By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterFebruary 15, 2018
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- When people think of early manned flight, most think of the Wright brothers, but there was another pioneer in Aviation who helped shape Aviation into what it is today.
Louis Bleriot was a French inventor, aviator and engineer who became world famous for becoming the first to fly across the English Channel, which he did in an aircraft of his own design.
Although the Wright brothers developed the first flying machine that used a kite design, Bleriot focused his sights on a tractor design, which placed the motor and propeller in the front of the aircraft, which would eventually allow him to cross the channel, but his world-famous feat all started with observation, according to Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
"He went out and observed some gliders and they really fascinated him, so he bought one of these gliders, tinkered with it and crashed a lot," said Mitchell. "He probably crashed gliders and planes at least two or three dozen times, but fortunately in those days they weren't going very high and weren't going very fast.
"Then, he decided that he would put a motorized version in the air. His first design was the Bleriot II glider and he had many subsequent designs of different Bleriot aircraft after that," said the curator. "Through trial and error, he was able to overcome the two major hurdles that Aviators and engineers of the day faced -- aircraft structure and horsepower."
During the early 1900s, many aircraft were fragile, which made it difficult for them to sustain flight. Additionally, the engines of the time didn't have the power necessary to get the aircraft off the ground and keep them in the air for long periods of time.
"The distances and records were measured in meters," said Mitchell. "They just didn't have engines back then that were robust enough to pull an aircraft on the ground, then get it fast enough to go in the air."
In 1907 Bleriot created the Bleriot VII, which he mounted with a 50-horsepower engine, and in December of that year he managed a 500-meter flight with a successful U-turn, which was considered an impressive feat, said the museum curator.
"That sounds kind of mundane today, but back then that was huge," he said. "The reason why was because you could now control (the aircraft) and turn around and go the other way. Most of the aircraft back then picked up, flew straight and landed, if they didn't crash."
The turn was achieved by manipulating cables that were attached to the wings that the pilot would operate by stepping on them, causing the wing to warp to achieve banks and turns.
"It was very labor intensive to turn the aircraft around," added Mitchell.
Ultimately, he came out with the Bleriot XI.
On July 25, 1909, Bleriot became world famous for being the first pilot to fly across the English Channel in his Bleriot XI, which he did at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour at an altitude of about 250 feet.
"He took off about five in the morning and was basically flying blind in the clouds for about 10 minutes during his flight," said Mitchell. "The engine was overheating and the rain cooled the engine to allow him to complete it, and he was able to cross the channel in roughly 36 minutes. To fly 36 minutes without something breaking or falling out of the sky was a feat in and of itself, so it was a pretty big deal."
Because of his successful flight, Bleriot became known worldwide, and ultimately very successful and wealthy -- selling about 1,000 of his Bleriot aircraft. Because of his success, he founded his own aircraft company and played an important role in supplying U.S. Army Aviators with combat aircraft during World War I.
The U.S. Army Aviation Museum houses a Bleriot XIII replica with many original parts, which people can view to see the design of the early aircraft, which was made of mostly wood and fabric.
Mitchell said it's because of visionaries like Bleriot that Army Aviation can exist today in its current form.