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Across the English Channel: celebrating a double anniversary

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Today, 25 July, is an auspicious day for aviation enthusiasts, builders of Airfix models and those who simply love different modes of travel. This date is both the centenary of Louis Blériot’s famous first crossing of the Channel in an aircraft and the 50th anniversary of Sir Christopher Cockerell making the same journey by hovercraft.

Blériot was born in Cambrai, France, in 1872. He studied engineering in Paris, where he became fascinated by the possibilities of powered flight. He established a business making headlamps for motor cars, and in 1903 joined up with Gabriel Voisin, an aircraft designer, to build a range of aircraft. Later, he set up his own company.

One of his best designs was a monoplane with a tractor propeller (ie, a propeller placed at the front of the aircraft rather than the rear), an enclosed engine and a set of controls remarkably similar to those in modern aircraft.

In October 1908, Alfred Harmsworth, owner of the Daily Mail, offered a prize of £1,000 for the first airman to cross the English Channel from Calais to Dover. Blériot decided he would make an attempt at winning the prize. He began work on a new plane, the Blériot XI, which made its first flight on 23 January 1909.

Blériot made his Channel attempt on 25 July 1909, taking off from Les Baraques, near Calais, at 4.41am. After covering a distance of some 36km he arrived at Northfall Meadow, near Dover, at 5.17am.

The weather that morning was not good, with gusting winds and rain showers. The rain may have contributed to the success of the flight because the aircraft’s engine began to overheat and was cooled by the showers. The wind, however, did not help. A gust caught the little aeroplane as Blériot cut the engine to land. The landing was heavy and the undercarriage collapsed. But Blériot survived the crossing and could claim the prize.

Celebrations will be held this weekend at Dover to mark the centenary, with flypasts by aircraft ancient and modern, and a re-creation of Blériot’s original flight.

The hovercraft was invented by British engineer Christopher Cockerell (later Sir Christopher), who demonstrated his first working model in 1956. On 25 July 1959 the Saunders Roe Nautical One (SRN1) successfully completed the first hovercraft crossing of the Channel from Calais to Dover, with Cockerell at the controls.

The first regular passenger service by hovercraft between Dover and Boulogne was inaugurated by the SRN4 hovercraft Princess Margaret on 1 August 1968.

However, the abolition of duty-free sales, in June 1999, resulted in a significant drop in passenger numbers, and the last hovercraft crossing was on Sunday 1 October 2000.

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