Arthur Louis Hubert Latham (1883-1912)
by Stephen H. King with illustrations by Dr Russell Naughton
This article is © copyright 2004 and sole property of the author Stephen H. King firstname.lastname@example.org and should not be copied or reproduced in any form without his express permission
On the morning of July 12, 1909, a group of Frenchmen was wrestling with a tent, tarpaulins really, trying to attach them to the side of an old empty building formerly used by the French engineering crew of an Anglo-French English Channel tunnel project that was abandoned by the British in 1883. No one was discouraged in the least by the miserable weather - cold, rainy, and blustery wind - their purpose was so weighted with historic significance that inclement weather could not diminish their élan.
The team was composed of Hubert Latham, Léon Levavasseur, Charles Wachter, Jules Gastambide, and five mechanics. Latham was a pilot, Levavasseur was the chief designer/engineer and co-owner, with Gastambide, of a company known as Société Anonyme d'Antoinette, and Wachter was another engineer.
[image antoinette IV]
The tent was to serve as a makeshift hangar for their airplane, a stunning new Antoinette IV monoplane. The location was Sangatte, five miles west of Calais, on the French coast of the English Channel, or la Manche, as the French call it - "the sleeve" - a far more picturesque word. Despite the miserable weather, unseasonable even for this part of France, many curious onlookers had motored or bicycled to the Antoinette camp to see what all the fuss was about.
It was to be just one or two more days before the small groups of tourists swelled to huge numbers when it was learned that Latham intended to try for the Daily Mail prize of 1,000 pounds that was to be awarded to the first individual who succeeded in flying from England to France, or France to England, under the following conditions set by the newspaper:..
Lord Northcliffe, owner of the newspaper, had offered the prize in October 1908, originally for 500 pounds. As there were no takers by February 1909, he doubled the amount. He was determined to give the British Government, or at least his fellow countrymen, a kick in the pants to stimulate more interest in the new science of aviation.
He felt, not without good reason, that England was woefully behind France, and even the United States, in this field, and his patriotism wouldn't tolerate this state of affairs. His heart wanted an Englishman to accomplish the deed, but, shrewd reader of governmental affairs that he was, his brain wanted a Frenchman, or an American, to win the prize. He knew that national shame would do wonders in getting his lethargic government off the shilling, so to speak.
[image wrights in france]
It was generally assumed that the cross-Channel attempt would be made by one of the Wright brothers. Prior to Wilbur's flying at Le Mans, and elsewhere in France, in September and October of the previous year, most Frenchmen felt that the Wrights' accomplishments on the other side of the Atlantic were wildly exaggerated, blown out of proportion by a jingoistic American press.
Wright's demonstrations stunned the French - indeed shocked the entire world. He dipped, swirled, performed figure eight's, carried a passenger, and stayed aloft on some of his flights for an unbelievable forty-five minutes or longer. Who else, therefore, would dare attempt to fly over the English Channel, a 26-mile flight that would take thirty to forty minutes, depending upon the wind, but one of the Wrights?
But Wright was in France to sell his airplane, preferably to the French government, and to find a local manufacturer he and his brother could license to build it for whomever in Europe wanted to buy the biplane. Prizes and competitive flying didn't interest the Wrights in the least, and never did.
Although their airplanes performed admirably at many of the aviation meetings that were to commence in August 1909, the first being at Reims, neither of the brothers was ever an entrant; a Wright was always flown by another pilot, invariably a French or English national.
Latham was hardly a household name in France at the time. Just who was he and what qualifications did he have to undertake such a perilous enterprise? Before discussing Latham, one should look at the Antoinette company's co-owner, Léon Levavasseur, a bona fide genius. [image levavasseur]
He had been an electrical engineer by trade but his true passion was motors. In 1903 he co-founded the société with a business entrepreneur, Gastambide, for whom he already worked as manager of his electrical parts factory located in Algeria.
When Levavasseur returned to France, he had designed, on paper at any rate, the world's first V-8 gasoline motor, and was anxious to build it and employ it, first for boats, then for automobiles and, ultimately, for airplanes. With the new company Levavasseur finally was able to build his engines. They were hugely successful and motorboats powered by them devoured the opposition in the winter races off the coast of Monaco.
But thanks to its splendid weight-to-power ratio, it was the Antoinette motor's performance as an aircraft engine that proved to be the turning point for the company. So popular did it become that many of the early French aviation giants used the motor to power their aircraft - Henry Farman, Esnault-Pelterie, Louis Blériot, Gabriel Voisin, Santos-Dumont, and several others. For all intents and purposes, up to early 1909 the Antoinette V-8 motor was the workhorse of French aviation.
