NARRATOR: Nearly a century ago, an event took place that changed our sense of time, of space, of our place on the Earth. The year is 1909, not quite six years after the invention of the airplane. Louis Blériot, a French aviator, sets out to do what no one has done before, to cross from France to Britain over the English Channel, an expanse of water that had held Napoleon at bay. It's a dangerous flight. The crossing stretches the airplane's technology to its limits.
BERNARD CHABBERT (Aviation Journalist): This thing flies like a leaf. It's not an airplane; it's just a kind of motorized kite. Taking a kite like that across the Channel is just like landing on the moon.
NARRATOR: Thirty six minutes after take off, Blériot stands on Britain's shore.
TOM CROUCH (Smithsonian - National Air and Space Museum): Even from today's vantage point, it's still one of the great events, one of the most significant events in the history of flight.
NARRATOR: Blériot has done more than cross the Channel, he has shown the world the potential of powered flight and made Paris the capital of aviation.
The flight is remembered as heroic and terribly dangerous. Nevertheless, the grandson who carries Louis Blériot's name readies an attempt to repeat his grandfather's feat in a vintage Model XI.
BERNARD CHABERT: No matter the year, it's still a Blériot XI. It doesn't fly better. It's not like wine, it doesn't age well. And so it's dangerous. It's bloody dangerous.
NARRATOR: Louis Blériot dared all, and changed the course of history. But what of his grandson, as he flies off on a personal mission to recreate one of aviation's most historic flights?
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NARRATOR: Louis Blériot's home is in Brittany, about five hours due west of Paris. Here he pursues his passion for collecting memorabilia related to his grandfather. His prize possession is an original Blériot XI aircraft.
The XI was the culmination of years of trial and error by Louis' grandfather. It became the Model T of the aviation industry, the first airplane to be mass produced.
While many museums would welcome this Blériot into their collection, it is in this featherweight antique that Louis hopes to fly the Channel.
LOUIS BLÉRIOT: I mean, an airplane is made for flying, even if it's a very old airplane and an historic airplane. It is what I think, anyway.
NARRATOR: This won't be the first attempt to cross the Channel in Louis' airplane.
TELEVISION NEWS ANNOUNCER: An attempt to repeat Louis Blériot's famous flight...
NARRATOR: In 1989, he gave a young British woman the chance. Her light weight was thought to be an advantage.
TELEVISION NEWS ANNOUNCER: The vintage monoplane was forced to ditch in the sea just two miles from home.
NARRATOR: The pilot was safe, but the airplane badly damaged.
LOUIS BLÉRIOT: The problem was not the ditching, the problem was the blast of the helicopter blades overturned the Blériot. And so it smashed it completely and damaged the wings. It was awful. I was aghast.
ANNOUNCER: The grandson of Louis Blériot, owner of the plane, disconsolate.
VOICE: It was nearly there, nearly there.
NARRATOR: It took three years to restore the Blériot XI. Now Louis trains to fly the airplane himself. He is as determined to succeed as his grandfather was at the dawn of aviation, 100 years ago.
Louis Blériot was born into an era passionate for flight. It is the age of the balloon which has flourished in France since its invention here in the late 1700s.
BERNARD CHABBERT: Paris in the early century was one of the centers of the universe, if I may say, and it was a kind of Parisian tradition to have the people from the city being involved in all these aerial adventures. It was part of the city life.
NARRATOR: At the turn of the century, Alberto Santos-Dumont dominates the Parisian aeronautical scene. Almost everyone has seen him drift by on the wind, or sometimes drop down for an impromptu lunch.
TOM CROUCH: 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 like Santos-Dumont, for example, who had come to France from Brazil, as a young man, to study engineering, and just threw it all away to putter around over the skyline of Paris.
NARRATOR: Ballooning allows a liberation from the earth that is intoxicating and more than a little out of control. Even with a motorized propeller to offset the wind, elusive air currents play a major role in where one ends up.
As an engineering student, Louis Blériot develops an interest in new heavier-than-air flying machines that would go where you wanted and get there fast. But no one has yet built a successful one; not Clement Ader in France with his unfolding, bat-like Avion; nor Hiram Stevens Maxim with his 8,000 pound machine in England; and not Samuel Langley and his Aerodrome in America.
