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Blériot Flies the Channel

And Wins the Daily Mail £1000 Prize
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The proprietor of the London Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe, had a shrewd eye for anything that would increase the circulation of his paper. In the 1890s he had championed the popular 'New Imperialism'. In the new century he saw aviation as an exciting, modern and potentially patriotic alternative. The first in a series of great aviation prizes sponsored by the Daily Mail was £1000 first offered in 1906 for crossing the English Channel. Thanks partly to Wilbur Wright's visit to France in 1908, European pilots and their machines were now approaching the stage where this could be a realistic goal. But it would still be a risky undertaking. At its narrowest point, from Dover to Calais, the Channel was 22 miles across.

In July 1909 three competitors assembled on the cliffs near Calais in an attempt to win the money, and the glory of the first Channel crossing by aeroplane.

The Comte de Lambert
 
Charles Comte de Lambert Charles, Comte de Lambert (1865-1944) was a Russian aristocrat although he also had roots in France. In the 1890s he had experimented with building power-boats and in the new century he had become fascinated by aviation. He was taught to fly by Wilbur Wright at his flying school at Pau and he joined fellow aristocrats, the Comte de La Vaulx and the Comte de Castillon de Saint Victor, in the French Aéro-Club. He proved to be one of Wilbur's best pupils and was the owner of two Wright Type A biplanes.

Hubert Latham
 
Hubert Latham Hubert Latham (1883-1912) was a wealthy young Frenchman who threw himself into various activities after studying at Oxford. His adventurous pastimes included big game hunting in Africa and (like de Lambert) power-boat racing, which was how he first met fellow pioneer Léon Levavasseur. Levavasseur was a talented engineer who had developed a light-weight motor and designed an aeroplane, the Antoinette, built around it. After seeing Wilbur Wright fly at Le Mans in 1908 Latham decided to turn his hand to piloting. He bought shares in Levavasseur's Antoinette company and  became in effect its chief pilot. His dashing and flambuoyant character made him a favourite with the public on both sides of the Channel.

Louis Blériot
 
Louis Blériot (1872-1937) was born in the north French town of Cambrai. He studied engineering, and went on to make a small fortune manufacturing headlamps for the booming automobile industry. However, his 'great passion' for aviation rapidly ate into his wealth as he built and crashed a wide variety of aeroplanes between 1900 and 1909 with undiminished enthusiasm! By the summer of 1909 he had developed a reasonably airworthy monoplane, his No.XI, but his finances were in such a poor state that he needed to win the prize money if he was to continue his interest in aviation at all.

Latham's First Attempt

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The Harpon
First on the scene was Hubert Latham. In July he based himself at Sangatte, on the cliffs near Calais, and assembled his Antoinette IV in a shed left over from a failed attempt to dig a Channel Tunnel some years earlier. He had the full backing of the Antoinette company. The pilot who succeeded in flying the Channel would become world famous. But the aeroplane he flew would hardly be less so, and the sales potential after such a proving flight was obvious. Because of his backing from the company, Latham was the favourite to win the Channel competition.

He made his attempt on 19 July 1909. After circling for height he sailed out over the cliffs and maintained a height of about 900 ft. (300 m.) over the water. It looked like Latham was well on the way to winning the Cross-Channel prize. But, six miles (9.6 km) out from the French shore, his engine started to give trouble and he was forced to glide down for a landing on the sea. He made a good landing and the Antoinette floated well. This was particularly fortunate as Latham had had no real idea whether his plane would float before he set out. The problem was eventually diagnosed as a piece of wire that had worked its way into the engine.

Hubert Latham takes off from Sangatte
Latham sets out over the cliffs at Sangatte - 19 July 1909


Hubert Latham philosophically lights a cigaretteThe French Government had detailed a destroyer, named the Harpon, to act as a rescue vessel. When she finally steamed up to him, the crew found Latham cooly smoking a cigarette in mid-Channel. Although Latham had been able to put the Antoinette down on the water with minimal damage, it received a rough handling from the French sailors and was practically wrecked being brought on board. Latham was forced to send to Paris for a new machine, which meant a delay of several days.

Meanwhile, the competition was hotting up. Louis Blériot had arrived with his Blériot XI and set up camp at Baraques, south-west of Calais, while the Comte de Lambert with his Wright Type A was at Wissant, near Boulogne. Interest in both countries reached fever pitch and people travelled from Paris and London to the coasts in the hope of seeing part of an historic event for themselves. 

Latham's Antoinette being salvaged
Latham's Antoinette being fished out by sailors from the Harpon

Unluckily, the Comte de Lambert badly crashed one of his Wrights during a test flight and sustained injuries that would prevent him from flying for some weeks. He was forced to withdraw. 

The competition was now a two horse race.

Blériot Tries his Luck

Blériot, too, had his problems. A few days previously he had badly burnt his foot when a petrol pipe fractured in mid-air. He had managed to land the flaming plane, but his foot was now swathed in bandages and he needed crutches to walk. Nevertheless he waited impatiently in his hotel in Calais for favourable weather. Six days after Latham's failed attempt he decided to make the attempt, despite the marginal weather. It was so gusty early in the morning that Latham's friends, keeping an eye on the weather at the cliff top of Blanc Nez, decided not to wake him. When they saw Blériot's machine go up from its field they assumed he was just making a test flight.