It was not long before Levavasseur convinced the company's board of directors to authorize him to design and build their own airplane. The board had been reluctant, thinking that they already had a goldmine in their engine, and did not want to risk the investment of manufacturing an airplane. But Levavasseur prevailed and, like Louis Blériot (who coincidentally was also an officer with the company, but in 1907 quit in frustration when his designs were eschewed by Levavasseur and went on to found his own company), was convinced that the only airplane worth building was a monoplane.
Thus in 1908 was born, after many prototype models had ended in failure, the immortal Antoinette, arguably the finest airplane of its day. [It's name comes from Antoinette Gastambide, the daughter of the manufacturer company director Jules Gastambide]. It was certainly the most beautiful and elegant airplane then extant. Levavasseur exercised his mechanical genius again by designing France's first fuel injection system and incorporating it, along with a novel evaporative cooling system, on the new airplane's engine. It was this cooling system that enabled the motor to weigh so little, yet develop 50 hp. But was the plane controllable? Was it stable? Would it be competitive?
The company pilots, Eugène Welféringer and René Demanest, who tested the Antoinette, amassed a pretty dismal record. While the plane flew reasonably well, it was the very devil to keep under control with its complicated system of four separate control wheels and two foot pedals, and landing the aircraft was always a breath-holding event.
Before long the Antoinette developed the reputation of being a "pilot killer," although to date no pilot had ever been killed, or even seriously injured, in a crash with an Antoinette. Levavasseur had enormous faith in his plane and felt he only needed the right pilot to tame the beast. He found one in early 1909 - Arthur Louis Hubert Latham, a cousin of Gastambide, and a person not unknown to Levavasseur either. Latham had driven a few of the company's boats to victory five years earlier.
Latham had been one of the witnesses to Wilbur Wright's flying at Le Mans and, ever searching for a new adventure, decided on the spot that flying was for him. He talked to his cousin, was re-introduced to Levavasseur, and was hired immediately in January 1909. The fact that Latham offered to invest some of his family money into the company certainly greased the wheels. Now all that remained was to determine if Latham could learn to fly…and fly well. Latham told him, "I'll fly your machine, Léon, and if I break it, you repair it. And I'll keep on breaking it until it flies, or it gets me." 2
And "breaking the machine" is just what Latham did, many times over, invariably when landing. Within two months, however, he had mastered the complex control system and soon demonstrated to any critical observer that his talent was truly exceptional. Levavasseur at last had found his ace. Nor did Latham disappoint. In early June, he broke the world record for flight time for monoplanes by remaining in the air for an astonishing sixty-seven minutes.
A week later he won the Prix Goupy, awarded to a pilot who could fly a 6 km straight course in the fastest time. He then flew a demonstration flight in a stiff breeze, showcasing the Antoinette's inherent stability. These successes convinced him that he should try for the Daily Mail prize. Levavasseur and Gastambide agreed and their only remaining Antoinette IV - sales had depleted their stock - was dismantled, crated, and shipped by train from their factory, just outside Paris, to Calais, and thence by horse and cart to Sangatte, arriving July 11.
Hubert Latham was a peculiar person, one who, in the words of Harry Harper, aviation writer for the Daily Mail, "was a very odd young man - moody one day, gay the next." 3 His paternal grandfather, Charles, was an Englishman who moved to Le Havre, France, in the mid-1840's, where he founded a shipping company and changed his nationality.
Charles had two sons, Edmond, who took over the business, and Lionel, whose temperament was better suited for wanderlust and adventure. Lionel had the good fortune to marry a woman who not only brought a great deal of money to the family but had impeccable social credentials as well. Her name was Louise Magdeleine Mallet - Mallet as in French banking. Bethmann-Hollweg, a German who would in 1909 become that country's Chancellor, was one of her cousins.
Lionel and Magdeleine produced three children, Edmée, Hubert, and Léonie, in that order, and Lionel died just before his last daughter was born, leaving Hubert fatherless at the age of three. Needless to say, after being raised by a passel of nannies and governesses, he was thoroughly spoiled; worse, he was a mama's boy and incredibly shy around people. Throughout his short life Latham had few friends in general, and no close friends at all, other than one of his cousins.
Yet, his lifestyle was one of such swashbuckling adventure as to give Douglas Fairbanks pause. He was particularly fond of big game hunting and did so in Abyssinia, the Sudan, and French Indochina, but always alone; only his bearers accompanied him on his treks. His other dangerous pursuits included racing motorboats and automobiles and, in 1904, he and a cousin took to the air and drifted across the English Channel in a hot air balloon.
