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Tour a Blériot XI


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Dan Taylor in front of Blériot XI

Dan Taylor knows the Blériot XI inside and out. As a pilot and historian at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, New York, he helped restore an original 1909 model to flyable condition and serves as its official pilot during the Aerodrome's weekly air shows. Below, Taylor guides you through a tour of this pioneering aircraft, giving you a detailed view of its key systems and aeronautical innovations.

Front view

Front of Blériot XI
Propeller

Large, paddle-like blades set at deep angles relative to each other helped give the Blériot XI efficient thrust despite its low-powered engine.

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Propeller
The propeller on this plane is a typical design of the period—a Chauvier-type style of propeller that was used during that early period. These engines didn't turn up very much. They were engines that maybe turned up 1,400 or 1,500 rpms, not like these big engines today that are turning up real fast. A big, slow-turning prop was much more efficient. The Wright brothers knew that, and their propellers were turning very, very slowly but moving a lot of air. This is the same thing with this engine, too. When I'm going down the runway at maybe 30 miles per hour, it's only turning up about 1,800 rpms maximum.


Anzani Engine

Built by motorcycle engine designer Alessandro Anzani, this engine was lightweight but provided just enough power to keep the Blériot XI aloft.

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Anzani Engine
Many of the early airplanes carried very lightweight air-cooled engines. They wanted a lightweight engine because they didn't really figure out all the structures yet as far as the bracing of the airplane. You look at airplanes today and everything is streamlined. They know about metals. Back in the early days, they didn't. They were experimenting. Everything was a new trial. This is a 30- or 35-horsepower Anzani engine. Blériot flew the English Channel with only a 25-horsepower engine, but this was the next step up. It powered the airplane pretty well but it was prone to overheating with its cast-iron cylinders because you weren't moving very quickly. You were probably doing only 35 or 40 miles per hour. Hold on to your hat! It was an airplane engine that was very useful for this airplane before the rotary engines came out. The radial air-cooled engine worked pretty well in its day.


Main landing gear

Since his light airplane was often thrown about by wind close to the ground, Blériot designed landing gear that could pivot, allowing his craft to turn slightly into the wind yet keep rolling in the direction of the runway.

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Main Landing Gear
Back in 1909-1910, these airplanes were feathers in the wind. They had a problem with that. So what Blériot did was make the landing gear pivot. It has what's called "castering landing gear." As I take the airplane and I move it from side to side, the landing gear actually pivots a little bit. And the reason for that was so that the airplane could still land at an angle and the wheels would track whatever direction you were going. That's a feature that's still used today. Certain bombers and airplanes actually have a castering gear that you can dial in for a crosswind landing. Pretty remarkable: technology from 1909.


Data Plate

This original data plate from 1909 shows the aircraft's origins and factory information.

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Data Plate
This example here [of the Blériot XI] is serial number 56 of about 900 that were made. This [plane] was found at a junkyard in Laconia, New Hampshire and all the parts that were there showed a data plate and the data plate said "Paris, France. Serial number 56. Blériot Type XI." It is the oldest flying airplane in the United States and to have the opportunity to fly an airplane like this here at Old Rhinebeck is a great honor.


Wing Design

With a low-powered engine, these deeply curved wings are needed to provide lift during slow flight.

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Wing Design
The wings on this airplane, if you look at them, you'll notice that the structure has a big what we call in aviation terms "undercamber." If you look at a jet today, it's almost like a flat board out there. The reason for that is that you don't require as much lift because you have a lot of speed, a lot of propulsion. With this airplane Louis Blériot knew he didn't have a lot of power, so he needed a lot of lift at slow speeds. This airfoil gives a lot of lift at slow speeds but has a very abrupt stall characteristic. In other words, if you don't keep that wing flying, it doesn't mean the engine stalls, it just means that the engine ceases to have lift. So because of that, you have to make sure you always have speed over those wings or it can drop a wing and you can prang it. But, just the same, the wing design is very unique to Blériot.