Louis Blériot decides to keep his enthusiasm for flying machines to himself, "for fear of being taken for a fool."
The automobile is an altogether different matter. The French had, in short order, refined the essentially German invention and adopted it as their own. As nighttime excursions become possible, there is need for a bright automobile headlamp. Blériot designs an acetylene fueled light and prospers.
He meets and marries Alicia Verdere. As their family grows, Blériot seems to be settling into the life of a prosperous small industrialist, but as soon as his business provides a substantial income, Louis Blériot responds once again to the siren call of aviation.
Louis Blériot's grandson will learn to fly the Blériot XI at La Ferte-Alais, an airfield and home for nearly one hundred period airplanes, all ready to fly. The collection was started in the 1950s, when the father of the current owner, Jean Salis, purchased a Blériot XI and restored the aircraft so he could fly it. He kept on collecting.
JEAN SALIS (La Ferte-Alais): Louis Blériot came to me a long time ago, and I understood that he really wanted to cross the Channel. He's become a good friend of mine; I couldn't let him throw himself into this project without having the right training. These planes are hard to pilot. Louis trains very seriously. I think of him as our protégé. We've been helping him to succeed in fulfilling his dream.
NARRATOR: In 1900, the elder Blériot's dream of flight takes inspiration from those best-of-all-flyers, the birds. His first designs are for ornithopters, flapping contraptions with mechanical wings. The ornithopter has been a starting point for many would-be flyers, but the elaborate, heavy machinery required tends to keep them earthbound.
The leading aviation journal L'Aerophile could report little progress during the first years of the century. Then, in 1903, rumors start to circulate about the experiments of two bicycle makers in America, Wilbur and Orville Wright.
TOM CROUCH: Octave Chanute, the French-born American engineer, came to Paris and gave a lecture in which he talked about what he had done and what other Americans, including the Wright brothers, had done.
NARRATOR: Chanute shows how far the Wright brothers have progressed toward achieving a practical airplane. Their methodical approach contrasts with the hit-and-miss efforts of other early pioneers. They have even built one of the first wind tunnels, to determine what shape gives a wing the most efficiency.
Wind tunnel data confirms that a gently curved wing will supply maximum lift. The air moves faster over the top of such a curve, reducing air pressure, causing the wing to rise. But if the curve becomes too steep, the airflow breaks up and the wing stalls.
TOM CROUCH: One of the things that set the Wrights apart, was this clarity that they brought to analyzing the problem of the flying machine. They, almost uniquely, recognized that this was really about solving the control problem: how are you going to control this thing once you get it into the air?
NARRATOR: The Wrights design gliders to investigate control in the air. They use a double-winged biplane design, fitted with control surfaces, sections that can be moved to change the direction of flight. Their third glider carries an elevator in front to control pitch up and down. The Wrights design a mechanism for twisting the wings to bank and roll the aircraft. They call it "wing warping." Behind the wings, they place a rudder to control side-to-side movement or "yaw."
The rudder, along with wing warping, enables the Wrights to maintain balance as well as turn in the air. It's a crucial breakthrough intuitively understood by bicycle makers.
JOHN HANSMAN (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): If you think about a bicycle, when you want to go around a sharp corner on a bicycle, you actually lean it over to go around that corner. If you just tried to turn the wheel without leaning the bicycle over, you'd actually fall. So you needed that roll in order to cause the airplane to start to make its turn.
NARRATOR: Only sketchy accounts of the Wrights' progress make it to Paris, but they touch a nerve.
TOM CROUCH: The French were just absolutely stunned, because it was clear that these two guys, bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, were, in fact, well ahead of anything that the French had dreamed of.
NARRATOR: The Wrights have solved basic problems of both lift and control in the air, but they have yet to fly a motorized machine. The race to invent the airplane is on.
TOM CROUCH: A little band of enthusiasts, in the Aero Club de France, set out to overtake the Wright brothers and win for France the honor of the invention of the airplane. Louis Blériot, himself, in a French newspaper, was described as one of the "militant aviators." They really were just determined to do it.
NARRATOR: Numbered among the militants are Gabriel and Charles Voisin, both avid bicyclists. When Gabriel is approached to build a glider based on the Wright's design, he can't resist.
