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This ought to be the shortest pilot report in history. After all, the flight in question lasted for about 10 seconds! Nevertheless, 10 seconds aloft in a 1909 Bleriot XI monoplane were sufficient to transport me back more than a century, to the dawn of powered flight, where I discovered that flying in that era was fraught with peculiar risks and challenges.
The Bleriot design is famous for the pioneering flight of its designer, Louis Bleriot, who was the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909. The modern-day Bleriot was a replica, albeit a very accurate one, built by a team of dedicated volunteers from the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre (CAHC) to commemorate the first flight of a powered airplane—somehow the term “aeroplane” seems more appropriate—over the city of Montreal in 1910.
With Rob Erdos at the controls, the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre’s replica Bleriot XI monoplane takes to the air. Matt Carson Photo
MONOPLANE OVER MONTREAL
It is easy to forget that in its earliest days, aviation had an aura of glamour and adventure. The exploits of renowned aviators generated great public excitement, and records were being set daily that demonstrated the vast potential of the aeroplane. During the summer of 1910, an aviation meet, called “La Grande Semaine d ’Aviation de Montréal” was held near present-day Pointe-Claire, Que. Among the dashing pilots scheduled to perform was Jacques de Lesseps, a Frenchman who had become the second man to fly across the English Channel flying a Bleriot XI that he named Le Scarabée. He brought his Bleriot to the meet and delighted the crowds on July 2, 1910, when he made a stunning round-trip flight over downtown Montreal.
It was this event that the CAHC team sought to commemorate. Surviving Bleriots are rare, and typically secured behind stanchions in a museum. The opportunity to inspect the CAHC Bleriot as it took shape was a unique privilege. The airfoil section is thin and deeply cambered; more kite than wing by modern standards. The Bleriot’s horizontal stabilizer has a hollow tubular spar, with the elevators affixed to the spar at the tips. The flight controls are quaint; a sort of small ship’s wheel mounted on a control stick. The structure is sophisticated in a very old-fashioned way, comprised of a wooden primary structure braced internally with wire. It manages to be light and strong; appears fragile, but is quite stout. The intricate, labour-intensive construction reminded me of a violin. There is a well-worn expression in flight testing that aeroplanes always fly like they look. This aeronautical anachronism was primitive but beautiful. I couldn’t wait to fly it!
The Bleriot was slightly overweight, so the heavy spring-mounted tailwheel was replaced with a lighter tail skid. A modified axe handle did the job. Deb Erdos Photo
Fifteen years under construction, the CAHC’s Bleriot was authentic in all important respects, yet different in a few key areas. It was powered by a modern 110-horsepower Rotec radial engine, in place of the original’s unreliable and anemic three-cylinder Anzani engine. It also became rather heavy during construction, largely because of the Rotec engine, but also because of the insidious effects of craftsmanship. The fabric surfaces, for example, gleamed with layers of dope and paint. I doubt that Bleriot himself ever lavished such care upon his aeroplanes. As a consequence of it being slightly overweight, the last minute decision was taken to replace the heavy spring-mounted tailwheel with a lighter tail skid. A modified axe handle did the job. It was otherwise a very faithful replica.
The Bleriot needed to fly to fulfil a commitment made by the CAHC’s founder, Godfrey Pasmore, to Lorne Trottier, the benefactor who supplied the Rotec engine; however, the objective was to conduct only a single runway hop. The aeroplane was simply too valuable to risk unnecessarily. As the designated test pilot, my involvement in the project began in earnest when the aeroplane was moved to the Hawkesbury East airport in August 2014, in preparation for the flight. Assembly and rigging took the better part of a day, under the supervision of Richard Plante, the project team leader. The construction scene was a sight to behold: a genuine Bleriot in a wooden hangar on a grass strip. Only the odd cordless power tool gave away the actual century.
A new 110-horsepower Rotec radial engine replaces the Bleriot’s original three-cylinder Anzani engine. Robert St-Pierre/Rwings Photo
PLAN THE FLIGHT. FLY THE PLAN.
When assembly was complete, I was invited to clamber aboard to test the engine. The Rotec engine started easily, and we proceeded to check the instruments. That didn’t take long. There were only four of them.
As the daylight waned, the team decided to do a few taxi runs along the grass. The aeroplane was towed to the runway, started up, and the power was advanced, and advanced and advanced…. leading to the discovery that with my additional weight in the cockpit, the tail skid had sunk into the grass, proving itself quite an effective arrestor hook. The Bleriot was stuck. I was reminded of my personal rule in dealing with old aeroplanes: the parts most likely to surprise you are the ones that have been improved or modernized.
