The Blériot Type XI was designed primarily by Raymond Saulnier, but it was a natural evolution from earlier Blériot aircraft, and one to which Louis Blériot himself made substantial contributions. Blériot achieved immortality in the Type XI on July 25, 1909, when he made the first airplane crossing of the English Channel, covering the 40 km (25 mi) between Calais and Dover in 36 minutes, 30 seconds.
The Blériot XI in the NASM collection was manufactured in 1914 and was powered by a 50-horsepower Gnôme rotary engine. The airplane was purchased by the Swiss aviator John Domenjoz, a Blériot company flight instructor. Domenjoz earned a reputation as one of the era's most celebrated stunt pilots, performing in major European cities and in North and South America through 1916, at which time he returned to France. Following wartime service as a civilian flight instructor both in France and the United States, Domenjoz made one final barnstorming tour with his Blériot in 1919.
The Blériot Type XI was the most famous and successful of several classic airplanes that emerged during the summer of 1909, when all Europe seemed to be taking to the sky. Louis Blériot, a French engineer and manufacturer of automobile head lamps and other accessories, first became interested in aeronautics in 1901, when he constructed an experimental ornithopter. During the next eight years he moved through a series of ten distinct aircraft designs, only one of which was capable of making a flight of more than ten minutes.
Blériot's next effort, the Type XI, was designed primarily by engineer Raymond Saulnier, but it was a natural evolution from earlier Blériot aircraft and one to which Blériot himself made substantial contributions. It was first flown at Issy-les-Moulineaux, a military parade ground-turned-flying-field, on January 23, 1909. Further trials and various modifications proceeded through the spring. By the end of May, the Type XI was fitted with a 25-horsepower, three-cylinder Anzani engine, and throughout the remainder of the spring and summer Blériot was flying with regular success. The Anzani was somewhat crude, but it had a reputation for reliability, which was critical to Blériot's next challenge.
Blériot achieved immortality in the Type XI on July 25, 1909, when he made the first airplane crossing of the English Channel, covering the 40 km (25 mi) between Calais and Dover in 36 minutes, 30 seconds. It was not the longest flight to date either in duration or distance. But the symbolic impact of conquering the Channel by airplane made it the most widely acclaimed flight before Lindbergh. For the effort, Blériot captured the London Daily Mail prize of $2,500 that had been put up by the newspaper the year before for any successful cross-Channel airplane flight. Blériot's original Type XI today is in the possession of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
In the afterglow of the Channel flight, Blériot received the first of many orders for copies of his Type XI monoplane. Variants of the original 1909 machine were produced by the Blériot firm, foreign licensees, and enthusiastic amateur builders in Europe and America into World War I. Hundreds were built. Many of the leading aviators of the day flew Blériot aircraft.
The Blériot XI in the NASM collection was manufactured by Blériot Aéronautique at Levallois, Perret, France, in 1914. It is a standard Type XI of the immediate prewar period, powered by a 50-horsepower Gnôme rotary engine and featuring wing-warping for lateral control and a castering undercarriage that eased the problem of crosswind landings. The airplane was purchased on July 31, 1914, by the Swiss aviator John Domenjoz, a Blériot company flight instructor. Domenjoz had recently earned a reputation as one of Europe's most celebrated stunt pilots while performing in major European cities during the early summer of 1914. Planning to continue his European exhibition tour, Domenjoz ordered his new airplane to be specially strengthened and added a heavy harness to support the pilot during inverted flight.
With the outbreak of war in Europe, Domenjoz took his new Blériot to South America, where he continued to thrill crowds with daring aerobatics. He would often perform extended inverted flight lasting more than a minute. Flying at Buenos Aires in April 1915, he performed 40 consecutive loops in 28 minutes. Such feats earned him the nickname "upside-down Domenjoz." He returned to the United States in the fall of 1915 and made headlines flying in and around New York City. Domenjoz and his Blériot continued the tour through the American south and midwest late in 1915 and early in 1916. After a stop in Havana, Cuba, he headed north again for another New York engagement.
Domenjoz returned to France in the winter of 1916, serving as a test pilot and flight instructor. In May 1917 he was back in the United States for another exhibition season. Following wartime service as a civilian flight instructor at Park Field in Memphis, Tennessee, Domenjoz made one final barnstorming tour in 1919. He then placed his beloved Blériot in storage on a Long Island farm and returned to France, where he remained for seventeen years.
Some years before Domenjoz came back to the United States to live in 1937, his Blériot had been sold to a museum at Roosevelt Field on Long Island to cover unpaid storage costs. It remained there until 1950 when the Smithsonian Institution purchased it with two other pioneer aircraft and a number of early engines. It was fully restored by the National Air and Space Museum in 1979 for exhibition in the museum's Early Flight gallery.