One June day in 1905, Louis Blériot joins a small crowd to watch Voisin test fly his new model. Voisin borrows the Wrights biplane design and forward elevator.
Blériot is so impressed that he orders a glider from Voisin on the spot, but he wants modifications. The new glider carries curved wings which Blériot believes will provide greater lift. Never one to take the back seat, he names his glider the Blériot II; Blériot I is assigned to his ornithopters.
Voisin tests the glider, and this time he nearly drowns trying to free himself from the wreckage. Blériot is not in the least discouraged. In fact, he invites Voisin to join him in a partnership.
Despite their limited success, they show no lack of confidence. Blériot goes to work on a new design, reveling in the possibilities. "My dear Voisin," he says, "I am living here through the happiest moments of my life."
But by now, the success of the Wrights can no longer be ignored. In fact, they claim to have been secretly flying a powered machine since December of 1903. Pirated sketches have been published, but without better proof, many in France remain skeptical.
MICHELE BENICHOU (Aviation Journalist): Blériot was looking for the good formula, so any idea was good. At this time it was all by trial and error. You have no theory, no scientific arguments that could put people together.
NARRATOR: Kites are an important way of testing ideas.
Blériot informs Voisin that he has determined that a stable flying machine can only be formed with a circular wing, front and back. Voisin is appalled that Blériot would forgo the already successful rectangular wing design.
MICHELE BENICHOU: Blériot was very obstinate—Voisin also—but Blériot, well, he had the money.
NARRATOR: In the end, Voisin wins a concession; the wings become ovals.
The Blériot III is not a glider, but a full-fledged flying machine, with twin propellers powered by two gasoline engines. When a workman sets out to test it, in full view of a curious, often mocking crowd, the airplane races wildly about but refuses to fly.
A revised version, the Blériot IV, splices Voisin's rectangular wings onto Blériot's oval tail. The mutation, unable to fly, is seriously damaged as it crosses a ditch. The two partners, their hopes shattered, dissolve their collaboration.
On the very same day, balloonist Santos-Dumont triumphs with his own flying machine. With a dejected Blériot and Voisin in attendance, Santos-Dumont, standing upright, as if in a balloon, nurses his 14-bis through a series of barely controlled hops, the best of which, 722 feet, wins an Aero-Club prize.
The achievement marks a turning point for Blériot. Having seen a man in the air, he is determined to get there himself, and to pilot his own designs.
The first airplanes were unlike anything that had come before, but for the most part, they employed components and methods already developed for other uses: the technique of trussing the wooden frame with diagonal runs of piano wire is the same way many bridges were built; lightweight tension wheels could be found on bicycles and baby buggies of the day; the 25-horse power engine was first built for motorcycles; the propeller was new but had roots in the design of marine propellers in use for the better part of the century.
Blériot does not arrive at his classic design easily. His approach is improvisational and disorderly, almost the opposite of the Wrights'. But he has money enough to hire the best mechanics and craftsmen. He puts them to work on a revolutionary new design.
The Blériot V will be a monoplane, one of the first, with a single set of wings, like a bird. Following the Wrights' practice, the engine pushes the airplane from behind. The tail is in front with both elevator and rudder. But this bird barely hops and suffers a series of discouraging crashes.
JOHN HANSMAN: The problem with putting the tail or the control surfaces ahead of the main wing is that the airplane tends to be unstable; it tends to want to reverse itself. You can think of it like a tricycle. If you try and push a tricycle backwards it tends to want to flip around.
MICHELE BENICHOU: I think he had too much imagination. If you look at the designs of his aircraft, they are all very different, very, very different. And to the contrary of many, many other designers who just improved the same idea, and sometimes they were wrong and they kept wrong, he was always trying something different.
NARRATOR: Blériot thinks that the V doesn't have enough wing area for lift, so for the new Model VI, he borrows an idea from one of his mechanics and places wings on the front and the back. He also moves the engine forward and puts the rudder behind. There is no elevator. To control pitch in this aircraft, Blériot puts the seat on wheels so that by rolling back or forward the airplane will be weighted to tilt up or down.
The VI is brought out for tests in July of 1906. At last, Blériot gets in the air. The distance is less than a football field, but for the first time Blériot has actually flown.