Strange, then, that Latham was so shy, even socially maladroit. He masked his ineptitudes with a blasé attitude augmented by an air of boredom. As his fame grew the public interpreted his affectations as nothing more than his scoffing at the perils of flying - he stared death in the eye. But this was a misinterpretation; Latham, probably the most skilled pilot of his era, was also the most cautious.
He took chances, but then who didn't in those days? But his chances were calculated and nothing he did was on the spur of the moment unless confronted with an emergency. His flying was daring, but he was not a daredevil. He inspected every inch of his airplane before taking off, making sure every screw, fastener, and wire, were tight and that there was no overt, or even superficial, damage to the fuselage, propeller, and wings.
He did have a quick temper and when displayed all his spoilt youth came to the fore. He sulked when he didn't get his way, stomped his foot in anger, and lashed back at his tormentors with heavy sarcasm. But aloft in his beloved Antoinette he would become within several months of learning how to fly one of the most popular, even adulated, men in France and, since he was not married, be proclaimed as one of the three most eligible bachelors in Europe, according to one German newspaper.
The Antoinette monoplane deserved every flattering adjective people wrote or said about it. The airplane was a testament to an engineering genius' unbounded faith in man's ability to fly allied to his artistic flair, for Levavasseur was also an avid sculptor and painter. No production cost was spared to ensure that the company could manufacture an airplane that had the greatest agility combined with the greatest strength.
[image antoinette detail 1]
It was so meticulously crafted that many observers, when seeing it up close, thought it should be in a museum. The number of hours of labor required to construct it was up to ten times the amount needed for other airplanes of the day. It took skilled artisans of several disciplines for the craftsmanship, along with special preparations and tools, driving production costs ever higher. Ash and spruce were used for the individual moldings, many of them bent with steam for more attractive lines, and only the costliest red cedar was employed for paneling the front of the fuselage.
[image antoinette detail 2]
No small matter was overlooked. The cedar veneer panels were fastened with burnished copper nails that were then polished with glass sandpaper and pumice stone until they were as smooth as possible. Then, several coats of oil, each a different grade, were applied and after drying the panels were subjected to three or four coats of varnish to make them more impervious to moisture and offer less friction against air. But the varnish also improved the appearance because it made the airplane glisten.
To Levavasseur, appearance was every bit as important as performance. A month later, he would gloat over a reporter's comments about the Antoinette's performance at the Reims aviation meet, when he wrote, "Down the hill sailed the Antoinette with the perfect precision and grace of a bird's flight…like a giant dragonfly skimming with iridescent wings through the summer air. Just as it took its flight the sun broke through and made its white, varnished, skin shimmer in a golden haze." 4
Latham, with his languid demeanor and cool hauteur, combined with the Antoinette's regal bearing, became a team that was never to be forgotten by those who attended the meets. No other competitor, not even other Antoinette pilots, in all the aviation meetings in France during the period August 1909 through June 1911 drew applause every time his airplane passed in front of the grandstands; but Latham did, almost without fail. Not even Blériot garnered such adoration at those meets.
Latham did have one competitor for his Channel attempt, a Frenchman who was a Russian-born count by the name of Charles de Lambert.
He had been an early student of Wilbur Wright at his school in Pau, France, and decided he would fly his own Wright Flyer he had purchased and go for the prize. Unfortunately, de Lambert crashed on a practice flight that badly damaged his plane, and, discouraged, he gave up the effort. That left the field open to Latham, and, once his airplane had been reassembled in Sangatte, all that prevented him from making his try was the weather.
It was one miserable day followed by another, up until July 18 when it was clear enough for him to make a practice run. He flew for forty minutes and, as luck would have it, also crashed when he landed, but, luckier than the good count, only a wheel strut was damaged and it was easily repaired in the "hangar." Since his flight had gone so well, the landing notwithstanding, all agreed that the next day, Monday, July 19, Latham would make his cross-Channel attempt, to depart soon after 6:00 a.m., conditions permitting.
Meanwhile, myriad things had to be attended to, not the least of which was informing the French Marine to make sure their escort vessel was ready to weigh anchor. The Harpon, a torpedo-destroyer, would accompany Latham as far as it could. Obtaining the vessel posed no problem; Latham's attempt would be a national event of historic and heroic proportions and the French government was only too anxious to be of assistance.
Another detail involved fine-tuning the Marconi wireless system that Harry Harper, who, being a reporter, was not about to miss one second of this momentous event, had set up to receive weather reports from Dover, England. This was also an historic first.
