French aviation pioneer Louis Bléirot was the first person to fly a plane over the ocean in a heavier-than-air craft, a feat of great daring for the early 1900s.
Bléirot was born July 1, 1872, in Cambrai, France. While he amassed a great fortune at an early age by inventing automobile headlights, Bléirot's lifelong devotion was focused on aviation. His earliest flight experiments involved towed gliders on the Seine River. While in his thirties, Bléirot used the newly available lightweight engines to design his own aircraft. He taught himself to fly while continuing to improve his initial design by trial and error. His series of airplane configurations ranged from box-kite biplanes to a tail-first monoplane. In 1907, at the age of 35, he made his first flight at Bagatelle, France.
But it was Bléirot's incredibly dangerous 40-minute flight across the English Channel that launched him to fame. The English Channel posed a challenge to aviation that many could not resist. In 1909, three European pilots, Hubert Latham, Count de Lambert, and Bleriot, prepared for what many called a deadly attempt.
Aircraft damage delayed de Lambert, and Lantham's plane crashed into the water halfway through the course. Braving rough weather and more than 20 miles (32 km) of dangerous sea, Bléirot shocked the world six days later when he flew his Bleriot Model XI, 28-horsepower monoplane successfully across the Channel on July 25, 1909.
The young aviator traveled from Les Barraques, France, to Dover, England. Bléirot achieved lateral control by slightly warping the wings and castering the main undercarriage wheels in a way that would allow the aircraft to "crab" in a crosswind on the ground. His design revolutionized all operations on the ground. In the end, his triumphant flight won for him the much sought after London Daily Mail prize of 1,000 pounds sterling. Bléirot's success sparked a wave of excitement across Europe.
After his launch to fame in 1909, Bléirot's company produced fighter aircraft for the military. His new aviation company was soon producing a line of aircraft known for their high quality and performance. The Bléirot XI was the first aircraft put to use by France and Italy in 1910; Britain followed suit two years later. By World War I, his famous S.P.A.D. fighter planes were in use by all the Allied Nations.
Bléirot's exceptional skill and ingenuity contributed significantly to the advance of aero science in his time, and popularized aviation as a sport. He remained active in the aero industry until his death on August 2, 1936.
KELLI A. MILLER