Article excerpt


AT THE time it was seen as one of the last great adventures. In a frail framework of wood and wire, a compass taped to the woodwork, and to the crackle of a three-cylinder engine, a moustachioed Frenchman called Louis Bleriot wobbled uneasily up and away from startled cattle in a field near Calais.

His destination was Dover and 37 minutes later he crash-landed to become the first man in history to fly the Channel and claim a [pounds sterling]1,000 prize put up by Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail and great-uncle of the present proprietor Lord Rothermere. It was July 25, 1909, and international air travel had begun.

Now it is 1998. An identical plane with an identical engine waits near Calais for the 'Go' signal on an identical mission. At the primitive controls is a Frenchman called Louis Bleriot . . .

For aviation, it will be a trip back to the future, but there will be no stuntmen, no trick photography, no ancient footage when Louis Bleriot flies the Channel again on July 25. This one is real, the pilot a thrill-seeking banker who is the great flier's grandson.

All his life Louis Bleriot has dreamed of emulating that breathtaking flight and some 20 years ago he managed to buy one of only three airworthy Bleriot Type XI monoplanes remaining out of 800 built.

On this 89th anniversary of the Channel crossing that was of greater significance to mankind than the tunnel could ever be, he gets his chance.

For months he has been in training, some of the time at the controls of a Piper Cub light aircraft which handles similarly to the old Type XI, sometimes taxiing (though not taking off in) the Type XI, and putting himself through a fitness routine to enable him to sustain a tense, wind-buffeted 35-40 minute- flight (if he makes it) in an open cockpit.

In most respects this will be a flight no different from his grandfather's in 1909 which was a combination of persever-ence, skill and luck - except that instead of a taped-on compass he will have one strapped to his wrist.

The odds seem to be against him.

Nine years ago, on the 80th anniversary of the historic flight, a petite English aviatrix called Gloria Pullen who weighed a mere 7st10lb, attempted the flight on M. Bleriot's behalf in his plane, but she lost power and plunged into the sea 3 1/2 miles short of Dover. The crew of a rescue helicopter winched her to safety.

The modern Louis Bleriot did not make that last flight himself because of his inexperience and because he is four stones heavier than she was. Weight is crucial to the flimsy structure with its 25ft wingspan. But at 54, he knows that if he does not try now, he may never have another opportunity.

His father didn't fly because of poor eyesight and warned his son: 'You are the last of the Bleriots; what if anything should happen?' But Louis's appetite was whetted by a flight in a French Air Force jet and he was later taught by a friend in the French aerobatic squadron, the equivalent of the Red Arrows.

When grandfather Bleriot was issued with his pilot's licence by the Aero Club of France, it was symbolically No 1. By the time his grandson got his licence 14 years ago he was 40.

And he is no longer the last of the Bleriots. He and his Austrian-born wife Martina have four sons.

History has recorded in detail precisely what grandson Bleriot is seeking to live up to.

It was a summer's dawn when the plane was towed from Calais station by a white horse to that meadow. Cows had to be cleared from what was to be the airstrip.

Bleriot, who had become fascinated by flight while an engineering student, had never run the engine for longer than 20 minutes and he knew the crossing would take at least half an hour.

AS HE climbed into the open cockpit he never noticed the compass and asked the engineer: 'Which way to Dover? …