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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 22, 2005


A Daring Flight homepage

Early on the morning of July 25, 1909, French aviator Louis Blériot woke up in a bad temper due to a recent injury. He refused breakfast and drove to the field where his Type XI plane waited. Seeing that the weather was good, he warmed up the engine and took off—into history. "A Daring Flight" recounts one of the most spectacular feats of early aviation. The program captures the thrilling formative years of flight, when the French in particular were mad about airplanes and tried everything to fly.

"I think there was something in the water or the air in Paris at the turn of the century that just produced these wonderful characters," says Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum. The same crazy spirit lived in Blériot's grandson, also named Louis Blériot, whom NOVA follows in his project to repeat his forebear's exploit in a nearly identical though now antique aircraft (see A Soaring Obsession).

Among the risk-all aviators at the turn of the century was Albert Santos-Dumont, who puttered around Paris in his dirigible and was the first in France to get off the ground in a powered winged vehicle—a giant box kite that careened across a field, seemingly tail-first, as the pilot stood bravely at the controls.

Santos-Dumont's feat was in 1906, when the Wright brothers' secretive flights in the United States were still only a rumor. Blériot, too, was part of the action. He had made a modest fortune by inventing an acetylene-fueled headlight for the newly popular automobile, and then threw his money and energy into aviation. He tried a number of absurd-looking contraptions before hitting on a design that could actually fly, or rather hop: the Blériot V.

NOVA focuses on the features of these early airplanes, which had wings for lift and a motor and propeller for propulsion, but very little else in common with one another (see Too Much Imagination). For example, investigators were still experimenting with the number of wings. Most craft used two—a biplane design—because of the inherent structural strength of that configuration. Blériot, however, preferred a single-wing monoplane because it could achieve greater speed.

The position of the control surfaces was also evolving, from front- to rear-mounted. The biggest evolutionary change, though, came when the Wright brothers finally began publicly displaying their flying machine in 1908. The French were stunned at how effortlessly the Wright Flyer could maneuver through the sky.

The secret turned out to be wing-warping, a method of balancing the wings to allow the plane to roll and initiate a turn, much as a bicyclist leans when going around a corner. Combined with simultaneous use of a rudder, the system permitted the Wrights to make perfect circles in the air.

Blériot adopted the technique. By 1909 he had an airplane that could compete for the cash prize offered to the first pilot to cross the English Channel, which has for centuries been considered a formidable barrier protecting Great Britain. The feat would make Blériot famous, and his Type XI would become the world's most popular airplane in the period leading up to the First World War. (To have a closer look at the plane, see Tour a Blériot XI).

Indeed, it is a vintage Type XI that the great aviator's grandson intends to fly across the English Channel on NOVA. Given the age of the aircraft, the first Louis's mother's comment, almost 100 years ago, might still apply: "Louis has gone completely mad. He wants to cross the Channel in a kite!"

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Louis Blériot

Louis Blériot makes history over the English Channel on July 25, 1909.

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A Daring Flight
A Soaring Obsession

A Soaring Obsession
Louis Blériot on his grandfather's legacy, his nagging dream, and more.

Queen of the Channel Crossing

Queen of the
Channel Crossing

Harriet Quimby was the first woman to fly the Channel solo.

Tour a Blériot XI

Tour a Blériot XI
In this audio interactive, see the oldest operational airplane in the U.S.

Too Much Imagination

Too Much Imagination
Have a look at the wildly different flying machines Blériot dreamed up.



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