First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Louis Blériot accomplished the first international airplane flight when he flew from France to England across the English Channel.

Summary of Event

In 1908, Wilbur Wright Wright, Wilbur presented demonstrations of powered flight in France that caused an uproar throughout Europe. Wright’s ability to control his airplane astonished European pilots and other observers. One of these was the aeronautical correspondent for the Daily Mail, an English newspaper owned by Alfred Harmsworth, a man with a deep interest in aviation. To spur the interest of others in his country, Harmsworth offered a prize of five hundred pounds for the first flight across the English Channel, in either direction, in a heavier-than-air device unsupported by any lifting agent; the flight was to be completed between sunrise and sunset. This was not the first time Harmsworth had attempted to interest the people and government of England in aviation. In 1906, he had offered a prize for the first flight from London to Manchester; ironically, it was won, in 1910, by a Frenchman, Louis Paulham. Airplanes;development Transportation;air Aviation;development [kw]First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel (July 25, 1909) [kw]Airplane Flight Across the English Channel, First (July 25, 1909) [kw]Flight Across the English Channel, First Airplane (July 25, 1909) [kw]First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel (July 25, 1909) [kw]English Channel, First Airplane Flight Across the (July 25, 1909) [kw]Channel, First Airplane Flight Across the English (July 25, 1909) Airplanes;development Transportation;air Aviation;development [g]England;July 25, 1909: First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel[02440] [g]France;July 25, 1909: First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel[02440] [c]Space and aviation;July 25, 1909: First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel[02440] [c]Transportation;July 25, 1909: First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel[02440] [c]Science and technology;July 25, 1909: First Airplane Flight Across the English Channel[02440] Blériot, Louis Harmsworth, Alfred Latham, Hubert

No one stepped forward in response to the prize offered by the Daily Mail, so late in 1908 Harmsworth increased the sum to one thousand pounds, an amount that succeeded in bringing out contestants. The first to announce his intentions was Hubert Latham, a debonair young flyer of French and English descent who immediately won the hearts of the public. Even after other contestants had declared themselves, Latham remained the favorite. Like many early aviators, he was wealthy; his money allowed him to pursue a variety of interests, from big-game hunting to racing boats and automobiles to aviation. He had, in fact, already flown the Channel, from England to France, by balloon; he had decided to become an airplane pilot after witnessing some of Wright’s demonstrations.

Latham chose to fly an Antoinette, a beautiful but rather unstable monoplane designed and built by Leon Levavasseur. Levavasseur, Leon Latham and the designer set up an airfield in France at Sangatte, not far from Calais, in the summer of 1909. The weather over the English Channel, known for its unpredictability, was worse than normal: High winds, rain, fog, and mist conditions precluded any attempt until mid-July. On July 19, at 6:42 a.m., Latham finally took off for his first attempt to cross the Channel, escorted by the destroyer Harpoon. Seven minutes into the flight, his engine failed, and he landed in the Channel, unhurt. The crew of the Harpoon rescued him and attempted to bring his airplane on board, but unfortunately in the process the machine was damaged beyond repair.

Once on shore, Latham ordered another plane to be sent right away. It arrived in a short time and was quickly assembled, and he was ready for another try. In the meantime, however, word of Latham’s attempt had reached the ears of his most serious competitor, Louis Blériot, who traveled to Calais immediately to challenge Latham.

Blériot, a Frenchman, was heavyset and dour-looking, with a large, red mustache. His less-than-dashing appearance, together with his no-nonsense attitude, made him less popular with the public than Latham. He had amassed a fortune through the business of designing, manufacturing, and selling acetylene headlights for automobiles, and, having become infatuated with flying, he spent most of his fortune on aviation. From 1901 to 1909, Blériot had designed and built a number of airplanes, evolving from devices with flapping wings to biplanes and, eventually, monoplanes, culminating in his Blériot No. XI. It has been estimated that Blériot had invested approximately $150,000 in building airplanes by the time he came up with his No. XI, the plane that would bring him fame and more fortune.

