Louis Blériot began his lifelong obsession with aviation when he visited a local exhibition and saw Clement Ader’s early, bat-wing shaped plane. Inspired by the strange looking craft, he began to build, test, and crash numerous planes of his own over the next nine years. Rather than follow one type of design for his planes, Blériot worked by trial and error – working first with gliders, then box-kite biplanes, and finally with monoplanes. By 1909, with his finances drained, Blériot finally produced a plane which didn’t immediately crash, the Blériot XI.
The “Daily Mail” newspaper of London offered a cash prize of 1000L to the first pilot to fly across the English Channel – a risky proposition at the time. Blériot sensed this was his golden opportunity. Even though his plane had never run for more than 20 minutes – about half of the Channel’s 22-mile distance – the pilot remained undaunted.
Blériot had two fierce rivals for this title. The first was the daring Hubert Lathan, an Englishman who had made France his home. Loved by both the French as well as the English, he was favored to win. The other flyer, Charles de Lambert, was a Russian aristocrat with French roots. In July of 1909, the three competitors each arrived on the shores of Calais, France. Lathan had arrived first and attempted a crossing on July 19th. Six miles from shore, though, he developed engine trouble and was forced to make a sea landing. Meanwhile, Lambert suffered a major crash of his own during a test flight, forcing him to withdraw from the race. Blériot, himself, experienced the misfortune of a badly burned foot when he a petrol line broke during one of his trial runs. But Blériot persevered.
Louis Blériot stands next to his plane after completing his historic crossing of the English Channel on July 25, 1909.
While Lathan was regrouping, Blériot watched the weather. At dawn on July 25th, he took off for England despite blustery winds and his injured foot. By the time Lathan’s camp realized that Blériot was not making a test run but attempting the crossing, it was too late to chase him. With no compass to guide him, Blériot beat the odds and managed to somehow successfully cross the Channel. He immediately gained worldwide fame. His rival, Hubert Lathan, even re-attempted Blériot’s flight four days later, only to again smash his plane into the ocean when the engine failed.
While Blériot’s flight was not the longest of its time, his achievement was nonetheless historic. His crossing captured the world’s attention and continued to popularize the field of aviation. After his famous flight, Blériot formed a plane company which became quite successful, first manufacturing copies of his Blériot XI, and later producing the S.P.A.D. fighter flown by the Allies during WWI. Louis Blériot would continue to make contributions to the field of aviation until his death on August 2, 1936.