Side view

Side view of Blériot XI
Rudder

Used to control the lateral movement of the aircraft, this feature is still found in contemporary designs.

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Rudder
To steer the airplane—much like conventional airplanes today—I have a rudder so I can make left turns and right turns very simply by moving that stick and the rudder bar in the cockpit. And this hasn't changed at all on this design. This is pretty much the way it always was.


Elevator

The elevator controls the pitch of the aircraft, allowing it to climb or descend. Blériot was one of the first to pair this with a rudder, creating a now-standard tail design.

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Elevator
Moving the stick fore and aft has elevator control for pitch. Pull back on the stick and up we go—and the other way down. So, houses get smaller, and houses get bigger.


Tail Wheel

Despite its appearance, this feature only supports the tail once the aircraft has stopped. Other versions of the Type XI used bamboo skids instead of wheels.

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Tail Wheel
This is the tail of the Blériot XI. There were several designs. There was the wheel, like we have on this Blériot XI. There was also another method of doing it where it was bamboo cane that was bent around as a "tail skid." And they used that too on some of the later Blériots.


Frame

The body of the Type XI had to be both strong and lightweight, so Blériot designed a system of wire cross-braces to secure its wooden frame.

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Frame
The construction of these airplanes—they're built a little bit like a bridge. You can see that there are cross wires that are tightening all these pieces together. All this is held in compression and in the cross-brace it's giving you the strength. Louis Blériot came up with his own style of turnbuckles, and it's just a piece of stiff wire that runs threaded between here and as you tighten these little nuts up it would pull this wire tighter. And sometimes if you had a hard landing or something you'd need to retighten them because the wire would stretch. This was considered the Louis Blériot style of a turnbuckle. Nobody else really copied it. It was just a design very unique to Blériot alone.


Wing Warping

The Blériot XI uses wing warping, a flight control system pioneered by the Wright brothers, to turn the aircraft left and right.

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Wing Warping
Okay, so for the wing warping, as I'm balancing the airplane I can move the stick from side to side. That would warp the wing, bending it almost like a bird, in order to bank the airplane. When I'm flying the Blériot XI, in this particular airplane I have very little power, so I have to be very slow on the controls, be ready for any pitch change or any attitude change that I have to correct right away. Sometimes, if a wing goes down, moving the wing warp isn't enough and I can actually physically shift my weight in the seat, lean to one side, and very slowly that wing will come back up again.



Cockpit view

Cockpit view of Blériot XI
Flight Controls

The Type XI features a single control stick and a set of foot pedals to steer the aircraft, a configuration that remains standard today.

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Flight Controls
As you look at the cockpit you'll notice the control stick, called the cloche, that bell-shaped housing that's named after a lady's dress style of the period. The wheel on the top of the control stick really doesn't turn or anything. It's just something to hold on to. You can see the wires that are attached just to the sides of that bell housing and those go out to the control surfaces. They go to the elevators, to the wing warp on the wings, and then you can see the rudder bar—a wooden footrest almost—and that's what you would use to operate the rudder. When I'm flying the Blériot XI, in this particular airplane I have very little power so I have to be not overly generous with the control movement because you can get yourself into an awkward attitude of the airplane where you may not be able to recover. So everything in this airplane is done very slowly.


Instruments

In 1909, aircraft cockpits had few if any flight instruments. This Type XI features only two: an oil pressure gauge and a tachometer.

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Instruments
Blériots were used a great deal for the great circuit races of Europe in 1911. And navigation was coming into its own at that time, so they were learning about using maps and using a compass and things like that. But in the early days when they started out, instrumentation was very, very limited. Usually it was just an oil pressure gauge, maybe an air speed indicator, but for the most part it was just basic instrumentation. Doing what I do when I fly this airplane is flying what we call "by the seat of your pants." You really just kind of feel how the airplane is that particular day when you're taking off. Does it feel light? Can I pull back on the stick? Oh, it's still going too slow: I have to lower the nose a little bit. It's all done by feel.


Back to top




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