Arriving in Calais, Blériot chose as his airfield site a farm near Les Baraques, a small village not far from Sangatte. His plane—driven by a 25-horsepower Anazini engine, crude in design, and not known for its reliability—was carted to the farm. Both aircraft were now standing ready for the flight, but the two pilots could only fret while the weather over the English Channel kept them grounded. On July 24, it appeared that there might be a change in the unfriendly weather; accordingly, that night M. Charles Fontaine, a reporter for the Paris newspaper Le Matin, took the night ship to Dover, England. His job was to find a safe landing place for Blériot and to signal him by waving the French flag.

Louis Blériot (standing on plane) and helpers start the engine of Blériot’s airplane for the first flight across the English Channel.

(Library of Congress)

At 2:30 a.m. on July 25, Blériot was awakened and given the news that the weather seemed to be improving. He dressed and ate a quick breakfast, then went to the field to prepare for departure while his wife went to Calais to alert the escort ship Escopette to Blériot’s forthcoming departure. At 4:10 a.m. he made a short test flight, and by 4:35 he was ready to leave, waiting only to make sure that his takeoff would be after sunrise. According to witnesses, just before he took off he asked, “Au fait, ou est-ce exactement, Douvres?” (By the way, where is it exactly, Dover?)

After a short time airborne, Blériot passed over his escort ship; now he was alone, flying through patches of mist. Suddenly, fog engulfed him, obscuring everything. With no instruments on board his airplane to guide him, not even sure he was heading in the right direction, Blériot released the controls, letting the airplane fly itself. He flew this way for ten minutes, during which his engine began to overheat, intermittently losing and then recovering power, causing him to lose altitude. The aircraft’s descent took it through a small rain shower, which seemed to resolve his problem: The engine cooled down and regained full power.

A few minutes later, the mist and fog began to thin, and Blériot could see the coast of England. He realized that the winds had blown him off course: He was near St. Margaret’s Bay, east of Dover. He turned and headed for the Dover lighthouse, visible through the haze, noting that the winds had increased in velocity and turbulence. Flying over the English fleet, which was anchored in Dover Harbor, he proceeded along the cliffs looking for Fontaine. Spying the reporter standing in a depression above the cliffs, Blériot made a half circle and headed toward him. Once over the cliffs, the airplane experienced severe turbulence, which spun it around. Blériot responded by cutting the engine, and the plane descended rapidly from approximately eighteen meters, making a “pancake” landing that smashed the landing gear and broke the propeller. Thirty-seven minutes after taking off from Calais, Blériot had survived his fifty-first crash, won the coveted Daily Mail prize, and secured his place in aviation history.

Significance

Although the Wright brothers had proved that sustained, controlled flight was possible, most people in the early 1900’s viewed the airplane as a frail, unreliable, dangerous device, a rich person’s toy with no practical use. Blériot’s flight across the English Channel was not particularly noteworthy for its length in either time or distance, but as the first airplane flight to traverse national boundaries and to cross a large body of water, it awakened awareness in both governments and the general public that this new invention could be something more than a passing fad—it could, in fact, have practical uses.

The worldwide fame that Blériot achieved through his successful flight, together with his investment of the prize money in his recently acquired aviation company, established him as the leading European airplane designer and manufacturer of the time and for many years thereafter. Although debates over the relative superiority of biplane versus monoplane would continue for a number of years, Blériot’s monoplane was the most widely accepted design of that era and would become the prototype for most twentieth century airplanes.

France was quick to capitalize on the excitement and fervor surrounding Blériot’s achievement. Within a month after his English Channel crossing, the champagne industry, in cooperation with the municipality of Reims, had organized the world’s first international air meet, bringing together most of the leading aviators of the day to compete for prize money. The Reims air meet was soon followed by other tournaments and cross-country air races, events that fed the technological development of the airplane much as early automobile races fed the development of the automobile. Within two years, air races had become international in scope. With contestants flying from one country to another, it soon became obvious that national borders, as drawn on maps, had lost much of their effectiveness as obstacles to the movement of people and goods between countries. No longer was it necessary to stop at the border and gain permission to enter or pass through a country.