Grandson Louis starts his flight training in a Piper Cub, a monoplane from the 1940s that shares some of the characteristics of the Blériot XI. Dual controls allow his instructor to correct any wrong moves.
TOM CROUCH: Blériot's use of the monoplane was really interesting. He wasn't the only one of the pioneers who chose the monoplane, but certainly biplane builders were much more common. And the reason for that is clear enough.
A biplane structure is very strong, very difficult to break or damage, just a lot of strength. Monoplanes, on the other hand, in this period, before the First World War, had, sort of, fundamentally weak wing structures. The reason that people like Blériot, and the others who built and flew monoplanes did it was because of speed, I think, as much as anything else. There's less resistance with a monoplane so you just have an airplane that's going faster.
NARRATOR: Louis must learn to land on the front two wheels of the Piper Cub because the Blériot only has two wheels.
1908 will be remembered as the year of aviation miracles in France. Improving on his basic design, Blériot's old partner Gabriel Voisin has moved rapidly ahead. In the first months of 1908, Voisin's machines are traveling as far as a mile; by spring they're staying aloft for over five minutes.
The leading aeronauts can all be found at Issy-les-Moulineaux, an airfield in Paris. Here they are treated like celebrities.
TOM CROUCH: The excitement was palpable. You could go out to Issy and see them in the air, day after day, or trying to get into the air. I mean, it really was extraordinary, once people began to fly. It was like realizing something that had been a symbol of human aspiration.
NARRATOR: But staying in the air is still a problem.
TOM CROUCH: When the Europeans and others sort of set out in pursuit of the Wrights, they paid far less attention to the control issues. They sort of muscled their way into the air with engines and wings, and so on and so forth, and sort of did the best they could with the control that they'd come up with.
When they're making a turn, they sort of have to skid around the turn with the rudder, because they had no real way to balance those wings. Those airplanes are almost not in control.
NARRATOR: Louis Blériot has control problems of his own. The Blériot VI that first got Louis off the ground, survives only a few months. The VII doesn't last much longer.
But flying low and slow, the outcome is often not fatal, Blériot reassures the public.
"A man who keeps his head in an airplane accident, is not likely to come to much harm," he says. "I always throw myself upon one of the wings of my machine when there is a mishap, and although this breaks the wing, it causes me to alight safely."
MICHELE BENICHOU: He crashed and crashed and crashed. He was called the "prince de la guigne" because he had crashed so much.
NARRATOR: But the "prince of bad luck" now believes that his hard-won lessons will pay off, that controlled, continuous flight is within reach, if the competition doesn't pass him by.
When the new Model VIII appears, Blériot has added new control surfaces to the ends of the now larger wings. These are ailerons, flaps designed to roll the plane from side to side, providing balance in a turn. Both the rudder and the elevator are now behind, on the tail.
The VIII flies and allows Blériot to gain crucial experience as a pilot.
One day, ailerons will be standard, but without rigid wings to hold them in place, they are dangerously compromised. Something else is needed.
In August of 1908, Wilbur Wright arrives in France to demonstrate his airplane as part of a sales agreement with a French syndicate. Finally, the French aviation community has the chance to see firsthand what they have been hearing about for so long.
The Wrights, preoccupied with business, have done little further development of their machine for several years, but they remain confident that they are well ahead of the competition.
At the first demonstration, they face a small, curious audience of aviation enthusiasts who wonder, even hope, that all the secrecy has been a cover for some vital shortcoming. The airplane requires a catapult to gain enough speed for takeoff. The Wright Machine rises gracefully into the air, and flies two neat circles with precision. The crowd is dazzled.
TOM CROUCH: They saw him turning very tight circles and it just took their breath away. Once they had seen that, they...as one of them said, "Nous sommes batu." We're beaten. The Wrights have actually done this thing, and we have to learn from them now.
NARRATOR: As the word spreads, thousands turn out for demonstrations that continue on into the winter. The French adopt Wilbur as a brilliant American rustic, and consume an unending string of newspaper and magazine stories about him. But even with all this attention, Wilbur remains an enigma. The pilot Delagrange ruminates over who the man is behind the mask: "Has he a heart? Has he loved? Has he suffered?"
