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Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 14:35 UK
First to fly across the Channel
By Jo Pattison
BBC Kent

Bleriot XI aircraft
Bleriot landed in North Fall Meadow in Dover

At dawn on 25th of July 1909, Louis Bleriot took off from the Sangatte cliffs near Calais and flew into the murky skies over the English Channel.

In his Bleriot XI, a small 25-horsepower aircraft of his own design, he headed north in the rough direction of England.

Without instruments or a compass, Bleriot could see neither France nor England for part of the journey.

He eventually landed in North Fall Meadow behind Dover Castle.

Louis Bleriot
The journey took Louis Bleriot 36 minutes and 30 seconds

Bleriot would not have been able to swim if he had crashed over The Channel. He was walking on crutches, having burned his leg badly on the engine of the plane earlier that week.

Flying at just over 40 miles at an hour at an altitude of approximately 250 feet, the perilous journey took him 36 minutes and 30 seconds and earned him a £1000 cash prize courtesy of the Daily Mail, as well as the honour of becoming the first man to fly across the English Channel and instant worldwide fame.

Born in Cambrai, France on 1st July 1872, Louis Bleriot had an early obsession with aviation which would last his lifetime. He was an inventor and engineer with one of his creations, a car headlamp, amassing a small fortune for him.

He used this money to experiment with aircraft design and after an unsuccessful partnership with Gabriel Voisin he went out on his own and created the world's first successful monoplane, the Bleriot V. This was to be a predecessor to the Bleriot XI which took him on that momentous flight on 25th July 1909.

The competition

Bleriot is now a household name, but at the time he was the underdog. No one expected the nearly bankrupt headlamp manufacturer to take the prize when his competitors were extremely glamorous and wealthy.

Hubert Latham
Hubert Latham was Louis Bleriot's main rival

The favourite was another Frenchman with the very English name of Hubert Latham. The 26 year-old Oxford-educated playboy was rich, handsome and stylish. He was a big game hunter, a motor boat racer and balloonist - and had already crossed the Channel in a balloon with his cousin Jacques Faure in 1905.

He first attempted in an aeroplane on 19th July 1909, but the engine on his Antoinette IV failed half-way across and Latham performed the first ever landing of an aeroplane on water.

However, he was keen to have another go. The Antoinette (designed by engineer Léon Levavasseur and businessman Jules Gastambide) was repaired and readied for another attempt, but on the morning of 25th July as Bleriot was starting his machine and taxiing across the fields of Les Barraques, Latham was asleep in his tent a few miles West in Sangatte.

He had told his valet only to wake him if the weather looked fine enough for a cross-channel attempt, but as it didn't look too promising, on the second most important day in aviation history, one of the favourites stayed tucked-up in bed.

Latham's aircraft
Latham crashes his aircraft into the Channel

Not unreasonably, Latham was disappointed with the fact that Bleriot had succeeded, but made another attempt a two days later - again engine failure condemned the hapless Hubert to the murky waters of La Manche.

Mystery surrounds the rest of his life. Anonymous reports suggest he was shot in the head while game-hunting in Chad in 1912, although his death certificate suggests he was killed by a wounded buffalo!

There is a statue of Latham a few miles West of Calais on a hill named after him - Mont Latham. Although there is a memorial to Bleriot and the town of Les Barraques has been renamed Bleriot Plage, there is no statue of the man himself.


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