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Bleriot XI
The Bleriot XI airplane is one result of the rapid innovation in the French aviation industry in the early 20th century, enabled by competition and government support, allowing it to surpass the US. (credit: Kogo/Wikipedia)

Achieving cheap access to space: the foundation of commercialization (part 2)

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The French aviation miracle

France had many aviation enthusiasts who were contemporaries to the Wright Brothers. Where America had two serious aviation entrepreneurial teams, composed of the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss, France had many more, and was an intense hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. The large majority of aviation activity in France from 1900 to 1909 was privately financed. In parallel, there was an active public movement to promote investments in aviation in France, most notably by the Aero-Club De France and Ferdinand Ferber.

The Wrights were not used to competition, while the French aviation entrepreneurs were highly competitive.

French aviation was an intense competition between teams and companies led by entrepreneurs such as Alberto Santos-Dumont, Gabriel and Charles Voisin, Robert Esnault-Pelteri, Louis Breguet, Adolphe Clément-Bayard, Jules Gastambide, and Louis Blériot. Alberto Santos-Dumont was the son of a wealthy coffee-plantation owner, and would spend part of his inheritance developing and flying airplanes. Robert Esnault-Pelteri would invent the joystick and independently invent the aileron. He almost bankrupted his industrialist father, but recovered somewhat based on his joystick patents. Adolphe Clément-Bayard made his initial money building automobiles, which he then invested in aircraft, including the world’s first aircraft assembly line in 1908. Jules Gastambide was another industrialist who made his initial fortune building powerful lightweight engines for automobiles and boats, which were then sold as the advanced Antoinnette V8 aircraft engine. The Antoinnette company would then start building innovative and highly competitive aircraft. Ernest Archdeacon and Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe would fund a series of aviation prizes using their private wealth. The Voisin brothers inherited their grandfather’s wealth, and raised additional private investment. Gustav Eiffel invested part of his private fortune by turning his famous tower into an aeronautical research platform in 1905, where he proved that air resistance was proportional to velocity squared.

The story of Louis Blériot, as documented by Tom Crouch of the National Air and Space Musuem in Bleriot XI: The Story of a Classic Aircraft,1 illustrates the French aviation miracle well. In 1895, at the age of 23, Blériot founded a company to build headlamps and accessories for automobiles, which was an emerging transportation revolution. He was fresh out of college, and the classic entrepreneur. By the beginning of the 20th Century he was earning an average of 60,000 francs a year, which he used “to endulge in his first aeronautical experiments” starting in 1900. In 1905 he watched Gabriel Voisin test fly an experimental float glider that was produced for Archdeacon. Blériot ordered a new and revised version on the spot, which Voisin built and tested in a month, with a boat using the advanced Antoinette V8 engine. This second float glider was unstable and crashed into the water, but instead of despairing from the failure, Blériot decided to get serious. He then financed the Blériot-Voisin company, which became the first company in the world founded solely to produce airplanes. A year later, in 1906, they would test fly the Blériot IV in attempt to win the Aero-Club de France prize of 1,500 francs for the first flight of over 100 meters. They would lose to Santos-Dumont, who won the prize in November 1906. The Blériot-Voisin partnership dissolved, but they each continued independently. Blériot intensified his efforts again by setting up multiple independent teams that would construct prototypes in parallel. Starting in 1907, he was testing two new prototypes a year based using an empirical process with rapid do-learn loops. In 1907, both Robert Esnault-Pelteri and Blériot would file for a patent on versions of the modern stick and rudder control within a month of each other.

When Wilbur Wright showed up in Paris in 1908 to fly, he clearly demonstrated world leadership, primarily based on their fundamental insights of dynamic stability. All of France acknowledged this, from French aviator Leon Delagrange who remarked “Nous sommes battus” (“We are beaten”)2 to Bleriot, who was quoted in the New York Herald as saying “It is Marvelous.” However, the three years from 1905 to 1908 that the Wright Brothers spent trying to sell their Wright Flyer, and making zero progress in aeronautical research, had a huge opportunity cost. The best use of their time would have been designing the next generation of airplane. During this period the French independently developed and flight-tested the aileron, and invented the stick-and-rudder control system, the fuselage, the wheeled landing gear, and implemented the tractor-pulling monoplane.

More importantly, the Wrights were not used to competition, while the French aviation entrepreneurs were highly competitive. They quickly borrowed, adopted, and adapted ideas from each other: reading about their innovations is eerily familiar to anybody who follows modern day Silicon Valley. They also borrowed from the Wright Brothers. Within a year, they would catch the Wright Brothers, and then quickly leap ahead.

The French government began to aggressively stimulate their entrepreneurial industry by purchasing large numbers of airplanes from their commercial firms.

Blériot was re-energized by the Wright demonstration even though he was almost broke. At the close of 1908, he had spent 760,000 francs (roughly $150,000) to date, and the two planes that he had developed in 1908 (before the Wright Brothers demonstration) were failures. Blériot refused to quit, deciding to build what he called his “last chance monoplanes.” In 1909, his fortune changed when he won several prizes. On July 25, 1909, Louis Blériot became the first person to across the English Channel, visibly demonstrating the strategic implications of airpower. Demand took off and Blériot Aéronautique produced well over 1,000 Blériot XI planes, which became the world’s first mass produced airplane.