Blériot introduces himself to Wilbur Wright and examines his airplane, especially the wing warping technique used to control the airplane's roll. Surprisingly open, Wilbur shows him how the Wrights' system bends the entire wing. Excited as a schoolboy, Blériot tells a friend, "I'm going to use a warped wing; to hell with the aileron."
For Louis Blériot, it is the final piece of the puzzle. He uses it in his classic Model XI, which his grandson demonstrates to Tom Crouch, who has written widely about the Wright brothers and Louis Blériot.
TOM CROUCH: This is a big wing. It must take a lot of effort to warp the whole thing.
LOUIS Blériot (Pilot): Absolutely, yes. But it's a little easier in the air because part of the weight is off the cables, but you have to pull strongly on the stick to get the warping effect. And as regards the rest of the controls, it's exactly like a normal airplane. You pull the stick to climb, and you push to dive.
TOM CROUCH: Blériot really pioneered this control approach, stick and rudder pedals.
LOUIS BLÉRIOT: Absolutely, yes.
TOM CROUCH: It's just the same sort of thing pilots use today, really.
LOUIS BLÉRIOT: Yes. It's amazing to think that after 90 years, the way to control airplanes remains the same.
NARRATOR: The first Paris Aeronautical Salon opens in December of 1908. A Wright biplane is the star of the show, but Louis Blériot presents his latest models including, off in a corner, the diminutive XI, a direct descendant of the successful VIII, but with wing warping.
No one pays much attention, but with the XI, Blériot has built a forerunner of the modern airplane.
JOHN HANSMAN: He used a tractor engine configuration, basically, which means the propeller is pulling the airplane. That has an advantage that at low speeds, particularly in takeoff, you're blowing air over the tail surfaces so they're effective at low speed.
He had a monoplane wing, which has become standard today because it actually has less drag and is faster than a biplane. The control surfaces were on the back of the airplane, which is a more stable configuration than having the control surfaces out in front like the Wright brothers did. So the airplane tends to be self-righting if it's sort of going through the air sideways. You can sort of think of it like a weathervane, it will tend to straighten out.
NARRATOR: By June of 1909, the XI can stay in the air for a half hour or more. At age 36, Louis Blériot is one of the few men in the world who can fly, but he's running out of money. The cost of his experiments has nearly exhausted his fortune. To raise cash, he sells the patent to his automobile headlight, then his summer home, and finally his car. "I had to keep going," he said, "because, like a gambler, I had to recover my losses. I had to fly."
What he needs now is a spectacular flight to attract attention and buyers for his airplane. There is one possibility: the London Daily Mail is offering a thousand pounds to the first person to fly the 26 miles across the English Channel. After a year no one has yet dared attempt it.
As Louis refines his Model XI he considers the crossing. Then, a popular sportsman named Hubert Latham announces his intention of trying for the prize. Colorful and wealthy, he spends much of his time traveling abroad. When the President of France asked him his profession he replied, "Monsieur President, I am a man of the world."
Latham has only been flying a few months, and his plane, the Antoinette, is only recently completed, but he's already broken records for speed and endurance in the air.
Latham arrives at the Channel and begins preparations for the flight. Blériot intently follows Latham's progress in the press. Technical problems, then rain and high wind keep Latham grounded until early on the morning of July 19, 1909, when he takes off.
Only six miles out his engine stops. With the English shore not yet in sight he glides into the water. The aircraft remains afloat. Discovering that his pockets are still dry, Latham proceeds to light a cigarette while waiting for rescue.
The Anoinette is a wreck. Although Latham plans to try again it will take a least a week for him to prepare. Latham's failure prompts Blériot into action.
And now, after nine years of waiting and preparation, Louis Blériot is ready to test fly his grandfather's airplane.
LOUIS BLÉRIOT: It's completely different from other airplanes. You feel as if you were about to take off by yourself, without any engine, without any wings, you're just about to take off by yourself.
Everything was perfect, and the plane was flying well, the weather was perfect, and everything went so well that it was magical for me.
NARRATOR: Blériot is ready to cross the English Channel, but he has a problem. During a recent flight, insulation came loose from an exhaust pipe and his left foot received third degree burns. But he discovers that he can still operate the rudder pedal even while hobbling on crutches.
He immediately starts to search for a suitable takeoff site, finally settling on a low pasture that leads directly over the beach to the Channel. The site must be as close to the Channel as possible. The distance across will require the XI's engine to run at its outside limit for continuous operation.
