The Bleriot XI’s Anzani motorcycle engine barely produces enough horsepower to get the fragile craft off the ground, but that doesn’t diminish the appeal of this historic bird, which is one of only two surviving originals still flying after all these years.
Rare Airplanes in Flight
The restored Bleriot XI in the collection of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York is the second-oldest flyable airplane in the world and the only restored Bleriot-built original known to be airworthy. Bearing factory serial number 56 and registered as N60094, the airplane still makes short hops on calm summer and fall Saturday afternoons for admiring spectators, rising to a height of just a few feet above Rhinebeck’s grass runway before settling back again and taxiing to show center to pose for photos.
The flights are a reminder of the simplicity of aviation’s pioneering days, when so much suddenly seemed possible with fabric stretched over a wire-braced wooden frame and linked with an engine and propeller. Simplicity was the idea behind the famed Bleriot XI, a basic design that in all honesty probably shouldn’t have been able to accomplish what it did when it made its historic crossing of the English Channel on July 25, 1909. Lateral control of the Bleriot XI is accomplished by warping the trailing edges of the wing. Power came from a 25 hp, three-cylinder motorcycle engine barely capable of lifting the Bleriot out of ground effect, much less sustaining the machine on a flight of 31 miles across choppy, open water from Calais to Dover. After the cross-channel flight, for which French pilot and airplane designer Louis Bleriot won a £1,000 prize from the London Daily Mail, the Bleriot XI became world famous, and rich thrill-seekers from across Europe and the United States lined up to buy one.
The Bleriot XI in the Rhinebeck collection might never have flown again after a crash in Saugus, Massachusetts, in 1910. College professor H. H. Coburn would bicycle past the badly damaged airplane as a boy. The Bleriot intrigued him. As an adult, Coburn bought the Bleriot and put it in storage. Finally, in 1952, after the Bleriot had been sold to Bill Champlin of Laconia, New Hampshire, it was passed on to Cole Palen, the founder of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, who performed for decades in the weekly World War I fighter reenactments as the fictional “Black Baron.”
When Palin received the Bleriot XI, it was in shambles. He had to build a whole new wing, stabilizer and elevators. Most of the fuselage is original, and the engine is a correct Anzani Y type, modified from a racing-motorcycle design. The highest Rhinebeck’s restored Bleriot has ever flown is 60 feet. Pilots who have flown it say it barely gathers enough speed to take off — after all, who knows how much horsepower the 100-plus-year-old engine still produces? — and seems to levitate off the ground more than fly. The margin between stall and max cruise speed is only a few knots.
To think that a Bleriot XI, built just six years after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, was able to cross the English Channel is remarkable. By the same token, to have the good fortune of being able to drive to Rhinebeck, New York, and — maybe, if the wind is just right — see an original 1909 Bleriot fly, well, that’s the stuff of fantasy. Thanks to the hard work and vision of the late Cole Palen, it’s a fantasy come to life. — Stephen Pope