While early French aviation was primarily driven by private financiers, a phase shift began to take hold in Europe after the 1908 Wright demonstration. This shift accelerated in 1909 after Blériot crossed the English Channel.

The French government began to aggressively stimulate their entrepreneurial industry by purchasing large numbers of airplanes from their commercial firms. In April 1910, the French government purchased 35 aircraft3 from just one company, Voisin. Tom Crouch, from the Department of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution, writes:4

In 1910–1911, a period during which the U.S. Army took delivery of 14 airplanes, the French government ordered over 200 flying machines. Across the face of an increasingly troubled Europe, success in the air symbolized the courage and strength of the nation.

But it was more than just government funding. The environment and culture for aviation across Europe was more competitive than in the United States. There were more and larger privately-funded prizes, and more intense competitive pressure driven by more firms. Crouch explains:5

Europe not only offered more contests and richer prizes, it provided a much higher level of competition.

With little incentive for change, American builders like Glenn Curtiss and Glenn Martin remained largely committed to the original configuration of the Wright airplane—a pusher biplane with a canard elevator—until 1910–1911.

Strenuous competition between a relatively large number of designers and aviators in Europe led to the exploration of a wide range of configurations, the use of new materials, and improved control systems and power plants.

Even thought the US government started appropriating funds to buy airplanes in 1911, other countries were now leaping further ahead of the United States in their commitment to dominating this strategically critical technology. Crouch reports that other countries were spending an order of magnitude more than the US:6

As early as 1912, the Secretary of the Navy pointed out that the U.S. lagged far behind other leading nations of the world in expenditures for aeronautics. France, he estimated, had spent $7,400,000 on flight to date. Russia was in second place, with an expenditure of $5,000,000, followed by: Germany, $2,250,000; and Great Britain and Italy, $2,100,000 each. Even Japan ($600,000) had out spent the U.S. ($140,000).

…By 1914, France was, by almost any measure, the world's leading aeronautical power. While French government policy was neither entirely consistent nor completely rational, political decisions were, as historians Emmanuel Chadeau and John Morrow have noted, primarily responsible for creating the strongest aviation industry in Europe.

It was not only the amount of money that France, was spending, it was also how they spent the money. France’s strategy was to amplify the entrepreneurial forces in their country, to maximize competition, and to stimulate new entrants.

Lessons learned from early French aviation

The conclusion is clear. Yes, the Wright Brothers were the quintessential American entrepreneurs. Yes, they clearly triumphed over Sam Langley and the centrally planned program approach. However, a public-private partnership that was designed to stimulate and accelerate market-based entrepreneurial innovation trumped laissez faire. The French aviation miracle was founded upon the innovation of the French aviation entrepreneurs, amplified by a national strategy to stimulate and reinforce market forces, and honed in a highly competitive market environment.

Public private partnerships (PPPs) represent a third way.

Lessons learned from the early years of the NACA

From the outset, the NACA’s core mission was to solve “practical problems” related to flight. Conventional wisdom is that the NACA produced ground-breaking research with its wind tunnels, producing significant drag reduction in all vehicles, the low drag engine cowling, de-icing technology, new airfoil designs, and the variable pitch propeller.

With CATS, we will put humans back on the Moon, settle permanently on Mars, and travel throughout the Solar System. Most importantly, CATS is critical to US national security throughout the 21st century and beyond.

But history forgets the early years. The NACA would not have a wind tunnel until five years after its creation. It had very little money during its first decade, but what it accomplished with little money is amazing. The NACA solved many critical industry problems in its first decade of existence. The key was that it saw its unofficial mission as stimulating and energizing a new industry.

What was the end result of all this public-private partnership activity in American aviation?

Starting from a position that was far behind the world in 1915, America had clearly caught up within a decade of the creation of the NACA. When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927, America had demonstrably caught the rest of the world. By the early 1930s with the creation of Douglas DC-2 and the Boeing 247, America had become the clear global leader in long-range aviation, which provided critical capabilities and advantages to the United States in World War II. Since that time, America has never relinquished the title of world leader in aviation.

At the start of this essay, I asserted that we are in the middle of a paradigm shift. A public-private partnership similar in important ways to the NACA model is already emerging, but most people have not noticed. This paradigm shift began in the Reagan Administration, and continues to this day.


Cheap access to space (CATS) is the most important near-term strategic objective the United States could, and should, pursue in space. CATS is the key to opening up the space frontier, and to fulfilling the many unrealized promises of space. With CATS, we will put humans back on the Moon, settle permanently on Mars, and travel throughout the Solar System. Most importantly, CATS is critical to US national security throughout the 21st century and beyond.

NACA helped America recapture leadership for the last 100 years. With CATS as our goal, and the NACA model as our means, American leadership in aerospace will be assured for the next 100.


1 Thomas Crouch, Bleriot XI: The Story of a Classic Aircraft, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982

2 Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith, The Rebirth of European Aviation, 1902-1908: A Study of the Wright Brothers Influence, page 288

3 John Morrow, The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909-1921, Smithsonian Institution, 1993, p. 33

4 Tom Crouch, “Blaming Wilbur and Orville: The Wright Patent Suits and the Growth of American Aeronautics”, Smithsonian Institution

5 Crouch, ibid.

6 Crouch, ibid.