Crossing the English Channel in a Blériot XI

Ride along on a Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 journey with Louis Blériot during his historic 1909 flight.

The Blériot XI, built in 1909, was the result of several years of experiments, encouraged further by the public demonstration of the Wright Flyer. [Image courtesy of Patrick Chovanec]

For this session in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS2020), I’m reenacting French aviator Louis Blériot’s historic 1909 crossing of the English Channel.

Louis Blériot [Credit: Smithsonian Institution]

Louis Blériot was a French engineer who invented the first practical headlight for automobiles. After building a successful headlight business, he turned his attention to the experimental field of aviation.

The Blériot XI, built in 1909, was the result of several years of experiments, encouraged further by the public demonstration of the Wright Flyer flown by Wilbur Wright in Paris the previous year to great acclaim.

As you can see, there are no instruments. No airspeed indicator, no altimeter, not even a fuel gauge. But it was the first airplane to adopt the “stick” along with a footboard for controlling the rudder.

The Blériot XI is powered by a 25 hp engine, designed by Italian-born motorcycle racer Alessandro Anzani, with three piston cylinders arranged in a semi-radial design.

Before tackling the channel, I take some practice flights. The first thing I learn is you cannot taxi this machine. It has to be manhandled into position for takeoff on the runway.

On getting airborne, the very first thing I notice is the torque from the propeller will always make you turn to the left, even while in flight, unless you constantly apply some right rudder. After making an involuntary circle to the left, pulled by the torque, I put it down on the runway where I started. I guess that’s one way to do it.

But I soon get aloft again, better prepared to control the aircraft the second time around. Like the Wright Flyer, the Blériot XI uses “wing warping” to control roll. Instead of ailerons (a later adoption), wires pull the flexible wood-and-fabric wing and alter its shape.

As I’ve read about the Wright Flyer, the wing warping really exists more to control the wings and keep them level. To turn, you mostly use the rudder. The control responses lag. Once you get started on a turn, in either direction, it takes some time to work your way out of it. Everything is slow and steady. No abrupt movements, no overcorrections.

So on my second flight, I’m actually able to maneuver the Blériot XI around a typical (in this case right) traffic pattern. Once on base, I pretty much just cut the power at this point and glide in. If you’re flying, you’re pretty much full throttle. If you’re landing, you’re pretty much power off.

All right, so I didn’t kill myself—twice—-so like Blériot must have, I’m feeling pretty confident about tackling the English Channel.

On the morning of July 25, 1909, Blériot took off from a beach near Calais, France. The big question I have is how much fuel I’m going to burn going across the channel. I presume he had enough, but what his cushion was, I have no idea. And there’s no fuel gauge to tell me. Well, you know, there’s only one way to find out. I’m off.

Blériot flew at an altitude of about 250 feet, but—not necessarily by intent—I’m already a bit higher than that, probably around 1,000 feet. It seems to work, so I’ll try to hold it here.

There’s Calais, off to my right. Did I mention the Blériot XI doesn’t have a compass? So like Blériot, I need to just point myself in the general direction of where I think England must be.

I’m using the clouds to keep my heading straight. With the torque, it would be easy to drift either left (too little rudder) or right (too much) without realizing it. Blériot himself followed a ship across the channel, though he quickly overtook it and had to manage on his own.

Putt, putt, putt, putt. That’s the sound that the engine is making, alone over the channel. Blériot flew at about 45 mph, or 39 knots. I can’t tell right now—I don’t have an airspeed indicator—but my time will eventually show that I’m doing about the same at full throttle.

Soon after passing the ship, Blériot could see the English coast on the horizon ahead. There it is. Glad it’s a clear day. 

Looking back at my tail (and toward France), you can see the right rudder I have to keep in just to stay straight.

Blériot didn’t have quite the same visibility I do: “For more than 10 minutes, I was alone, isolated, lost in the midst of the immense sea, and I did not see anything on the horizon or a single ship.” But he couldn’t wait for ideal weather because there were several rival French aviators prepared to take off and compete for the 1,000 pound prize offered by the Daily Mail for the first to cross the channel.

During his crossing, Blériot found himself getting pushed east by the wind and had to double back a bit toward Dover, England. Unlike him, it looks like I’m roughly on course. In fact, I’m dead on target. That’s the port of Dover to my left, with Dover Castle overlooking it.

As Blériot approached the English coast, he had someone positioned atop the White Cliffs of Dover waving a French flag to help show him where to land. With no one waving a flag to help me, I need to pick out a nice field for a landing.

Blériot actually landed right next to Dover Castle, just ahead to the left, and there’s a little monument to indicate where. But there’s a copse of trees there now, so I need to find a different spot. That nice, long, open green field to the right will do. I’ve cut the power and am gliding in.

My wheels touch down fine, but at these low speeds the rudder has barely any control, so I start to ground loop and end up gently on my right wing.

But I don’t feel too bad. When Blériot touched down in 1909, he made a hard “pancake” landing, damaging his gear and propeller. Obviously, nobody cared. He had just completed the first cross-channel flight in history.

Blériot’s flight took 36 minutes and 30 seconds. Mine took just over 38 minutes, but I started a bit further inland than he did and didn’t need to jog back west (to counter being blown off course) or circle before landing.

Blériot built about 900 aircraft for the French Army before World War I, mostly on the Blériot XI model. He later headed SPAD, which produced more advanced biplanes as the war progressed.  Blériot died in 1936 but not before personally welcoming Charles Lindbergh to Paris after his similar landmark flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

If you’d like to see a version of this story with many more screenshots and historical images, you can check out my original post here.

This story was told utilizing the Wing42 Beriot XI add-on to MSFS2020.

Patrick Chovanec
Patrick ChovanecContributor
Patrick Chovanec works as an economist in New York City, and has taught as a professor at China's Tsinghua University and at Columbia University. He is a private pilot, and author of the recently released book "Cleared for the Option: A Year Learning to Fly."

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