The Conquest of the Channel (1909)


1909 was a great year that promoted flying, as two significant events took place: the undoubtedly important flight of Blériot crossing the Channel in July and the great international aviation meeting held at Rheims, France in August.


Born on 1 July 1872, Louis Blériot (1872-1936) was a French wealthy manufacturer in developing the first practical headlamp for cars. Using much of the money he made, Blériot turned to flying machines in 1901, experimenting first with an ornithopter. He had no knowledge of aerodynamics and worked entirely by trial and error; therefore, his achievement makes it even more remarkable. During the next years, he moved through a series of distinct aircraft designs, only the last one of which was capable of making a flight and proved to be the world’s first successful monoplane. The Type XI was the 11th machine constructed by Blériot and its first trial took place on 18 January 1909. After eight years and numerous injuries, Blériot’s luck changed; he had spent about £20,000 on experiments over those years.


In the meantime, a prize offered by the British newspaper Daily Mail was first announced on 5 October 1908, at £500 to the first airman crossing the English Channel before the end of the year. When 1908 passed with no serious attempt being made, the prize money was doubled to £1,000 and the offer extended to the end of 1909. Blériot was competing with two other serious contenders: Hubert Latham and Charles de Lambert, the first person in France to be taught to fly by Wilbur Wright. On 19 July 1909, Latham was the first person in his Antoinette IV to attempt to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane; due to an engine failure, he had to ditch in the Channel, thereby performing the world's first landing of an aircraft on the sea.


Diagrammatic sketch illustrating the principal features of the Blériot Model XI monoplane

On Sunday 25 July 1909, Blériot got up at 2:30 in the morning; at that time, there were no airborne radios to call for help, and flight instrumentation was limited. He took off at 4:41 from a seaside farmyard near Calais and 37 minutes later landed behind the Dover Castle in England. At Dover, the wind nearly caused him to crash, and his landing gear and propeller were damaged. But he had made it, and he was declared the winner. It was also the first successful international flight over a large body of water by an airplane, and it required of the pilot a mixture of courage and madness to set out on the voyage without so much as a compass as a guide. No legal steps were taken to authorize the flight and the landing in a foreign country; apparently, Blériot did not even carry his French passport or any other identification paper!


Blériot’s original Type XI is in the possession of the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. The conquest of the Channel by air was a sensation and brought Blériot instant fame; Blériot became a hero, celebrated on both sides of the Channel. After the feat, the British newspaper The Times noted that “the conquest of the air changes the fates of nations as the discovery of the New World changed them. It may give vast new opportunities to some and take away old opportunities from others. It will be a curse or a blessing, according to the use which men will make of it.”


The Type XI became a best seller and was probably the most successful monoplane of the pioneer era designed and built before the First World War; his Model XI was powered by Alessandro Anzani, a manufacturer of lightweight engines for motorcycles. Blériot was flooded with orders for his aircraft. Between 1909 and 1912, nearly every European aviation contest saw a Blériot XI among the winners, and the type was flown by most of the leading aviators throughout Europe. Soon the Blériot XI was equipped for the first military involvement.


Several firsts in aviation related to the Channel are to be highlighted. On 2 June 1910, Charles Stewart Rolls (UK) was the first person to make a non-stop two-way crossing of the Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft (a Short Wright biplane). On 23 August 1910, John Bevins Moisant (US) flew the first flight with a passenger across the English Channel. On 16 April 1912, Harriet Quimby (US) was the first woman to fly across the Channel, from Dover to Calais in 59 minutes.


In response to a prize of $20,000 offered by the Aero Club of Italy, the attempt of first air crossing of the Alps was made on 23 September 1910 by the Franco-Peruvian aviator Jorge Chávez Dartnell in a Blériot XI. His flight from Brigue, Switzerland to Domodossola, Italy, via the Simplon Pass, ended in disaster when he crashed on landing and was killed.


