France soared into aviation history on July 25, 19 09, when Louis Blériot piloted the first aeroplane across the English Channel, accomplishing what no one had done before. In just over half an hour, Blériot crossed la Manche, the 38km-wide body of water that had once kept Napoleon at bay. Following on from the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight two years earlier, Blériot’s feat was the most significant event in aviation history.
Born in 1872, the dapper and moustachioed Blériot was a shrewd businessman. A graduate from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, the clever young engineer founded the Établissements Louis Blériot, which developed the first practical headlamp for the burgeoning auto industry.
EYES ON THE SKY
Blériot kept his early enthusiasm for flying machines to himself, but he became a fanatic aviator as his business prospered. Blériot fine-tuned and perfected ten precarious-looking prototypes. His family fortune dwindled while his dreams of flying grew: he sold the patent to his headlamp to raise funds, along with his summer home and his car. “Like a gambler,” he said, “I had to recover my losses. I had to fly.” And by the summer of 1909, he was one of the few men in the world who could. Blériot’s 11th model could stay aloft for 30 minutes. What he needed now was a spectacular event to attract interest and investors.