Louis Blériot shares more in common with his grandfather than just a famous name. Like the pioneering aviator, he dreams of one day crossing the English Channel in a Blériot XI. Since his unsuccessful first attempt—documented for millions to see in "A Daring Flight"—Blériot's desire has only increased. In this interview, which features video from the ill-fated flight, Blériot makes clear that he won't let a few discouraging crashes stop him. In this regard, he is also very much like his grandfather.
Risking it all
NOVA: Your grandfather was nicknamed "the Prince of Bad Luck."
Blériot: That's a loose translation. In France, we called him l'homme qui tombe toujours, "the man who always falls." He had a series of nosedives. He collected them!
NOVA: He had lots of accidents with the early models, right?
Blériot: Yes, about 30 accidents. That's quite a lot.
NOVA: Why do you think he kept going?
Blériot: He was obsessed from the time he was at the Ecole Centrale [where he studied engineering from 1895 to 1898]. He took of lot of risks both to his physical and financial health. Before he crossed the English Channel, he was really in a shaky situation financially. If he hadn't been successful crossing the Channel, he probably would have been forced to stop.
NOVA: Where did this obsession come from? At the time, not many people were flying.
Blériot: Practically no one had succeeded in flying a heavier-than-air craft when he started. It seemed like an impossible dream.
NOVA: So he wanted to do the impossible?
Blériot: No. He was an engineer, and engineers are realists. He was confident that he could solve the problems that hadn't yet been resolved.
NOVA: Do you remember your grandfather?
Blériot: Unfortunately, I was born eight years after he died. He died in 1936, and I was born in 1944. So I never knew my grandfather. It is one of my biggest regrets.
NOVA: But when you were a child, did you hear stories about him?
Blériot: Yes, of course.
“I was also mortified that I had crashed the plane in front of a crowd of people and television cameras.”
NOVA: Did he loom large in your imagination?
Blériot: In 1959, when I was 15, France celebrated the 50th anniversary of his flight. It made a huge impression on me. There were lots of people and speeches. Someone gave me a ride in a two-seater air force plane, and we did a round-trip flight across the Channel. All the festivities, the ceremony—it made me understand that my grandfather was someone of great importance.
NOVA: Do people in France commonly know about your grandfather, like Americans know about the Wright brothers?
Blériot: Almost everyone in France is familiar with my grandfather. We learn about the Channel crossing in school. Often there are television programs about him. He's even in the dictionary.
A dream takes off
NOVA: What did you think when you first saw the Blériot XI?
Blériot: I was struck by how fragile it was. I thought, "How amazing that my grandfather could fly in an aircraft so fragile and so light." I was 14 years old.
NOVA: How old were you when you had the idea of flying across the Channel?
Blériot: I wasn't young anymore. I got my pilot's license later in life. My father didn't want me to become a pilot because I was the last of the Blériot heirs, and if something happened to me, the name would disappear. When I got my pilot's license in 1988, I was already over 40 years old.
NOVA: Why, all of sudden at 40 years old, did you want cross the Channel in a Blériot XI?
Blériot: The dream actually came to me in several stages. When I was 14, I understood what my grandfather had done. Then, many years later, I tried to get hold of an original Blériot XI, and at the same time I was learning how to fly. So it was a combination of things.
NOVA: How is flying the Blériot XI different from flying modern planes?
Blériot: They are not alike at all! Well, almost nothing alike. The control system is the same, but that's about the only similarity between the Blériot XI and modern planes. There are no instruments on board [the Blériot XI]. So you have to fly the plane like the pioneers did. You have to fly it instinctively, or as we say in French au feeling.
NOVA: So you have to feel it?
Blériot: You have to feel the air coming over the wing. You have to feel the way in which the plane is flying. Is it flying horizontally? Is the tail too high or too low? Is it tilting to the left or to the right? There are no instruments to help you. You don't know if you are going fast enough or too fast.
NOVA: The antique planes like the Blériot XI seem so delicate, almost like motorized kites. Does that make them more unnerving to fly?
Blériot: The first time you fly the plane, you almost have to force yourself to take off, because it's so different from a modern plane. You have to take the plunge, then you're okay.
NOVA: There's no windshield—you are essentially exposed to the elements.
Blériot: Yes, that's right. You can feel the wind in your face. On top of that, the propeller is blowing on you, and motor oil is splashing all over you.
NOVA: The motor oil is hitting you?
Blériot: Yes! The propeller generates a lot of wind on top of the wind you get from just flying. So you are very well ventilated when you fly the Blériot XI! The problem is that the propeller is also splashing you with a lot of motor oil—your goggles and jacket are completely covered in motor oil. Also, the plane vibrates as you fly, and there is so much wind that your cheeks are flapping. Do you get the picture?!
