French pilot re-enacts first English Channel flight

CALAIS, France -- A French pilot on Saturday re-created the first flight across the English Channel in a monoplane like the one that Louis Bleriot flew in 1909, complete with a wooden propeller, bicycle wheels and an engine about as powerful as a lawnmower.

Edmond Salis took off from Bleriot Beach, near Calais on France's northern coast, at 9:13 a.m. local time, arriving 40 minutes later in Dover. That's just slightly longer than it took Bleriot, who made his historic crossing July 25, 1909, in 38 minutes.

"The takeoff was a bit delicate because there were crosswinds at Bleriot Beach," said Salis, decked out in a leather aviator jacket and hat and a flowing white scarf, in an interview on I-Tele television. "Once I was in the air, I could already see the English coast. Listen, the closer the English coast came, the more I enjoyed it."

Before the flight, Salis dismissed any fears about flying the wooden and canvas craft, which dates from 1934.

"It's still an adventure. It is an old engine, it is an old motor, but it is well maintained, it works well, so there is no reason that any problem would happen," the 39-year-old said.

On Saturday, about 500 people -- some in period costumes -- were on hand in Calais to see Salis off, and five journalist-filled helicopters tracked his progress.

Salis' flight was one of several events -- including flights by other Bleriot aircraft, daredevil stunts, a gala dinner and fireworks -- marking Saturday's 100th anniversary of the Calais-Dover flight, which helped usher in commercial aviation.

Bleriot made his flight six years after the Wright brothers flew overland over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and during a decade in which pioneers in Europe and North America were developing the rudiments of airplane technology and expanding its limits.

Bleriot dismissed chiding and criticism -- even from his mother, who declared him crazy -- and poured a decade of his life and his entire fortune into his dream.

With just a handful of friends and helpers, he towed his craft into the start position on a field near Calais on the night of July 25, 1909. It had a 25-horsepower motor and was baptized Bleriot XI. The wooden propeller roared.

At 4:41 a.m., the 23-foot-long (7-meter) craft took off. Just 38 minutes later, Bleriot's dream became a reality: He landed in a field near Dover on the English coast, becoming the first person to fly across the English Channel.

The touchdown was bumpy, and the aircraft was damaged, because Bleriot had been forced to cut the engine 20 yards (meters) above the ground. The monoplane, made famous by the Channel crossing, was commercialized with more than 800 copies made, and put into action in World War I by several air forces.

Bleriot was not the sole early aviator. German Otto Lilienthal flew a few hundred yards (meters) in the 1890s, and the Wright brothers briefly lifted off with a motor-propelled craft in 1903.

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly solo over the Atlantic, landing at Le Bourget outside Paris. Bleriot hugged him on arrival. Lindbergh is said to have remarked that he would fly back across the Atlantic in his own aircraft, "But I wouldn't fly over the Channel in a Bleriot XI."