The Bleriot XI was one of the first notable monoplanes to achieve any level of fame. Primitive by today's standards, the system became a standard all its own in the early 1900s. The type served in a limited capacity during the opening salvos of World War 1 and would achieve fame by crossing the English Channel under the direct control of Bleriot himself. The aircraft will forever be remembered for its stable design and its use of "wing-warping" to control roll. At any rate, the Bleriot XI served to cement the legacy of Louis Bleriot in the realm of aviation history.
Design of the Bleriot XI is credited to Louis Bleriot (7/1/1872 - 8/2/1936) and Raymond Saulnier. Saulnier went on to make his own name in the aviation business under the banner of Morane-Saulnier. Bleriot was an engineer by education and credited with the invention of the automobile headlight. Using funds from his successful headlight business venture, he began producing his own working studies of the concept of towed glider flights and began to forge his love of aviation in the process. After a short partnership with Gabriel Voisin (another aircraft engineer whose name preceded some World War 1 fighter design designations all their own), Bleriot took to start his own aviation firm, at first producing the unsuccessful Bleriot V. The Bleriot V became Louis Bleriot's first design to achieve sustained flight.
The VII, complete with its covered-over fuselage, soon followed and proved more in line with front mounted aircraft designs to come. The aircraft was primitive to the core, appearing as something out of a child's imaginary airplane built out of cardboard boxes. The fuselage was a near-perfect rectangular shape while the main wings were low-mounted with noticeable dihedral (upward angle from root to tip). Additional, this design carried a more conventional empennage (tail section) with a single low-fitted vertical tail fin and large area horizontal stabilizers with tailplane elevons. The pilot sat in an open-air cockpit directly behind the engine in the forward fuselage. The engine powered a four-blade paddle-type propeller with broad tapered blades. Power was supplied through a single Antoinette 50-horsepower 8-cylinder water-cooled piston engine. Cruising speed was listed at 50 miles per hour. Bleriot and his VII made a total of six flights before the machine was lost to accident in December of 1907.
The Bleriot IX was an experimental monoplane design fitting an Antoinette engine of 100 horsepower and an off-shoot of the VII but with tandem horizontal tail surfaces. This design succeeded in making a few short "hops" about the ground though never achieving sustained flight. The Bleriot X was another of Louis Bleriot's concept attempts and followed more the design path of the American Wright brothers featuring a "pusher" type propeller/engine arrangement and biplane wings. Construction of this design was never completed. However, the early attempts (and those all-important subsequent failures) proved to secure the foundation needed to produce the first serviceable monoplane in the Beriot XI, achieving first flight on January 23rd, 1909. The system was showcased at the December 1909 Exposition de la Locomotion Aerienne show in Paris.
Louis Bleriot helped to put his creation to the test by completing the first flight across the English Channel. The flight was part of a 1,000 pound prize as put forth through a competition arranged by the London Daily Mail. Matching up against two other would-be winners, Louis Bleriot and his XI took to the skies on July 13th, 1909 and spanned some 36 minutes and 55 seconds, setting the new European endurance record with a distance of 36.6 kilometers from Les Barraques, France to Dover, England. One competitor, Hubert Latham was forced into the sea after developing engine troubles while a test flight for the third entrant, Charles de Lambert, ended in a crash with injuries sustained. Bleriot landed his XI and earn the 1,000 pound prize, though foul weather played a role in the rough landing that caused damage to the propeller and undercarriage. Nevertheless, Bleriot's legacy was sealed as "The Man Who Crossed the Channel" for the rest of history.
By today's standards, the design of the Bleriot XI seems downright archaic. By early 1900s terms, however, the system was one of the first true stable monoplane airframes available to burgeoning pilots. The pilot sat in an open-air cockpit just aft the engine mount, this set to the extreme forward of the fuselage and operating at between 25- and 140-horsepower depending on the powerplant used. The engine powered a simple-though-contoured Chauviere two-blade wooden propeller (a four-blade metal propeller was used in the original design but didn't match up well to the design).
To the extreme forward underside of the fuselage were situated two bicycle-style wheels used as main landing gears. The undercarriage was compliment by either a skid or a third wheel set just aft of amidships. While the forward portion of the fuselage was covered over in cloth, the aft portion was completely exposed, showcasing the internal basic skeletal strut-and-cable arrangement and directly (though unintentionally) leading to improved lateral stability through added drag. The empennage was detailed by a single cloth-covered vertical tail plane acting as the rudder (though no vertical stabilizer was present) and a horizontal plane containing the stabilizer and elevator set alongside the bottom of the rear fuselage. The main wings were high-mounted on the cloth-covered portion of the fuselage body and featured a distinct airfoil - thicker at the leading edge and relatively thin at the trailing edge - utilizing "wing-warping" instead of ailerons to achieve roll. The wing system swooped down from front to rear (when viewed in side profile) in a naturally pleasing form. The cockpit was highly utilitarian with the operator essentially sitting inside of an open-topped box though his perspective could be described as excellent considering the lack of obstructions to his views. If there was anything beyond the main wings and engine blocking his all-around vision, it was the struts set just ahead of his position to help brace the main wings. General construction was of oak and poplar with cloth covering. In all, the Bleriot XI was a sign of the times, a time when aviation was just getting "off the ground" so to speak and its primitive yet practical approach to many of flights problems were dealt with in ingenious ways.
Military service for the Bleriot XI began sometime in 1910 when the aircraft was accepted into the ranks of the French and Italian air services. The British began operation of their Bleriot XIs in 1912. By the time of World War 1, the Bleriot still retained some military value and was thusly pressed into service in their two-seat forms - albeit to a limited extent - serving primarily as observation and trainer aircraft (although some were utilized as "light" bombers). Observation became an important part of maintaining an "eye in the sky" on enemy troop movements, often times forcing these crews to operate their flimsy Bleriots over and behind the dangerous enemy front lines. As technology naturally progressed during wartime, the need for Bleriots became less and less to the point that the system was fully relegated to the training role.
Some Bleriot trainers had their wings clipped so as to prevent them from getting fully airborne. This allowed would-be pilots to concentrate on mastery of the rudder controls through short "hops" along the ground and focus on keeping the aircraft flying in a straight line - baby steps to be sure. Once graduated from these clipped-wing flightless birds, the aviators would be assigned to flyable aircraft as their reward.
Many-an-American aviator who had signed up for service in the French and British flying services (before America's direct involvement in the Great War) got their first taste of powered heavier-than-air flight in these machines. As America entered the war full-steam in 1918, US Air Service personnel also joined the ranks of these newborn aviators by training on Bleriots.
By 1913, Louis Bleriot eventually led the manufacturing consortium of Societe pour les Appareils Deperdussin, later becoming its president in 1914 and changing the name to Societe Pour L'Aviation et ses Derives (otherwise shortened to "SPAD"). SPAD would go on to produce some of the best war-winning fighter designs of the Great War, eventually helping to wrestle control of the skies from the Germans.
In a 1934 visit to Newark Airport in the United States, Louis Bleriot predicted commercial overseas flights by 1938. Unfortunately, he would not see this come to fruition as his death from a heart attack took his life on August 2nd, 1936 in Paris, France - bring an end to this French hero's legacy. The Louis Bleriot Medal, established in 1936, was aptly named in his honor and would be awarded to individuals involved in record-setting flights thereafter. The award is still handed out to this day.