NOVA: Yes, indeed. How fast do you fly?
Blériot: Seventy kilometers an hour [43.5 mph].
NOVA: Quite fast.
Blériot: Yes, without protection it's quite fast.
Lows and highs
NOVA: You watched your own Blériot XI crash in 1989 when British pilot Gloria Poulain attempted to cross the Channel. How did it feel?
Blériot: It was difficult. Everything had been going so well. The flight was almost completed—she was only about two to three kilometers from the cliffs of Dover. But then she lost altitude and landed the plane delicately on the water. The plane was not damaged. Then a rescue helicopter from the Royal Air Force arrived. They pulled Gloria out of the plane and then they left. Unfortunately, the wind from the helicopter blades was so strong that it lifted the tail of the plane out of the water, and then the plane fell back in the water on its side. The wings broke into thousands of little pieces.
NOVA: So when Gloria Poulain hit the water, the plane was perfectly fine?
Blériot: Yes. Fortunately, the plane didn't sink. When a salvage boat came to get the plane several hours later, it was still floating.
NOVA: How long did it take to reassemble the plane following that crash?
Blériot: About two and a half years.
NOVA: Yet despite this crash you wanted to try the crossing yourself. Do you consider yourself a risk-taker?
Blériot: No, not really. I once heard a quote that went like this: Life is like a disease, it is always fatal. We will all die one day in one way or another. We also take risks every day: we could slip on some ice on the sidewalk right in front of our house; we could slip and fall on a staircase; we could have a car accident. Life is a series of small and big risks. Living is taking risks.
NOVA: After years of preparation, including training on more modern planes, you had a glorious test flight in the Blériot XI. The day was beautiful. You were flying over the countryside. Can you describe your emotions then?
Blériot: It was one of my greatest moments as a pilot. With that beautiful light, the calm and peaceful atmosphere—I had this sensation of extraordinary happiness. It was the most beautiful flight in my life.
NOVA: As you were flying, were you thinking at all about your grandfather?
Blériot: Yes, of course. If he hadn't crossed the Channel, I wouldn't be there flying in one of his planes!
“The dream to fly has existed since the beginning of humankind. Why wouldn’t he have that same dream?”
NOVA: Your great-grandmother said that her son must be crazy to want to cross the Channel in a kite.
Blériot: Yes, she said that. It reflected what others were saying at the time.
NOVA: When you decided to try the same feat, did your family think you were crazy?
Blériot: Remember what I said about my father? He didn't want me to fly at all. But by the time I was planning my crossing, I had four sons, so the family name was not at risk of going extinct. Besides, I was certainly old enough to take the initiative.
A daring, but very short, flight
NOVA: Your attempt to cross the Channel in "A Daring Flight" was not successful. How do you remember that day?
Blériot: There were a lot of things that were not in my favor. The hotel where I stayed the night before was next to a road, and it was a Saturday night. There was a lot of noise, so I slept only about an hour. In the morning, I really was not in top form.
The plane was carrying a full tank of gas and oil, and I had never flown the plane like that during our test flights. After take-off, when I was attempting to turn, I saw that the plane was tilting to one side. I tried to correct it by tilting the plane to the other side, but I made the mistake of lifting my leg so I could move the hand lever. When you do that, you release your foot from the rudder pedal, and you lose control of the rudder. I should have realized that when you are in a turn, you should always have your foot on the rudder pedal. It's obvious.
NOVA: What happened after that?
Blériot: The plane was turning, and I wasn't able to straighten it out. I was in a spin, and I lost altitude, and finally I ended up in a pond right next to the airfield. I felt such disappointment, even more than when Gloria Poulain went down, because I wasn't even successful in getting out over the Channel. I was also mortified that I had crashed the plane in front of a crowd of people and television cameras. Well, it was like that. What can you do?
NOVA: Do you have plans to attempt the Channel crossing again?
Blériot: Of course. I have no intention of giving up my plans. I'm working on restoring my plane. I will definitely try my luck again.
NOVA: Having flown in a Blériot XI yourself, do you feel you better understand your grandfather's obsession to master flight?
Blériot: I don't really make a link between the two things. I understand his obsession, his very strong desire to succeed. The dream to fly has existed since the beginning of humankind. Why wouldn't he have that same dream? It doesn't seem surprising to me. Maybe he was touched by this dream more than others were. He was an engineer, and he was able to apply his knowledge to make the dream come true. With a lot of perseverance and a lot of tenacity, he ended up being successful.
NOVA: Is the legacy of your grandfather—his fame for being the first to fly across the Channel—a burden at all? Or is it more of an inspiration?
Blériot: I think it is a bit of both. It's true that sometimes the burden feels a little heavy, but on the other hand it has given me the motivation to do many things in my life, notably to carry on my grandfather's legacy. I think the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.
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