Developer of Commercial and Military Aircraft
Louis Blériot, the man who made the
first flight over the English Channel in 1909, also established one of the
world's first successful aircraft companies and was instrumental in the
success of a second company that played a large role in World War I.
After building several gliders and
floatplanes with aviation pioneer Gabriel Voisin, Blériot ended his
association with Voisin in 1906 and began to build and fly aircraft of his
own design. He decided that the future lay with the monoplane. His first
monoplane was the canard (tail-first) Blériot V, which flew briefly before
it crashed. The same year, he built the tandem-wing Blériot VI
Libellule (Dragonfly), which made several short hops at
Issy-les-Moulineaux, near Paris, during the summer of 1907—all at an
altitude of less than 40 feet (12 meters).
A Romanian lawyer in Paris, Trajan Vuia,
had attempted to build the first tractor-propeller monoplane in 1906.
Although unsuccessful, he inspired Blériot to try to build one. His
Blériot VII appeared in 1907. It marked a milestone for flight performance
and aerodynamics. The plane had low, cantilever wings, a covered fuselage,
a rudder, and a large, tail assembly. The two parts of the tail assembly
could be moved jointly to act as elevators or independently to act as
ailerons. The enclosed Antoinette engine drove a four-blade metal tractor
propeller, which was directly connected to the crankshaft. The plane was
tested in November and December 1907 at Issy, and made a total of six
flights. In two flights, the plane covered more than 1,640 feet (500
meters) at a speed of about 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour).
The fabric-covered Blériot VIII
followed. It had an instrument layout, which Blériot patented, that is
still the basic layout of the modern aircraft today. The Blériot IX and
uncompleted Blériot X pusher biplane followed.
The Blériot XI, of English Channel fame,
made its first flight at Issy on January 23, 1909. This plane established
the classic formula of the tractor monoplane that remained unchanged until
the start of World War I. It incorporated many features taken for granted
in later planes: monoplane wings, a tractor propeller directly attached to
the crankshaft, a hinged tilting stick and rudder pedal controls, and a
The plane was first equipped with a
30-horsepower REP engine, which drove a four-bladed metal propeller.
During testing, the engine was replaced by a 22/25-horsepower Anzani and a
Chauviere two-bladed propeller. Other changes involved the control system:
the rudder was enlarged, while the elevons at the outer edge of the tail
assembly were made to function only as elevators. Their lateral function
was taken over entirely by warping the trailing edges of the wings. The
fuselage was built of ash with supporting struts and wire ties, and the
shoulder-mounted wing was also wood. The tail assembly consisted of a
central rudder and elevators at each end of fixed horizontal tail
surfaces. The main landing gear consisted of two large bicycle wheels,
connected to a pair of steel tubes braced by wooden beams.
Blériot's Channel crossing ensured him
an important place in aviation history. Within weeks, he received more
than 100 orders for the Blériot XI. Between 1909 and 1912, nearly every
European aviation contest had a Blériot XI among its winners, and the type
was flown by most of the leading aviators in Europe. Harriet Quimby, the
first woman to fly the English Channel, flew a Blériot XI. By the end of
1913, Blériot had delivered 800 aircraft of the 1,294 aircraft of all
types built in France that year.
The Blériot XI was also the first plane
sold to the French Army and the first to serve during military operations.
Captain Carlo Piazza flew it on October 23, 1911, in the war between Italy
The 1914 model of the Blériot XI was one
of the world's first fighters. At the outbreak of World War I, five
British squadrons had Blériot XIs. When France mobilized in July 1914, the
Aéronautique Militaire purchased 25 Blériot XIs. The Blériot XI-2 could be
armed with grenades or fléchettes (small darts). In the first year of the
war, it was one of the most widely used observation planes and served with
21 French, British, and Italian squadrons. Five models were developed, and
132 planes were built during the war. By the war's end, Blériot's company
could produce 18 planes per day.
Developed soon after the first Blériot
XI, the Blériot XII first flew on May 21, 1909, at Issy. It could carry a
passenger as well as a pilot and was the first aircraft to carry three
people. The plane crashed at Reims on August 29, 1909.
In 1914, Blériot took over as president
of the failing aircraft company called Société pour les Appareils
Deperussin and renamed it Société Anonyme Pour l'Aviation et ses Derivés,
better known as SPAD. SPAD went on to produce a series of aircraft that
may have been the best Allied combat aircraft of World War I. The SPAD
VII, designed in 1916, featured a single fully synchronized machine gun
and a top speed of more than 119 miles per hour. In France alone, 5,600 of
these planes were built.
SPAD's chief designer Louis Béchereau
went on to create the SPAD XIII, which some consider to be the best Allied
aircraft of the war. It incorporated a pair of fully synchronized Vickers
machine guns and could fly at 138 miles per hour. More than 8,400 SPAD
XIIIs were delivered before the end of the war. France's top aces Rene
Fonck, Charles Nungesser, and Georges Guynemer all flew this plane as well
as Americans Frank Luke and Eddie Rickenbacker.
After the war ended, Blériot and SPAD
merged. During the 1920s and 1930s, the company produced a large number
and wide variety of quality aircraft used by several European airlines and
nations under both the SPAD and Blériot labels. The SPAD 33 of 1920, a
biplane, developed into a family of similar aircraft with seats for four
to six passengers that ended with the SPAD 126 in 1929. The most
noteworthy of these variants was the SPAD 56, which set an altitude record
in 1923 by reaching 26,900 feet (8,200 meters) while carrying a cargo of
550 pounds (250 kilograms). More than 100 of these biplanes were built.
Some could cruise at 106 miles per hour (170 kilometres per hour).
The Blériot 115's innovative design had
four engines installed in pairs, two on the upper wing and two on the
lower. Each had a fuel tank set just above it. The engines could be
started in flight and it was claimed that it could take off with only two
engines operating. Two of these planes were assigned to the military and
in 1925, they crossed the Sahara desert in nineteen days. The Blériot 135
was one of the first four-engine planes designed expressly for civil
transport and one of the small planes used exclusively on the Paris-London
route. The Blériot 110 was the plane flown by Lucien Bossoutrot and
Maurice Rossi when they set a world record for closed-circuit distance
flying in February 1931. It was also used for several other long-distance
records in the early 1930s.
The Blériot 125 was first flown in 1931.
Although it never got beyond the prototype stage, it attracted a great
deal of attention at the 12th Salon de l'Aviation in Paris in
November 1930. Its unusual configuration was designed to provide the
maximum comfort for its twelve passengers. It had two separate fuselages
below the wings. Each fuselage ended in a tail piece supporting the tail
unit. The three-man crew was housed in a small central cabin over the
wing. One of the two Hispano-Suiza 500-horsepower engines powered a
tractor propeller and the other went to a pusher propeller.
Blériot continued to produce military
and civil airplanes and seaplanes up to 1935, when his manufacturing
business was closed.