Excitement builds, as high winds ground both aviators. Blériot, who is ready to go, waits for a break, while Latham's team, racing to assemble a new airplane, hope for continued bad weather.
High winds from the southwest are accelerated by the geography of the Channel. Since the little Blériot XI cannot fly in winds greater than four knots, accurate weather prediction is invaluable.
Reporters are gathering in force. The newspapers build suspense with the question, "Who will dare to fly first? The dashing Latham or the dogged Blériot?"
A French reporter, Charles Fontaine, sends Louis a picture postcard that shows a landing spot among the forbidding cliffs near Dover. He promises to be there waving a French flag to guide Blériot in. Both the Blériot XI and the Antoinette are now ready for flight.
The next morning the wind has died at last, but Blériot's mood on being awakened is not good. His foot hurts. He is nervous and refuses breakfast. "Waking up that morning was terrible," he recalled. "I would have been happy if they had told me that the wind was blowing and no attempt was possible."
LOUIS BLÉRIOT: My grandfather's mother, she said to her friends, "You know, Louis has gone completely mad. He wants to cross the Channel in a kite."
NARRATOR: By four a.m., the engine is thoroughly warmed up. Latham's camp, observed through a telescope, appears quiet. Just before takeoff a small dog runs into the spinning propeller, not the most propitious of omens.
Louis must take off into the wind, away from the Channel, then make a turn towards Britain. "Below me is the sea. The motion of the waves is not pleasant. I fly on. For ten minutes I am lost. I let the airplane take its own course. This calm has a dangerous charm. I am very happy when I see a gray line which seems detached from the sea. It gets bigger each minute. Without a doubt, it is the English side. I am almost safe.
"I fly towards the white cliffs, but the wind and the fog take me in. I must struggle with my hands and my eyes. Three boats appear. They seem to be moving towards a port, Dover without a doubt. I follow them. Suddenly on one of the crevices, I see a man desperately waving a French tricolor flag. A feeling of absolute joy fills me. I move quickly towards the ground that he is signaling from.
"Now I must land, but the winds are strong, and as soon as I approach the ground a whirlwind lifts me. The struggle doesn't last long since I cannot stay in the air any longer. I cut the engine and instantly my machine falls straight upon the land. The chassis doesn't take it very well and the propeller is damaged, but, my goodness, too bad."
Only one thing is on Blériot's mind, "And Latham, where is he?" "He is still in France" a newspaper reporter tells him. He had overslept.
The Blériot XI, like all early airplanes, is difficult to control at the best of times, but the verdict here is pilot error, in the heat of the moment, a failure to reverse the rudder pedal.
The crossing turns Louis Blériot into an international hero.
TOM CROUCH: The impact that it had on people was really quite extraordinary. The Channel was just recognized as England's barrier, England's wall, and now, someone had flown over that Channel wall. And, as everyone suddenly began saying in the newspapers—H.G. Wells, most famously— "England's no longer an island."
NARRATOR: A new era of flight is underway. The editor of Le Figaro, Gaston Calmette writes, "When man can, by the action of his will alone, pass in a few hours beyond all horizons, beyond all the oceans and above all the rivers...the conditions of human life will be profoundly changed."
By the end of 1909, just six years after the Wrights' historic flight, the Blériot XI holds most of the world's flying records for speed, altitude and distance. During the years preceding World War I, the Blériot XI becomes the most popular airplane in the world.
TOM CROUCH: After Wilbur Wright had flown in France in 1908, and the French came to an understanding of his control system, they just zipped right ahead, and clearly, 1910, '11, '12, France is the most advanced nation in the world.
LOUIS BLÉRIOT: The wreck didn't change my attitude. I have an intense feeling of frustration and disappointment. I said to myself, "My grandfather succeeded in getting to the English coast, and you, you weren't even able to make it to the French." I'm doing this for personal reasons, that's all. It's not for money or something like that. It's my goal, and I want to achieve it, and I will succeed one day, that's all.
On NOVA's Web site, hear more from Louis Blériot's grandson, take a tour of the Model XI, learn about the first woman to fly solo across the Channel and explore Blériot's early flying machines. Find it on PBS.org.
To order this show or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.
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A Daring Flight
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