While the general public was still caught up in the excitement and joy of Blériot’s successful flight across the English Channel, many leaders in England and continental Europe were quick to realize the political and military significance of the accomplishment. For hundreds of years, England’s security had been guaranteed by two things: the English Channel and the Royal Navy. Blériot’s flight had negated both of these as the country’s protectors. Harmsworth was the first to predict that in the future, the airplane would play a dominant role in England’s survival. Although his efforts to spur the development of aviation in England were supported by other farsighted leaders and reporters, as well as the general public, they were for a number of years thwarted by the Royal Navy’s domination of the English military establishment.

Observers on the Continent, meanwhile, pointed out that airplanes could fly in both directions, hence it was not England alone that had lost a measure of security. As a result, while England vacillated, France took the lead in nurturing the development of aviation, followed closely by Germany. By the time World War I broke out, the military establishments of both countries had fledgling aviation branches, and the outstanding fighter planes produced by Blériot’s company, the Société Pour l’Aviation et ses Dérivés (better known by its acronym, SPAD), played an important part in the Allies’ eventual victory. It was not until World War II, however, that Harmsworth’s prediction concerning the crucial role of the airplane in England’s defense against attack would come true—in 1940, when the Royal Air Force defeated the German Luftwaffe in what later became known as the Battle of Britain.

As the first international airplane flight and the first flight over a large expanse of water, Blériot’s 1909 English Channel crossing demonstrated the potential of the airplane for transporting people and goods. It may, therefore, be considered the forerunner of both military and peaceful commercial flight between countries. Airplanes;development Transportation;air Aviation;development

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dick, Ron, and Dan Patterson. The Early Years. Vol. 1 in Aviation Century. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 2003. Highly illustrated history details the progress of aviation from 1900 to 1939, analyzing why developments in flight took the directions they did and presenting information on the individuals who created the world’s aviation industry, including Blériot. Features bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gwynn-Jones, Terry. “1909—Lord Northcliffe’s Channel Challenge: The Dawn of Air Racing.” In The Air Racers: Aviation’s Golden Era, 1909-1936. London: Pelham Books, 1984. Detailed account of the rivalry between Latham and Blériot. Illustrated with colorized reproductions of black-and-white photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prendergast, Curtis. “The Great Show at Reims.” In The First Aviators. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980. Presents a brief but excellent account of Blériot’s flight. Includes a series of illustrative photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Michael J. H. Aviators: A Photographic History of Flight. New York: Collins, 2005. Photographs document the development of aviation from Kitty Hawk in 1903 to the early twenty-first century. Includes coverage of Blériot’s Channel crossing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Lowell, and Lowell Thomas, Jr. “A Twenty-Two-Mile Flight That Startled the World.” In Famous First Flights That Changed History: Sixteen Dramatic Adventures. 1968. Reprint. New York: Lyons Press, 2004. Focuses on Blériot’s accomplishment in being the first to fly the English Channel while giving credit to Latham for his failed attempt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Villard, Henry Serrano. Contact! The Story of the Early Aviators. 1968. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2002. Traces the first decade of powered flight, from Kitty Hawk to World War I. Offers a detailed description of the first crossing of the English Channel by airplane and of the people involved; also provides insight into events that followed. An excellent source for anyone interested in the early development of aviation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, Graham. Flying Witness: Harry Harper and the Golden Age of Aviation. London: Putnam, 1958. An outstanding history of early aviation, as seen by Harry Harper, who was employed by Harmsworth as the world’s first aeronautical correspondent. Two chapters, “Gallant Failure” and “Across the Channel,” treat the contest between Latham and Blériot to be the first to cross the English Channel by airplane.

Wright Brothers’ First Flight

U.S. Post Office Begins Transcontinental Airmail Delivery

Howard Hughes Builds a Business Empire

Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight

First Transatlantic Solo Flight by a Woman

The DC-3 Opens a New Era of Air Travel

Categories: History Content