Sun, Jul 26, 2009 - Page 6 News List

First English Channel flight recreated


Edmond Salis, a French pilot, takes off on Bleriot XI, a restored original of the plane in which Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel 100 years ago, yesterday in Ambleteuse, France, as part of commemorations of the centenary of the event, the first flight across a large body of water in a heavier-than-air craft. Edmond Salis landed about 40 minutes later in the English Channel port of Dover.


Louis Bleriot was declared crazy by his own mother.

“He wants to fly over the English Channel in a kite,” she complained to friends a century ago.

Bleriot defied her and helped usher in commercial plane travel with an epic flight from Calais to Dover in 1909, aboard a winged contraption with bicycle wheels and wooden propeller.

A pilot is recreating the journey of the 37-year-old Frenchman in one of Bleriot’s monoplanes to mark yesterday’s anniversary.

The aircraft, made famous after the Channel crossing, was commercialized with more than 800 copies made, and put into action in World War I by several air forces.

The flight came six years after the Wright brothers flew over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and during a decade in which pioneers in Europe and North America were developing the rudiments of airplane technology and expanding its limits.

Bleriot was oblivious to chiding about his project. He had put 10 years of his life and his entire fortune into his dream.

Accompanied by only a few friends and helpers, he towed his craft into the start position on a field near Calais on the night of July 25, 1909. It had a 25-horsepower motor and was baptized Bleriot XI.

The wooden propeller roared.

At 4:41am, the 7.05m wonderbird took off.

Just 38 minutes later, the daring dream was a reality: Bleriot landed in a field near Dover on the English coast, the first person to fly across the English Channel.

The touchdown was bumpy, and the aircraft damaged, because Bleriot had been forced to cut the engine 20m above the ground. Little matter.

“Bleriot was the first to prove that flying was no hobby of madmen,” said Francois Mathias, an expert at the Paris Museum of Arts and Crafts where the flying machine has come to rest.

Mathias looks with respect upward, where the original Bleriot XI hangs under a vaulted roof. Elegant and fragile, the rear is made from ash wood, bicycle wheels pass for landing gear, the wooden body is coated with rubberized linen and stabilized with thinly threaded wire.

Pilot Edmond Salis was to board such a monoplane at 7am yesterday in Calais and try to recreate Bleriot’s feat. Later, daredevils in flying crates were to take part in an air race. In the evening, a gala dinner was planned in Dover, followed by fireworks.

On a beach now called Bleriot Plage outside the French port city of Calais, Salis geared up on Friday for the flight and dismissed any fears of a repeat crash.

“It’s still an adventure. It is an old engine, it is an old motor, but it is well maintained, it works well, so there is no reason that any problem would happen,” the 39-year-old said.

His father, 72-year-old aircraft manufacturer Jean Salis, helped tune up the plane for the trip. Onlookers dressed in period costume and a century-old car were on hand on Friday for the 100th anniversary events. Bleriot’s descendants are expected to take part.

The Paris Museum of Arts and Crafts is also celebrating. A special exhibit shows Bleriot’s transformation from building car headlights to founding father of the modern aircraft industry.

“He wasn’t the first pioneer,” Mathias said.

German Otto Lilienthal flew a few hundred meters in the 1890s, and the Wright brothers briefly lifted off with a motor-propelled craft in 1903.

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly over the Atlantic, landing at Le Bourget outside Paris. Bleriot hugged him on arrival. Lindbergh is said to have remarked that he would fly back across the Atlantic in his own aircraft, “But I wouldn’t fly over the Channel in a Bleriot XI.”

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