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The Bleriot XI
If you want to study aerodynamics, you should only look at very early aircraft designs, such as the Bleriot XI. No high bypass ratio turbofans, no upper deck lounges, no global positioning system. Instead, an airplane is a pure expression of the design solutions needed to overcome the four forces of flight: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. One of these “studios” can be made at Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, New York.
The culmination of ten previous configurations built by Louis Bleriot, who reinvested 60,000 French francs raised during his venture in the production of automotive lamps in the development of a technologically successful aircraft in a race with names such as the Wright brothers, Henri Farman, Santos Dumont and Glenn Curtiss, the Bleriot XI himself became the first practical monoplane in the world.
The Bleriot VII, which was its initial foundation, appeared with a partially enclosed hull to accommodate one pilot; wings attached to the tubular cabin frame above the cockpit; Antoinette engine with four blades and 50 HP; large horizontal tail with double height; small rudder; and swivel castors with independent springs. Although it collapsed on December 18, 1907, it still provided the foundation for the later, final design.
The Bleriot VIII, which quickly followed, retained the low-wing configuration but had wingtip pivoting ailerons and tricycle undercarriage, each consisting of individual wheels.
Although the Bleriot IX was a larger variant of the VIII, and the Bleriot X introduced a pusher and propeller arrangement with triple canary rudders, these intermediate steps did not offer much to the final design and were therefore quickly discarded. That ultimate design took the form of the Bleriot XI.
Its long, gradually tapering fuselage, formed by lengths of ash, spruce posts and crossbeams held together by wire trusses, was light but strong and provided a common attachment point for its aerodynamic surfaces and engine. Only half covered with fabric, it seemed primitive and unfinished, but functional.
The fabric-covered, rib-shaped, rounded-tipped wings had a span of 28.2 feet and an area of 151 square feet and were hinged to the fuselage at an angle, offering considerable dihedral. Their sloping upper surface and sharply lowered leading edge were themselves expressions of aerodynamics. Closely guided by their upper surfaces, the airflow was swept down and out of their trailing edges, reducing the pressure on the upper surface, increasing the air velocity and causing the airfoil to “react” in the principle of lift. Nor were high lift devices such as slats and flaps or even ailerons included. Instead, lateral control was provided by a method of wing folding designed by the Wright brothers, an inverted pylon attached under the fuselage providing a wire attachment for the folding actuators. By rotating the entire wing differentially, they transformed it into a huge wing, increasing its angle of attack and causing a tilt in flight.
A 16-square-foot rectangular stabilizer, mounted under the tapered structure toward the end, provided deflection for pitch-axis control, while a 4.5-square-foot, fully movable rudder, seemingly small for an aircraft, provided yaw control at the far end of the fuselage.
A three-cylinder, air-cooled, 35-hp Anzani inverted-Y engine, which replaced the original 30-hp REP unit and bolted to an ash front frame, powered a mahogany, scitmar-shaped, 6.87-ft. diameter propeller at 1350 rpm. Due to the then inadequate power of existing engines, the Bleriot XI, like all early designs, struggled with power-to-weight ratios, their designers being forced to counter-actively use strong but light wood for structures and fabric for aerodynamic surfaces.
The smooth, finely honed, intricately shaped propeller itself was a combination of artistic carving and aerodynamic expression. An essentially tiny wing, rotating perpendicular to the flight path, developed thrust in the same way that a wing created lift, the relative wind buffeting it in its plane of rotation. Because it was positioned at an angle of attack and because it had a canted airfoil, it developed lift in the forward direction, here redefined as “thrust,” a “twist” of the propeller allowing it to maintain the same angle of attack along the radius with the angle slopes high near the hub but low near the edge.
The ash front frame also provided the attachment point for two of the three aircraft wheels with fine-spoke, swivel rubber tires, the occasional taping of which ensured tire-to-rim grip. The unique undercarriage turning capability, derived from the Bleriot VII, adequately enabled the aircraft to operate in crosswind conditions, as the tiny rudder did not offer enough room to counter them to any appreciable extent, and the assembly was otherwise too weak. structurally withstand lateral loads. As a result, it could follow the ground at an angle.
The cockpit, composed of a wooden frame and rubber fabric on the sides, contained a control system designed by Bleriot in which a small, non-rotating, circular wheel was mounted on top of a vertical column that was based on a round, metal, half-domed “cloche ” or “bell” in French, to which were attached two front and rear elevons for propulsion and two side cables for folding the wings. The surfaces were moved by moving the stick forward, backward or to any side. The “sophistication” of the cockpit is completed by the engine throttle on the right side and two instruments: a compass and a fuel gauge.
A small barrel-like fuel tank is placed horizontally between the engine and the cockpit.
The Bleriot XI, powered by a 35 hp Anzani engine, had a gross weight of 661 pp and could reach a speed of 47 mph.
First flown on March 15, 1909, with the earlier REP propulsion system, it only flew a distance of 8,200 feet, but this inauspicious start was no indication of the design’s performance and success, as just four months later, on July 25, it made a record , the 25-mile, first cross-channel flight from Calais, France to Dover, England, winning the Daily Mail’s £1,000 prize for the feat. The historic event, which attracted worldwide attention, caused an influx of orders for the type.
The Bleriot XI’s design, low horsepower and minimally efficient surfaces dictate its operation. An airplane without brakes, for example, can only be steered with its tiny rudder on the ground. Take-off, due to the high angle of attack of the wings, is optimally achieved by fully moving the flap or throttle, which raises the tail to a position parallel to the ground and puts all the weight of the aircraft on its main wheels, while the tracking angles caused by the wind can be partially or completely neutralized by the deflections of the rudder, depending about their degree, and its pivoting chassis further increases this. Profiled in this way, the aircraft is guided to a shallow climb. The camber and wing area, along with ground effect, help with this temporarily, but it still has stall characteristics.
The climb profile, dictated not by air traffic control limitations but by speed requirements, creates lift at each “plateau”.
Although the full-throttle setting must maintain maximum flow across the engine to meet its “air-cooling” requirements, the slow, fragile construction is vulnerable to wind gusts, and slopes should be shallow and gentle. There is not enough power available to counter turns of 30 degrees or more which exponentially increase the load on the wing and inevitably lead to stall. Lateral wing control is minimal and slow.
Full power, nose down descents are ideally stopped by easing off the throttle just before the wheels touch the ground. Earlier reductions in power are unstoppable due to inadequacy of engine power, and excessive extension before landing will force the aircraft structure onto its rear.
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Bleriot XI, construction no. 56, is the oldest aircraft still flying in the US, eclipsed only by the Bleriot of the Shuttleworth Collection, which carries the design no. 14.
After it crashed during a 1910 air show in Sauguss, Massachusetts, Rhinebeck’s copy was later claimed by Professor HH Caburn, who passed it daily on his bicycle to work and who stored it until he gave it to Bill Champlin of Laconia , New Hampshire. Subsequently donated to Cole Palen in 1952, it was stripped of its engine and aerodynamic surfaces, but its front and rear thirds were otherwise complete. The newly constructed wings, horizontal stabilizer and rudder were installed at Stormville Airport two years later, in October.
Because of the aircraft’s fragility, it is limited to “short jumps” from Old Rhinebeck’s grass field during Saturday’s “History of Flight” air shows, after reaching a maximum height of 60 feet. Nevertheless, this short hop of an elegantly simple expression of aerodynamics traces its origins to, and therefore represents, the then “long haul” across the English Channel that the original Bleriot XI made a century ago as the world’s first practical monoplane and the forerunner of every modern aircraft that now routinely connects the world.
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