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Louis Bleriot's 1909 Bleriot XII Biplane Accident, Reims, Champagne, France

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John Latter on May 9, 2007

A photograph of Louis Bleriot's aeroplane after an accident at the Reims Air Meet, France, held between August 22 - 29, 1909 (a month after his historic first flight across the English Channel*).

The above plane is a Blériot XII which first flew on May 21, 1909, at Issy. It could carry a passenger in addition to the pilot and was the first aircraft to carry three people. The accident occurred on August 29, 1909.

*The cross-channel flight was carried out in a Bleriot XI monoplane and images/photos of the Louis Bleriot memorial (currently the 'Cockpit Stone', rear, port, and southwestern views) located on Northfall Meadow behind Dover Castle can be found by clicking on the "Bleriot" tag.

(Alternate spellings: Betheny Plain, Rheims, Blériot)

Bleriot XI Video Links

The first video is a 4 minute clip taken at the Imperial War Museum's 1995 Duxford Air Show. The behaviour of the Bleriot monoplane shown (it doesn't say whether it's an original or not) is reminiscent of cycling against a headwind - at one point the commentator says, "I'm sure he's going backwards there!"

The second video is a 37 second clip taken at New Zealand's 2006 Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow. A caption from the accompanying website states:

"The first aircraft ever to fly the English Channel, flown by it’s maker Louis Bleriot, in 1909 in a time of 36 minutes, a Bleriot XI made history. In 1913 an American, “Wizard” Stone brought one to New Zealand and undertook several flights before writing it off at Napier. This Bleriot XI is an original, built in 1918 and brought to New Zealand by it’s owner, Mikael Carlson, exclusively to fly at Warbirds Over Wanaka. Powered by a 50hp Gnome Omega, it cruises a sedate 42 knots."

Future Air Shows: Imperial War Museum Duxford, Warbirds Over Wanaka.

The 1909 Reims Air Meet, Betheny Plain, France

Abridged from the History of Flight - US Centennial of Flight Commision (1):

From August 22 to August 29, 1909, 22 of the world's leading aviators met at a racetrack on the Betheny Plain outside Reims, France, to compete in the first organized international air meet. Officially known as Le Grande Semaine D'Aviation de la Champagne (The Champagne Region's Great Aviation Week), the Reims Air Meet featured many prestigious contests, including those for the best flights of distance, altitude, and speed.

Local French vintners and Reims city officials founded the Reims Air Meet in the spring of 1909 when they agreed to raise prize money and sponsor the air show. In July, one month before the meet, French aviator Louis Bleriot had become the first person to fly across the English Channel, and thanks to the newspaper coverage he received, public interest in aviation was running high. Because of Bleriot's feat, the organizers of the Reims meet were expecting a large turnout at their event.

Twenty-two aviators came to Reims to compete. All of them, save two, were Frenchmen. Some of the better-known French pilots included Bleriot, Hubert Latham (a rival of Bleriot who had also had been competing to be the first person to fly across the English Channel), Henri Farman, and Eugene Lefebvre. George Cockburn, a Scot, and Glenn Curtiss, an American, were the only foreign competitors. Although most of the pilots were experienced, there were also a few rookies. One was Monsieur Ruchonnet, who had flown his first airplane only two days before the meet. Another was a youngster named Etienne Bunau-Varilla, who had also been flying only a very short time; his plane was a recent high school graduation gift from his father.

Several aviators emerged as crowd favorites during the week at Reims. Farman thrilled his fellow citizens by winning the distance contest, the richest cash prize of the meet at 50,000 francs or approximately $10,000. He captured the event by covering 180 kilometers (112 miles) in a plane of his own design in 3 hours, 4 minutes, and 56 seconds. Then, in a different competition, he won the Prix des Passengers for carrying two spectators a total of six miles in ten minutes. All told, Farman collected 63,000 francs, or more than $12,000, in prizes during the week and became the meet's biggest money winner. Latham and Lefebvre also commanded the attention and respect of the crowd. Latham, who was already on people's minds because of his recent crash while trying to cross the English Channel, won the altitude prize by guiding his plane to a height of 155 meters or 508.5 feet. Lefebvre, on the other hand, put on a daring display of aerial acrobatics and quickly gained a reputation as a daredevil. For many spectators, such feats often deserved more than mere applause and cheers.

The Gordon Bennett Cup Race, or speed contest as it was commonly known, was the most important event of the Reims Air Meet, or at least the one that everyone wanted to see. Despite its comparatively meager prize money of 25,000 francs or approximately $5,000, most spectators considered it the premier event of the week because of their growing interest in speed. American James Gordon Bennett, the famous publisher of The New York Herald newspaper and a longtime fan and sponsor of various speed contests, lent his name to the race by putting up the prize money and offering a trophy. Bleriot, Europe's most celebrated aviator, was favored to win, but as Glenn Curtiss, the lone American and a celebrated pilot in his own right, would make clear, the Frenchman was going to have to fight for the cup.

By Saturday, August 28, the day of the speed race, the field of competitors had narrowed considerably due to several crashes. At one point during the week, there had been at least a dozen disabled or wrecked planes on the field. Curtiss, fearing just such a disaster, had refused to enter his plane, called the Reims Racer, in any other contests besides the Gordon Bennett Cup. All told, because of the high attrition rate, only five pilots stood ready to race for the cup--Curtiss, Bleriot, Latham, Lefebvre, and Cockburn. Curtiss was the first to fly the two laps around the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) course. He averaged 46.5 miles per hour (75 kilometers per hour) and established the benchmark time of 15 minutes, 50 seconds. Then Latham, Lefebvre and Cockburn each tried to beat his mark, but they could not. It was up to Bleriot, the last person to fly. On his first lap, Bleriot led Curtiss by four seconds and was averaging 47.75 miles per hour (almost 77 kilometers per hour). But on his second lap, he slowed considerably, and when he crossed the finish line, Curtiss's time was still the fastest by six seconds. At first the French crowd was stunned by Bleriot's loss, but they eventually started cheering for Curtiss and proclaimed him the new "Champion Aviator of the World." As anticipated, the speed race had been the highlight of the week.

(1) See "Explorers, Daredevils and Record Setters" under Essays.

NB This photo is currently geotagged to the airfield due north of Rheims. If you have more accurate co-ordinates then please let me know!

John Latter on November 19, 2007

Click to see photos of Dover's Norman Castle and its associated structures of the East Roman Pharos and the Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro.

John Latter on November 16, 2012

Also see the 1909 black and white (monochrome) photograph:

Louis Bleriot after First English Channel Flight in 1909, Dover Castle, UK

A Dover Aviation and History photo.

John Latter / Jorolat

Dover Blog: The Psychology of a Small Town

This is the Images of Dover website: click on any red or blue "John Latter" link to access the Entry Page.

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  • Uploaded on May 7, 2007
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    by John Latter