The flight over the English Channel on 25 July 1909 marked indelibly on the future of the emerging global aviation and carried profound international implications. Designers, manufacturers and pilots contributed to multiply efforts to fly ever faster, higher and farther. As one of the narrowest but most famous international waterways lacking dangerous currents, the Channel has been the first objective of numerous innovative sea, air, and human powered crossing technologies. The day after Blériot flew across the Channel, a British newspaper wrote: “England’s isolation has ended once and for all”; concern was also evident that the new technological achievement had a potential impact on the social relations.


From 24 June to 2 July 1910, an aviation competition called Montreal's Grande semaine de l'aviation was held near present-day Pointe-Claire; it was the second world aviation meeting, the first one was held in Rheims, France. It was the first international Air Meet held in Canada. Most of the American and European aviation pioneers responded to the call of this congress, discussing the development of aviation and attending lectures on technical advances in this field. Over 10 000 spectators were on site to witness a variety of activities including: airship flights, parachute jumping, kite-flying exhibitions and a bombardment simulation from a biplane.

Among the distinguished pilots called upon to perform was a Frenchman, Jacques de Lesseps (1883-1927), who became the second pilot to cross the English Channel aboard a Blériot X1 christened "Le Scarabée" (Beetle in English. a name linked to his family’s past history in Egypt perhaps) on 21 May 1910. The Blériot XI was embarked on the S/S Corinthian ship, which left Le Havre on 13 June 1910.

Jacques de Lesseps undertook a superb round-trip flight over downtown Montreal with his Blériot X1 "Le Scarabée" (c/r C-ISCA) on the closing day 2 July 1910, for a distance of 56 km in 49 minutes, a first for any Canadian city. A replica of the Blériot XI "Le Scarabée" was built by volunteers of the Montreal Aviation Museum, located at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, about 25 kilometres west of downtown Montréal; they spent nearly 15 years building this exact reproduction from original blueprints. The first flight of the replica took place in September 2014. Jacques de Lesseps was a son of Viscount Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the driving force behind the construction of the Suez Canal, in Egypt.



Peru – 15 September 1937 - Inter-American Technical Conference on Aviation (15 to 25 September 1937).

Maximum Card – Red circular cancel related to this meeting - Red and white colors of the Peruvian state flag.

The town, where Chávez’s flight ended, is called Domodossola, earlier known as Domo d’Ossola (in the Ossola valley, Piemont, Italy). However, the stamp mentions the name of Domossola (misspelling of the city’s name).


Cyprus - 23 October 1978 - Anniversaries and events 1978: 75th Anniversary of first powered flight.

First day illustrated card, issued under the auspices of Cypriot Philatelic Society. One mounted stamp

and two postmarks from the post office. Texts in English and Greek. Size: 21.5 x 31 cm. The illustration depicts the evolution of airplanes; Blériot XI at the middle-left.


Uruguay – 18 June 1979 - Anniversaries and Events: 75th Anniversary of first powered flight - 65th Anniversary of the Uruguayan air force

Blériot XI monoplane in the upper-right corner of the stamp and in the cancel.

Military aviation in Uruguay was born on 17 March 1913 when the Military Aviation Academy

(Escuela de Aviación Militar) was formed at a small airport 50 km from Montevideo. The first

aircraft were a Farman M.F.7 Longhorn biplane and a Blériot XI monoplane.


Togo - 15 October 1985 - 40th Anniversary of ICAO.

The souvenir sheet displays a rather comprehensive history of aviation evolution. Blériot XI at the left-side.


37th Session of the Assembly - 28 September to 8 October 2010.

The bottom frame on the right-side commemorates the 100th anniversary of the first flight over Montreal by Count Jacques de Lesseps on 2 July 1910 with his Bleriot XI named "Le Scarabée", during the first-ever air show held in Canada.


The Bleriot XI "Le Scarabée" in the townhall of Montreal during the fall of 2010.


Replica of the Bleriot XI "Le Scarabée" C-ISCA.

Photo Credit : Le Musée de l’aviation de Montréal, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue.



Font page (2 versions) of La Presse newspaper highlighting “La grande semaine de l’aviation” and the related air race (“Le grand concours de l’aviation de Montreal”), held at Montreal from 25 June to 5 July 1910.