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BLÉRIOT/EAA XI bis Monoplane Replica

It was a daring international, over-water, solo flight that won a prize and created worldwide interest in aviation. If you’re thinking of Charles Lindbergh, think again. Almost 18 years before Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic, Louis Blériot stunned the world by flying his homebuilt monoplane across the English Channel. EAA is now constructing a flying example of the classic Blériot XI, a French airplane with many connections to American aviation.

Louis Blériot (pronounced “BLARE-e-oh”) was a French businessman who owned an automobile headlamp company, but aviation was his passion. By 1909 he had spent almost all of his family fortune, including his wife’s dowry, on 10 airplane designs, most of which did not fly. Faced with financial ruin, he continued developing two “last chance” monoplanes, saying, “Like a gambler, I had to recover my losses…I had to fly.”

The Blériot XI, a fragile monoplane with thin, highly cambered wings, was the success he needed. When its seven-cylinder engine proved heavy, a lighter, three-cylinder engine from Italian designer Alessandro Anzani was installed in May 1909. Considered by some as crude, the Anzani engine had a great attribute: it could run for almost an hour. Blériot won several awards with his Anzani-powered Blériot XI, including a 48-minute flight that covered 26 miles. But his sights were set on the Ł1,000 ($2,500) prize offered by the London Daily Mail for crossing the English Channel. Another pilot’s attempt had ended in a watery crash. On July 25, 1909, Blériot flew 23 miles across the Channel in 36-1/2 minutes. Never mind that he crash-landed; his historic flight forever erased England’s confidence that its powerful navy was sufficient protection.

The Blériot XI monoplane design rocked the biplane-dominated aviation community. Two months after his channel crossing, Blériot had more than 100 orders. He quickly reached factory capacity to meet the demand and opened a school that offered free flight training for customers. By the end of 1911 he delivered more than 500 Blériot XI models in a variety of configurations.

Among the lasting influences of the Blériot is its control system. Wing warping and elevator cables were connected to a bell-shaped cloche at the bottom of a control stick. Blériot pilots learned to use the stick to control pitch and bank and the rudder bar for yaw, a system that has endured today.

International demand for the Blériot XI soon exceeded the capacity of Blériot’s French factory. The Queen Airplane Company of New York City began building variants of the Blériot XI in 1910.

Building a Blériot XI in the 21st century offers many challenges for EAA. The project team, headed by master mechanic Gary Buettner, decided that EAA’s Blériot XI should retain the classic look and sound of an original Blériot. An extremely rare three-cylinder Anzani fan-type engine of 25 hp has been located and overhauled. The Anzani engine will add realism but also flight risk, so only straight-line hops down EAA’s Pioneer Airport grass runway are planned.

A set of wing ribs was built during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2006. Sometime in the coming years, museum visitors will smell the castor oil and hear the sounds of a three-cylinder Anzani-powered Blériot XI taking to the air again.

Text written and researched by Fred Stadler

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