When they saw the little monoplane disappear out to sea, they knew they had made a mistake! Some rushed to get the Antoinette ready, others to rouse Hubert Latham. But by the time all was ready there could be no hope of catching Blériot. But there was still a chance he might have engine trouble and have to ditch. Latham went to a cliff top radio station that was in contact with Dover, and waited for news there. With the weather, his foot and his engine all doubtful, Blériot was taking a considerable gamble. Moreover, he did not even have a compass!

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Overflying the Escopette


Blériot's annotated sketch map of his route

Blériot's Account

A worried looking Louis Blériot sets off - 4:35 a.m. 25 July 1909In the early morning of 25 July 1909, I left my hotel at Calais and drove out to the field where my aeroplane was garaged. On the way I noted that the weather was favourable to my endevour. I therefore ordered the destroyer Escopette, placed at my disposal by the French Government, to go to sea. I examined my aeroplane. I started the engine and found it worked well. At half-past four we could see all round. Daylight had come. My thoughts were only upon the flight, and my determination to accomplish it this morning. Four thirty-five. Tout est pret! In an instant I am in the air, my engine making 1,200 revolutions - almost its highest speed - in order that I may get quickly over the telegraph-wires along the edge of the cliff.

As soon as I am over the cliff I reduce my speed. There is now no need to force my engine. I begin my flight, steady and sure, towards the coast of England. I have no apprehension, no sensations, pas de tout. The Escopette has seen me. She is driving ahead across the Channel at full speed. She makes perhaps 26 miles per hour. What does it matter? I am making at least 42mph. Rapidly, I overtake her, travelling at a height of 250 feet. The moment is supreme, yet I surprise myself by feeling no exultation. Below me is the sea; the motion of the waves is not pleasant.

I drive on. Ten minutes go. I turn my head to see whether I am proceeding in the right direction. I am amazed. There is nothing to be seen, neither the destroyer, nor France, nor England. I am alone. For ten minutes I am lost. It is a strange position to be alone, unguided, without a compass, in the air over the middle of the Channel. I touch nothing. My hands and feet rest lightly on the levers. I let the aeroplane take its own course. For ten minutes I continue, and then I see the cliffs of Dover, and away to my west the spot where I had intended to land. The wind has taken me out of my course. Now it is time to attend to my steering. I turn towards the west. Now, indeed, I am in difficulties, for the wind here by the cliffs is much stronger, and my speed is reduced as I fight against it. Yet my beautiful aeroplane responds. I see an opening and I find myself over dry land. I attempt a landing, but the wind catches me and whirls me round two or three times. At once I stop my motor, and instantly my machine falls straight upon the land. I am safe on your shore. Soldiers in khaki run up, and a policeman. Two of my compatriots are on the spot. They kiss my cheeks. I am overwhelmed. 

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With a Journalist

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Madame Blériot
 
 
 
 
 

 

Blériot in England
Blériot shortly after landing near Dover Castle

Blériot had taken off at 4:35 a.m. and crash landed at 5:12 a.m. The flight had taken 37 minutes.

Immediately on his arrival Blériot was asked, in all seriousness, to complete a Customs form. It did not have boxes for "pilot" or "aeroplane" so he was described as master of a yaught named the Monoplane. The next day, after being joined by his wife, he took the train to London and was met by Lord Northcliffe in his open top car. The Londoners gave him a rapturous reception and Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail presented him with a  cheque for £1000 at a celebratory luncheon. A few days later, the Blériot XI was taken to London and displayed to the public in Selfridges department store on Oxford Street. It was seen by approximately 12,000 queuing people over four days (including British pioneer Claude Grahame-White).


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Click for Blériot XI details
Blériot XI page

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The end of Latham's second attempt
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Louis Blériot arrives in London
Blériot is given an enthusiastic reception by Londoners as he emerges
from Victoria Station with Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail.

This was nothing to the reception Blériot received when he returned to Paris. One hundred thousand people turned out on the streets to welcome him; he was awarded the Aéro-Club's Gold Medal; and the French Government presented him with a further 50,000 francs (£2,000).

Very welcome though these short-term prizes must have been, Blériot's future was assured by the huge demand for Blériot XI aeroplanes that his spectacular flight generated. The Blériot Company went on to have a long and important involvement in the history of aviation. Hubert Latham and the Antoinette firm were less fortunate. Four days after Blériot's successful crossing, Latham took off again in order to prove that the Antoinette was just as capable as the Blériot machine. Within a couple of miles of Dover the engine failed a second time and Latham was forced to ditch again. This time the sea landing went off less smoothly and Latham received some bad cuts and bruises. He did not try again, and the Antoinette Company went into liquidation a few years later.

The implications of Louis Blériot's flight were enormous, both for aviation and for Britain. Aeroplanes could no longer be regarded as experimental contraptions.

Flying machines are no longer toys and dreams, they are established fact. The possibilities of this new system of locomotion are infinite. I feel, as a Britisher, rather ashamed that we are so completely out of it,
declared David Lloyd-George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lord Northcliffe, the man who had organised the competition, told the journalist who was to write up the story that the keynote must be: "Britain is no longer an island." He was right.
 
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