Hubert Latham – The Aviator Who Never Made It Across The Channel

I came across this statue of French aviator, Hubert Latham, a couple of days ago on the French coast just outside Sangatte. He’s an interesting guy and so nearly was the first pilot to fly across the English Channel. He was certainly the first to try!

Latham was born in Paris in Jan 1883. His family were wealthy bankers and shipping merchants and he quickly developed a taste for adventure. He first drew the attention of the public aged 22, when he joined his cousin, the balloonist Jacques Faure, on a night crossing of the English Channel from London to Paris in a gas balloon in February 1905.

He raced motor boats in Monaco and got to know the engineer Léon Levavasseur, who designed the boats and engines and had co-founded the Antoinette aviation company with Jules Gastambide, a cousin of Latham’s. He joined the Antoinette company and learned to fly, becoming their chief display pilot at aviation events in Europe and the United States where he set numerous records and won several prizes.

This was when his Channel attempt came about. The Daily Mail newspaper had offered a £1,000 (US$5,000 1910) prize to the first aviator to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane, and Levavasseur was satisfied that his Antoinette IV monoplane was up to the job. In July 1909, Hubert Latham set up camp at Sangatte and informed the Daily Mail he was making a bid for their prize. Within a few days a rival, Comte Charles de Lambert, also appeared at Sangatte. The race was on!

Black & white photo of men in coats, caps & hats, standing around a monoplane in a field
One of Latham’s Antoinette aircraft being prepared for flight (Photo: Public domain)

On 19 July Latham made his first attempt, but 8 miles out (13 km) his engine cut out and he was forced to ditch in the Channel.

On 21 July Latham received a new Antoinette VII, but the next day a new competitor set up camp nearby – Louis Blériot. However bad weather prevailed and the competitors, now down to two because de Lambert had damaged his aircraft and retired from the competition, were forced to wait it out.

In the early hours of 25 July, Blériot’s team noticed a break in the weather, prepared his aircraft and launched at dawn, before Latham had even got out of bed!

The rest, as they say, is history.

Latham did make a second attempt on 27 July (the weather had clagged in again straight after Blériot exploited his brief weather window), and almost made it across. Once again he suffered engine failure just outside Dover. Despite serious head injuries, Latham was up for a third attempt, but Levavasseur and the Antoinette company weren’t.

Black and white close-up of Latham in jacket, tie and with a cap, in his aircraft
Hubert Latham on his Antoinette (Photo: Public domain)

Hubert Latham went on to be a pioneer of aviation and an explorer. He died in Chad (Africa), aged 29, in June 1912, officially as the result of injuries from an attack by a wounded buffalo, though the suspicion is that he was murdered by his porters.

A more detailed account of his adventures in the air and on the ground can be found here.

I am surprised the statue of Latham doesn’t have him smoking a cigarette because it became almost a symbol of his insouciance.

In May 1909 he set the European non-stop flight record (1hr 07mins), during which he took his hands off the controls to insert a cigarette into his ivory holder and smoke it.

When he crashed in the Channel on his first attempt at crossing it, his aeroplane stayed afloat. So he calmly lit up a cigarette and sat on top awaiting rescue.

And in 1911 he crashed into a large shed at the Brooklands automobile racing course in England. The crash was so spectacular everyone thought he must be dead, but no. He climbed out of the wreckage, pulled out his cigarette case and sat on the roof waiting for someone to find a ladder!

I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Hubert Latham till I stumbled across his statue, but it’s clear he was an amazing character and a masterful aviator.

 

Further Reading Pound sign

2 Comments

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  1. Does anyone know if Dorothy Levitt actually attended his flying school. While her accomplishments behind the wheel are very real, stories about her life have largely been fabricated.
    I read somewhere, that she attended Latham’s flying school but I don’t think it happened. Anything about Levitt and flying would be appreciated.

    Elsa Nystrom / Reply
  2. Sorry Elsa, I thought I had replied already.

    I don’t know the answer, myself, but I *did* put out a request on Twitter. I haven’t had a response. I might try Quora. A longshot, but you never know.

    Alastair / Reply

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