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Hubert Latham (1883-1912)

During his brief flying career, Hubert Latham set three world altitude records and is credited with the first ‘landing’ on water

Issue: 08-2016By Joseph Noronha

When Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel on the morning of July 25, 1909, Europe went wild. In these days of intercontinental journeys it may seem strange that a 36.6-km-long flight that took just 37 minutes could have aroused such feverish interest. But it showed in the words of science fiction author H.G. Wells that “England is no longer, from a military point of view, an inaccessible island.”

History recognises Blériot’s feat but has forgotten Hubert Latham who narrowly missed becoming the first person to fly across the natural boundary. During his brief flying career, Latham set three world altitude records and is credited with the first ‘landing’ on water, besides being the first pilot to shoot wild fowl from an aircraft. It is also part of aviation lore that he was the first person to smoke a cigarette while piloting an aircraft!

Hubert Latham was born in Paris on January 10, 1883, the son of wealthy parents. He grew up as something of a playboy. In 1905, he made a record-breaking balloon flight across the English Channel with his cousin Jacques Faure. A few years later, he went travelling around the world but returned to France when he heard that Wilbur Wright was there trying to sell his Wright Flyer to the French Government. Latham witnessed several of Wright’s aerial demonstrations and was intrigued by the idea of learning to fly.

He finally joined the Antoinette aircraft company in February 1909, and signed up for flying lessons. He was a slow learner and took several weeks to learn, suffering repeated mishaps. That was not unusual in those days, especially as the Antoinette was fiendishly difficult to fly. Finally, however, Latham became more proficient than any other Antoinette pilot and for the next two years he competed at aviation meets throughout Europe and the United States. He regularly set records and won prizes and became famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In May 1909, he set a European flight endurance record of 67 minutes. During the flight he took his hands off the controls and smoked a cigarette in an ivory holder, to the delight of the assembled crowds. The head of the Antoinette company saw it in a positive spirit, claiming it showed how stable the aircraft was even when flown with hands off the controls.

In October 1908, London’s Daily Mail announced a £1,000 prize for the first pilot to fly a heavier-than-air machine across the English Channel. For months no one tried. Then all of a sudden in July 1909, three French aviators reached Calais practically at the same time. Hubert Latham took off in his Antoinette IV monoplane on July 19. Its tiny 25-horsepower Anzani engine seemed barely powerful enough to take the giant butterfly like contraption through the treacherous cross-Channel weather. About 13 kilometres out to sea the engine failed and Latham made a perfect touchdown in the water – the world’s first. However the plane was severely damaged while fishing it out of the sea. Another competitor Charles De Lambert managed to wreck his Wright biplane and withdrew from the race. That left Blériot and Latham who had got a new aircraft. But now the weather turned bad again.

The rival camps were separated by a few hundred metres and both pilots waited impatiently for the weather to clear. On the night of July 24, there was hope of better weather approaching. By 2:00 a.m. the wind had slackened and the sky was clear. The Blériot team was alert and began to prepare for the attempt at dawn. There was even time for a quick test flight. At 4:41 a.m., Louis Blériot took off, set course for Dover, landed there and claimed the Daily Mail prize. Meanwhile the Latham camp slumbered peacefully. By the time they realised that the weather had improved and prepared for the crossing, a gusty wind had arisen, accompanied by heavy rain, and they decided it was too risky.

Although he had lost the prize, Latham again tried on July 27. A short distance from Dover, the engine quit and once again he found himself in the icy water. This time it was an uncontrolled descent, resulting in serious damage to the aircraft and severe lacerations to his forehead. He finally abandoned the effort and turned to record setting instead.

The Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne of August 1909 at Reims, France, was the world’s first true international aviation competition. Hubert Latham came second in the speed competition clocking 68.9 kmph and was first in the altitude contest, reaching a record height of 155 metres in his Antoinette IV. In October, at another exhibition in Blackpool, England, he attempted to fly in gale force winds. One of the stronger gusts he encountered actually drove him backwards in the air. This was clearly visible to the spectators on the ground who described the phenomenon as an aircraft flying in reverse. His last two official records were set in 1910 in his Antoinette VII. They were a World Airspeed Record of 77.548 kmph at Nice, France, in April and a world altitude record of 1,384 metres at Reims in July. When the first batch of French licences was awarded in 1910, Latham received No. 9, based on his alphabetical seniority in the list of the first 14 applicants.

Hubert Latham died on June 25, 1912, in Chad. His death was officially attributed to being mauled by a rampaging buffalo. However, he was an experienced and expert hunter of wild game and there were rumours that he may have been killed by local porters for his rifle.