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Too Much Imagination

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Blériot I
Blériot first ventured into aeronautical design between 1900 and 1902 when he built a series of model "ornithopters"—aircraft propelled by flapping wings—that were powered by carbon-dioxide engines. The complex and heavy machinery needed to move their wings kept these contraptions, like others of their ilk, entirely earthbound. Even though they never flew, Blériot named one of them after himself—the Blériot I.

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Blériot II
In June 1905, Blériot watched from the shore as 25-year-old engineer Gabriel Voisin launched an experimental float glider on the Seine. The craft was essentially a large box kite mounted on two long floats. As a motorboat towed it forward, Voisin maneuvered the "elevator" at the front of the glider, and the glider soared skyward from the water. Blériot immediately commissioned Voisin to build him a glider but make its wings more curved—a change Voisin warned against. Indeed, in its own test on the Seine in July 1905 (pictured here), the Blériot II was airborne for a mere 100 feet before crashing into the water.

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Blériot III
Far from discouraged by the crash of the Type II, Blériot invited Voisin to join him in forming the world's first airplane company. Their initial powered machine, the Blériot III, had striking elliptical tandem wings made of hollow ash covered with French silk. Twin elevators were housed within the front wing, and a rudder was placed inside the back wing. Blériot insisted upon a 24-horsepower, eight-cylinder engine to drive two large tractor propellers at 600 rpm. The complex transmission weighed 243 pounds. In May 1906, the plane was taken to Lake Enghien near Paris for trials Voisin later called "disastrous." It never left the lake's surface.

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Blériot IV
Blériot replaced the forward elliptical wing of the Type III with a box-kite biplane wing for his next model. In front of this wing, he mounted a Wright-inspired biplane elevator for pitch control. Behind the pilot seat, two 24-horsepower engines drove contrarotating propellers. The entire craft weighed about 950 pounds. In this picture, Gabriel Voisin prepares the plane for trials on Lake Enghien in October 1906. It reached a cruising speed on the water of nearly 20 mph, but like its predecessor, the Type IV never lifted off. The next month, following another failed trial with the Type IV, Blériot and Voisin dissolved their partnership.

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Blériot V
In November 1906, Blériot witnessed another aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, fly 650 feet in a plane called the 14-bis, winning an Aero-Club de France prize. Inspired by the 14-bis, Blériot radically departed from his earlier designs. His next model, called L'Oiseau (The Bird), was a monoplane with strangely curved wings covered in vellum paper. The cockpit was housed in a triangular fuselage. The plane was to taxi and land on two standard bicycle tires, but in test flights in March and April of 1907 it hopped more than flew, and it crashed several times. (One crash is pictured here.) Blériot, now piloting his planes himself, emerged unscathed and still determined to fly.

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Blériot VI
Blériot would finally take to the skies in his next aircraft, a tandem monoplane nicknamed The Dragonfly. Louis Peyret, the foreman of Blériot's team, was responsible for its design. The team hoped the plane's upward-angled wings, with their large surface area, would provide stability, but they still struggled with the control problem. After unsuccessful tests in early July 1907, they enlarged the wings shown in this picture. When Blériot tried again in mid July, he managed flights of 100 and then 260 feet—hardly breaking records but reaching a critical personal milestone. He enjoyed a few other short flights in the precarious craft before destroying it in a crash on September 17.

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Blériot VII
Buoyed by his success with the Type VI, Blériot built another monoplane. The wings of the Type VII spanned 36 feet and tilted upward, though not at as sharp an angle as on The Dragonfly. In his first trials, in November 1907, Blériot barely got off the ground. (This picture shows him climbing into the rectangular fuselage for one of the first trials.) By early December, though, he had flown as far as 547 yards, or over a quarter of a mile. On December 18, the plane hit a hole upon landing and flipped on its back. Once again, an aircraft was destroyed, but Blériot climbed from the wreckage relatively unhurt.

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Blériot VIII
The Type VIII marked another turning point for Blériot. This monoplane, built and repeatedly modified in 1908, looked akin to its predecessor but had significant changes. Most critically, it featured what would become the classic Blériot cockpit controls—stick and rudder bar. The "cloche," a bell-shaped piece of metal attached to the control stick, operated lines leading to the elevators and ailerons (the moveable parts of the wings). Blériot's design was uniquely his own, and this airworthy plane allowed him to refine his techniques as a pilot. (In this picture, he soars over the field at Issy-les-Moulineaux in June or July 1908.) Blériot could now fly his first complete circles and keep the plane aloft for eight minutes at a time.

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Blériot IX
By 1909, Blériot had touched the clouds, but it had cost him dearly. He had squandered roughly $150,000—including his wife's dowry—building his flying machines. His next two models would take him to the brink of financial ruin. The Type IX, powered by a 50-horsepower, 16-cylinder engine, weighed over 1,200 pounds, considerably heavier than his previous monoplanes. It never got off the ground.

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Blériot X
Blériot never even attempted test flights with the Type X, the largest and heaviest aircraft he had developed to date. Its wings spanned nearly 43 feet. The three-seat biplane was an aberration from Blériot's line of monoplanes. Its design was inspired by the Wright brothers' machines, but unlike them, it never flew.

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Blériot XI
Blériot called the next model one of his "last chance monoplanes." He gambled that it would help him win the prize money and sales he needed to stay solvent. The Blériot XI was a small monoplane, primitive by today's standards, with a wingspan of only 23 feet, an open box-frame fuselage that exposed a pilot to the elements, and a three-cylinder, 25-horsepower engine. Blériot's bet with this little plane paid off. In the five years following his Channel crossing on July 25, 1909, he sold over 800 aircraft and became the world's most successful airplane manufacturer. The Blériot XI is now regarded as one of the great planes of all time—both for what Blériot accomplished in it and for the influence it had on the future of aviation. (In this photo, children follow the landmark flight as Blériot nears the English coast.)

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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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