsible for giving me more gray hairs than all the business planes in the alphabet, from Alpha to Zebra.
Louis Bleriot was in many ways as interesting as the airplane. The son of a successful fabric manufacturer, he became a wealthy man in his own right and financed his experiments in aviation by the invention of a successful automobile headlight. Before the advanced design (for its day) that carried Bleriot across the Channel, there were some eight other largely unsuccessful experimental craft, ranging from cellular winged gliders to canard aircraft, most of which crashed, burned, or scattered themselves over the landscape. Until the advent of the 1909 model, Louis Bleriot’s major claim to frame seemed to be his ability to survive any and all accidents.
Bleriot was not only the originator of the monoplane design that is basic to every business aircraft manufacturer today, but he also originated streamlining of the fuselage; the engine placed forward, with the single tractor propeller; the rudder, elevator, and stabilizer placed on the aft part of the fuselage; and even a partially swiveling landing gear with a capability for crosswinds.
The basic Bleriot design was light and simple to maintain, as well as to easy to take apart or set up for flight. From the standpoint of the early exhibition pilots these were important factors, for the Bleriot could be made ready for flight in thirty minutes, as against six to eight hours for a Curtiss or Wright. Another factor was the advent of the 50-hp Gnome Rotary, which gave the Bleriot a tremendous edge because of its general reliability and low weight per horsepower.
The 1909 Bleriot, along with the rear-elevator Curtiss, were undoubtedly the two most widely copied aircraft prior to 1914. Literally hundreds of airplanes were built on farms and in backyards with nothing more to go on than photographs, the materials often being banana oil, mothers’ bed sheets, and slats form the fence. Because of the popularity of the Bleriot design and its very remarkable impact on the world (for it received as much publicity in its days as Linbergh’s flight twenty years later), many wealthy sportsmen bought them to use for business and pleasure. Adventurous barnstomers flew them all over known world, even as far as China and Tibet!
The Bleriot is a wire airplane, and without each wire being properly attached and safe-tied, it has about the strength of a fifteen cent grocery store kite. I carefully checked the flying cables, both at the bedsted (front fuselage frame) and at the wing, as well as the warp cables through the bottom walking beam and the wing, as well as the warp cables through the bottom walking beam and the wing, and above on the A frame. Then I checked the fuselage alignment by eye, including the landing gear sulky wheels and tires, tail surfaces, and control cables. With the aircraft ready for take-off, the engine idling nicely, and its lone instrument -the oil pressure gauge-showing fifty pounds, I grasped the spade-type grip and shoved the throttle forward. The tail was up in about 7 m ; the wind was steady twelve knots; temperature, 79 degrees; field elevation, 54 feet. I was airborne in about 55 m.
As I broke ground, a particularly nasty gust of wind dropped a wing, and for several seconds, full opposite stick rudder, and elevator were necessary to pick it up. I had forgotten what a job it was to always maintain the wings in a level attitude and the necessity of making only very flat skidding turns, mostly with rudder. In spite of a slow actual ground speed (about 44 to 48 mph), their is still no experience in my years of flying to equal the sick feeling you have when a wing goes down in gusty air and you head for the ground unable to pick up the wing in spite of full opposite control. A good deal of forward pressure is also required on the stick, for the Bleriots I have flown are all tail-heavy, and if one flies for more than ten minutes at a time, he has to keep shifting tired arms.
Flying with the camera ship required some prethought, for if the slipstream ever hit the Bleriot, it could go over on its back-which it did once with me. At the time I could only think of Adolph Pegoud, the Frenchman who made the world’s first loop in a Bleriot, and wonder why he didn’t suffer a coronary, for I am sure my heart missed a sizable number of beats.
After we finished taking the aerial photographs, I checked the Bleriot on stalls, which are deceptive, since it pays off with absolutely no warning, dropping a wing and forcing one to turn into the dropped wing to pick it up, the stall appears to be at about 25 to 27 mph. Beyond gentle turns, one is quite content to just fly along at about 40-odd mph and enjoy the air conditioned ride. There is no windshield for protection from the direct prop blast.
Landing can be either power on or power off. My choice is power off, with an extremely steep approach of about 30 percent nose down. One has only a very short flare-out, because there is no float with the inborn drag of a Bleriot. It lands smoothly and rolls to a stop on grass in about fifty feet. One must be very careful to land directly into the wind and pray for no sudden gusty crosswinds; the latter happened to me once; and one of the very weak main wheels collapsed under the side load. As the Bleriot ground to a stop, the windward wing rose into the air. I jumped out of the cockpit and grabbed the flying wires and promptly rose into the air with the wing. Only the additional weight of a startled airport attendant hanging on my feet brought both the Bleriot and me back to the ground again.
Louis Bleriot, with a typical French statement, once said before his famous Channel flight, “If I cannot walk, I’ll show the world I can fly.” But this pilot is not sure if he had to fly a Louis Bleriot very often, he might prefer to walk!