An overnight scramble ensued to design, fabricate and install a small skid shoe to distribute the aeroplane’s weight and to keep the skid from sinking into the grass. The team quickly came up with a simple solution, designed to reduce the sliding friction of the skid.
It worked, if perhaps a bit too well. The next morning dawned clear and calm, and expectations were high among the Bleriot team. The aeroplane was towed through the dewy dawn grass, and our testing began. The Golden Rule in flight testing is “plan the flight and fly the plan.” That is what we did, beginning with short ground runs. I initially accelerated to no more than 10 knots, whereupon the Bleriot’s character asserted itself immediately. Lacking either brakes or steering, once the throttle was closed I was effectively a passenger, and watched as it did a slow motion groundloop against totally ineffectual opposite rudder. In fact, every attempt at a ground run resulted in a graceless pirouette as the tail attempted to pass the nose; such was the extent of its directional instability on the ground. Clearly a flight attempt wasn’t advisable. The CAHC team again came to the rescue. Realizing that more friction under the tail skid would reduce the instability, they quickly jury rigged a rubber strip on the bottom of the tail skid shoe, providing a sort of keel effect to help keep the tail behind me where it belonged.
Fifteen years in the making, the CAHC’s Bleriot is authentic in all important respects. Robert St-Pierre/Rwings Photo
Within minutes we were back in business, conducting a series of runs down the grass strip at incremental speeds. Directional stability was better; however, the aeroplane was still effectively uncontrollable during the deceleration without bursts of power to energize the rudder. Bleriot lore asserts that the wing warping system is grossly ineffective, and best avoided altogether; hence our requirements for absolutely no crosswind. The rising sun was stirring up a gentle breeze, but thankfully it was straight down the runway. Each run involved careful prepositioning of the controls: centred laterally, with slightly forward elevator. My concern was that the over-aggressive attempts to raise the tail could stall the crude elevators, creating drag and compromising control. Each run involved coarse steering with jabs of rudder, waiting to feel evidence that the Bleriot was ready to fly. Runs to about 25 knots showed the flight characteristics of an elegant, but ungainly, shopping cart.
The winds were rising, and our last run of the morning would add roughly another three knots to our investigations. I had by this point developed some success at directional control, and was pondering the reluctance of the tail to rise, when the Bleriot lifted from the grass. To be honest, lift-off caught me by surprise. Initially the nose wanted to rise alarmingly, and a further surprise was the combination of pitch instability and poor elevator control response. Videos clearly show the extent of the large and rapid elevator inputs required to stabilize pitch attitude. At one point, having applied full forward elevator, I jerked the throttle off for a moment to help lower the nose—a very brief moment lest the aeroplane stall. I was busy. If I had a plan, it was simply to converge smoothly with the earth.
Modern-day test pilot meets legendary 1909 marvel: Rob Erdos and the Bleriot XI in its wooden hangar. Deb Erdos Photo
Directional control was somewhat less challenging in flight, and our mercifully straight flight path did not test my resolve to avoid the wing warping lateral control system.
A combination of tentative throttle reductions and coarse elevator inputs resulted in a landing as nearly undetectable as the takeoff. I credit luck. As the engine ticked to a stop, I could hear the sound of running and cheering behind me. CAHC’s Bleriot had flown.
A single brief hop in a Bleriot is like eating one potato chip – it leaves you craving more. My only regret is that there wasn’t more time to fully explore the flight envelope. Those “in the know” about old aeroplanes tell me that some degree of ground steering may be imposed by using the considerable adverse drag of the wing warping system. I would also have liked to further investigate raising the tailwheel to effect a less abrupt lift-off. Nevertheless, with that one successful hop, it was mission accomplished.
Following its one and only flight, the Bleriot is now on permanent display at the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre at Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue, near Montreal. Robert St-Pierre/Rwings Photo
The story thus far has focused on my brief experience of flying the Bleriot XI. After all, a writer can only write from experience. The remainder of the Bleriot’s story, beyond those 10 seconds aloft, await further discovery where the aeroplane is now on permanent display, at the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre at Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue, near Montreal. Visitors will likely meet members of the team who conceived and constructed the project, and may hear more about how the aeronautical exploits of Jacques de Lesseps over a century ago inspired a group of craftsmen to recreate the experience of a Bleriot aloft.