Note: Harper, Harry. My Fifty Years in Flying. London: Associated Newspapers Limited, 1956
That night after performing some static tests on the Antoinette's motor, Levavaseur and the rest of the crew retired to their hotel in Sangatte. Latham, disdaining this modest establishment, drove to his hotel in Calais - the finest in the area. He, cool, calm, yet eager, was probably the only one who got a decent night's sleep. The others had their own worries. Levavasseur, who possessed an enormous ego, dreaded the thought that his airplane might fail, and Gastambide was worried what failure might mean for his company.
Everyone was concerned for Latham's safety. Navigation was primitive, to say the least, and not a few people envisioned the aviator unwittingly drifting too far eastward and missing the English coast altogether, only to crash into the North Sea when his fuel gave out. Were that to happen, the chances of his being found were calculated as being zero-to-none.
The nineteenth dawned misty and calm. Harper cleared weather reports from Dover on his wireless and reported them to Gastambide and Levavasseur as being favorable. The momentous decision was made - Latham would go. Gastambide telephoned the Harpon's captain and told him to get up steam and to sound several blasts of his horn as soon as he started to head out to sea. Meanwhile, the process of getting the airplane from its tent to the takeoff point, located approximately a mile and a half away, got underway. [image road transport] The airplane was towed over a country dirt lane, rutted and full of bumps, by a team of horses for most of the distance, and then taxied under its own power for the last quarter mile when the road was smoother. The location was Cape Blanc Nez and the field was about 300 yards from the sea cliff. Hundreds of onlookers had gathered, along with dozens of reporters and photographers. It was an exciting and festive scene.
Just after the airplane was swung into position four plangent horn blasts from the Harpon sounded, plainly heard even from four miles distant. Gastambide told Latham that he should wait at least thirty more minutes before he took off to give the boat a chance to put some distance behind it. Latham, true to form, killed the time smoking one cigarette after another. A lit cigarette in its ivory holder was soon to become his signature trademark. Levavasseur and Wachter had left earlier for Calais to board the Harpon as they were determined to reach England as soon as possible and hail their conquering hero.
A half-hour later Latham climbed into his seat and signaled his crew to crank the propeller. The engine coughed a few times and then caught, belching out billowing clouds of blue-black smoke. He fiddled with the throttle, alternating between gunning and backing off the engine, seeing if it would stall. Satisfied, he yelled out to the mechanics anchoring his airplane to let go. The engine shrieked under full power and the plane lurched forward, rather ponderously at first, but soon enough it gathered sufficient speed over the bumpy field and soared into the air, like a giant albatross.
The Antoinette was no baling wire-and-chewing gum machine, all tubes and wires. Each wing was 21 feet long and had a surface of 613 square feet, and the wings and the fuselage, other than the cedar panels and copper cooling tubes just behind the motor, were covered with rubberized linen, a product developed by Dunlop Tire in England. Watching it rise into the air was a breathtaking sight, and the crowd cheered and applauded, but many just held their breath in utter awe; they had never seen an airplane rise into the sky before.
Latham circled the field several times, climbing in altitude until he reached, by his reckoning and of those on the ground, 1,000 feet, which was incredibly high. After all, only a month later he set a world altitude record at Reims of 506 feet. Sure of his bearings, Latham headed out over the cliffs of Cape Blanc Nez for his destination - a field atop Shakespeare Cliff, just outside of Dover.
[image departure] He could see the plume of smoke from the Harpon, which was plunging through the calm sea at top speed, and he followed its wake until he drew level with it. He swooped down to an altitude of about 200 feet and exchanged waves with the crew and passengers. In five minutes he had climbed back to 1,000 feet and outstripped the ship. The captain could only hope that Latham stayed true to course so if the unthinkable happened and he crashed into the sea he could at least be found, perhaps even rescued.
"If in the whole gamut of human sensations there is anything more likely to bring one's heart into one's mouth than the sudden misfiring of one's engine while aboard a flyer a thousand feet above the sea, I should like to know of it. In Latham's words, 'I examined all the electrical connections that were within my reach. I could hear that more than one of the eight cylinders were misfiring. It was maddening, but I was helpless. I came down not in a series of short glides, but in one clean straight downward slope.also from the AAP Night Report...
DOVER, July 27.---Hubert Latham's second attempt to fly across the English Channel ended disastrously today. Almost in the moment of victory his monoplane fluttered down into the sea two miles beyond the Admiralty pier. Thousands of persons crowding the water front saw the fall and for nearly half an hour they were in suspense as to the aeronaut's fate.The image of Latham perched in his cockpit of his stricken aircraft, serenely smoking a cigarette while waiting to transfer to one of the rescue boats, was highlighted in all the reporting and was carried in every major newspaper and news journal in the world. He became an instant celebrity - an authentic hero, not for just what he tried to accomplish, but for how he did it. The grand effort was indeed a failure, but that is not how the French interpreted it. The image of this pilot, a manor-born French gentleman, filled with pluck and sang-froid, flying a gorgeous Antoinette striving to accomplish the daring and dangerous feat of crossing the English Channel, transformed Latham's failure into a national triumph.
[image on the road]
What went wrong? No one knows for sure. Wilbur Wright, who had toured the Antoinette factory earlier that year and had thoroughly inspected the engines, was sure that the fuel injection system was likely to prove unreliable in a humid atmosphere and thought that Levavasseur should have relied on standard carburetors, at least when flying over open water. On the other hand, Levavasseur, not one to admit mistakes, was equally convinced that the problem arose when the airplane was transported down the bumpy road to its takeoff point and some critical piece of the motor had shaken loose and then became detached during the flight.
To his dismay, the attempt to salvage the stricken airplane, virtually undamaged in its crash into the sea, was a comedy of errors and the airplane had fallen apart by the time it arrived in Calais. It had been lashed to the side of the Harpon awaiting transfer to a tug, la Calaisienne, and the entire airplane snapped in two when the hoist operator failed to take into consideration that the fuselage was full of sea water which shifted to the two ends, putting an impossible strain on its middle.
To add insult to injury, souvenir hunters in Calais got to the airplane before Levavasseur and stripped it of anything not bolted or screwed down, body and motor; no doubt the guilty engine part, if there were one, could have been one of the pilfered items. While Levavasseur was fulminating internally when he learned of the desecration of his beloved airplane, he nevertheless had the presence of mind to immediately dispatch Latham to Paris to superintend the shipment of another Antoinette, this time the newest model, the Antoinette VII, for a second Channel attempt.
[image antoinette vii ]
At this point, the Antoinette VII was barely off the drawing boards; it had not even been test flown. While Latham was en route to Paris, Levavasseur held a press briefing. He was a consummate ham and loved an audience. He hid his dismay over Latham's failure and the airplane's destruction and looked the reporters straight in the eyes and said, "Gentlemen, look just for a moment here. The Antoinette's engine's failure was just an accident. Just that. Why even horse carts can fail too, you know? What is important is that I have developed a machine that can go on land, in the air, and in the water. It runs, it flies, it swims. C'est un triomphe! "
But for those at Antoinette, the world turned upside down the next day. Louis Blériot, Levavasseur's old nemesis, threw his hat into the ring and formally entered the competition. Four days later, with an amazing display of courage and determination, laced with a generous helping of luck, Blériot succeeded where Latham had failed.
[image latham crash 2]
Latham tried a second time, two days after Blériot's success, and again met with disaster, this time only three heart-breaking miles from Dover. He never challenged la Manche again, and after two years of captivating audiences in Europe and the United States with record-setting and prize-winning performances at all of the most prestigious aviation meetings, he gave up competitive flying, at least temporarily, and left for French Equatorial Africa in December 1911, to rest and hunt.
[image latham buffalo]
In June 1912 he died in a hunting accident, killed by an enraged buffalo he had wounded. Two years later, Latham's saga produced yet another surprise: an article appeared in the newspaper Journal du Havre that stated that the commandant of a French Colonial Army garrison located near Fort Archambault (in present-day Chad) had felt, after examining Latham's body and the scene of the accident, that there had been strong evidence of foul play and that Latham may have been murdered by one or more of his bearers. He could not prove his suspicions at the time and terminated his investigation. 6
Why this startling information took almost two years to surface in the press is unknown. Nothing more came of it.
With Latham's death, so went his fame. While Blériot's flying and aviation design and manufacturing successes are well known in France today, few, other than devoted aviation enthusiasts, have heard of Hubert Latham and Léon Levavasseur.
1 Villard, Henry Serrano. Contact! The Story of the Early Birds, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1968, p. 62 ]
2 L'Illustration, Journal Universel, May 29, 1909, p. 8.
3 Harper, Harry. My Fifty Years in Flying, Associated Newspapers Ltd., 1956, p. 121.
4 La Vie au Grand Air, September 4, 1909, p. 17.
5 Flight, July 24, 1909, p. 436.
6 Journal du Havre, January 15, 1914, p. 1.
insert here reviews and cover art image of the book Windkiller by Stephen H. King
Hubert Latham : 'Windkiller'
Hubert Latham (1883-1912), Pioneer Aviator
Hubert Latham (1883-1912)
Hubert Latham : Murder in the Bush?
Wings with Wires : The Antoinette