History Behind The Card: M. Hubert Latham.
Card #72 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Vice Regal Mixture – Black-back issue
- Arthur Charles Hubert Latham, born in Paris, France on January 10, 1883 – June 25, 1912 near Fort Archambault in what is now the Republic of Chad.
The name Hubert Latham has been very prominent within this Pioneers of Aviation blog, mostly as a keen competitor to many other famous aviators whose cards and aeroplanes I have reviewed.
By the way… the card says “M. Hubert Latham” – since he was French, the card politely uses “M” in reference to ‘monsieur/mister’.
Here at card #72, we finally get to the man, himself.
I had previously written about Latham HERE , but only briefly in relationship to another tobacco company’s 1910 The Aviator’s tobacco card put out by Tokio and Mezzin Cigarettes (owned by the United Cigar Stores Co.).
In that review, I noted how the initial pressing of the card called Hubert by the name of “Albert”… when in fact his first name was “Arthur”, but went by the name of Hubert. A later edition corrected the mistake.
What IS interesting, is that The Aviators card was released in 1910, a year ahead of the Wills’s card I am reviewing. Rare, indeed, is the time another company scooped Wills’s.
So… what did I find so very interesting about Mr. Latham? What about his aviation exploits captured my attention the most?
Actually… it was his death. A bit of a mystery, Latham was either murdered or gored during a buffalo attack.
Either way – pretty damn interesting…
Aviation-wise, Latham was initially famous because of failure.
- He was the first person to attempt to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane – I said ATTEMPT;
- Due to engine failure during his first of two attempts to cross the Channel, he became the first person to land an aeroplane on a body of water.
There’s actually some good news associated with Latham, however.
Born in Paris, France to wealthy parents in the banking industry, Latham grew up in the lap of luxury. In fact, a great aunt on his mother’s side was the mother of German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (who took office in 1909).
Latham went to the University of Oxford for the school year of 1903/04, and then joined the French reservist military service for his military obligation.
On February 11-12, 1905, Latham flew in a hot-air balloon with his cousin, Jacques Faure, who was apparently a then-well-known balloonist. I suppose anyone who flew in anything at that time was considered well-known…
Latham and Faure completed a night crossing of the English Channel, traveling from London to Paris.
A couple of months later, Latham took part in a yacht race at the Monaco Regatta in April of 1905… a boat using an Antoinette motor.
Why is that mention of the Antoinette motor interesting?
Well, Latham entered the boat race because his cousin asked him too. His cousin was Jules Gastambide, who along with Léon Levavasseur invented the Antoinette engine, which became one of the mainstays of the early days of aviation.
Lots of namedropping so far.
In 1906 thru 1907, Latham led an expedition (with friends) to Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia) to collect specimens for the Paris Natural History Museum.
In 1908, he traveled to the Far East before returning to France later that year.
Upon his return to Paris, Latham saw Wilbur Wright (of Wright Brothers fame) demonstrating his Wright Flyer in an effort to sell a fleet of the birds to the French Government.
Like damn near everyone on the planet, Latham thought these aeroplanes were cool, and decided he would find an aeroplane company to train him as their pilot.
D’uh… he selected the Antoinette company, a motor design and manufacture company started up in 1906 that provided an excellent power-to-weight ratio that made many an aircraft designer select their power plant.
In 1907, Antoinette decided it wanted to build its own aeroplanes… failing quite often in this regard until 1908 when the Antoinette aircraft was finally a successful flier and lander.
Latham joined the Antoinette company in February of 1909 (a good time, considering the planes were now adept at landing safely) tand learned to fly over several weeks from the company pilots’ Eugène Welféringer and René Demasnet.
Soon, with Antoinette joining forces with the French Army, they established the first military aircraft trials, a flight training school and workshop.
The school was run by Levavasseur’s brother-in-law Charles Wachter. The school’s training apparatus included the flight simulator, the Antoinette Trainer. It was built with a half-barrel mounted on a universal joint, with flight controls, pulleys, and stub-wings (poles) to allow the trainee to maintain balance while instructors applied external forces.
As for Latham, once he got the hang of flying, he became the school’s principal instructor.
On August 17, 1909, Latham earned Aviator’s Certificate No. 9 by the Aéro-Club de France, because it’s always easier to earn respect from your students when it looks like you know what you are doing.
Latham pupils were:
- Marie Marvingt (yes, spelled correctly), the first woman to fly combat missions as a bomber pilot and established air ambulance services throughout the world;
- Infante Alfonso, Duke of Galliera, cousin of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and the first Spanish military pilot.
Success Through Failure
The thing is, we all fail sometimes, and so it was with Latham. As coach of a baseball team, I see failure with my young charges who are too inexperienced at this time, have dodgy advice given to them, and other things which suck the fun out of the game. While I am not responsible for that, because I’m in charge, I am ultimately responsible for things under me.
Latham didn’t have my troubles. His came from simply not having the best equipment available at that time – and not necessarily because of his skill… which may have been sparse, but he certainly had a lot of daring.
In May of 1909, Latham flew his Antoinette aircraft for 37-1/2 minutes… traveling at a speed of 72.4 kilometers per hour (45 miles per hour) and a height of 30 meters (98 feet).
Later that month Latham set the then-European non-stop flight record in an aeroplane flying for one-hours and seven minutes – which was close the what the Wright Brothers had achieved.
But it was what he did during the flight that gave him a first… something noteworthy – I suppose – he took his hands off the steering wheel, took a cigarette out, lit it and smoked it.
To me lighting the damn thing in the wind was the most impressive feat, but I suppose flying without his hands was also impressive… still… he was the first pilot to smoke a smoke while in the air.
However… what that did show everyone, was the stability of the Antoinette IV monoplane aircraft.
On June 6, 1909, Latham won the Prix Ambroise Goupy (Prize) for flying a straight-line course of six kilometers (3.73 miles) in four minutes and 13 seconds.
It was these achievements that convinced Antoinette’s Levavasseur that Latham was the company’s best pilot.
Also, because Latham could fly that Antoinette IV for over one hour, the company was convinced he could actually fly across the English Channel – something that had not yet been achieved in a heavier-than-air craft.
The British Daily Mail newspaper had put up a prize of £1,000 (US$5,000 1910) is someone could fly an aircraft across the English Channel.
So, on July 9, 1909 while in France, Latham wired the Daily Mail of his attempt o fly across the channel… except every time he was ready to fly, the weather was uncooperative.
While he waited for clear skies, a French-Russian pilot named Comte Charles de Lambert also told the Daily Mail that he would try and win the prize.
Camped a few miles away from where Latham had set up base near Calais, France, de Lambert prepped his two French-built Wright Flyer‘s (Nos. 2 and 18).
On July 19, Latham took off from Cap Blanc-Nez and flew over the waters of the English Channel… but suffered engine failure after only eight miles (12.88 kilometers).
Forced to ditch in the water, he became the first to land an aeroplane in the sea.
Again, because his undamaged aircraft remained afloat, Latham enjoyed a smoke while he waited for the French torpedo-destroyer Harpon that was following behind to pick him up.
But did the reliable Antoinette engine just conk out by itself? Later, Levavasseur says a bit of non-engine wire found inside had caused the failure…
Because the salvage operation of the Antoinette IV aeroplane caused more damage than the actual water-landing, Latham had another plane shipped from the Antoinette factory in Paris to his camp.
This new plane was the Antoinette VII – a plane so new it had never been officially tested in the air.
While Latham did get to test it once while waiting for more bad weather to relent, aviator Louis Blériot set up camp just under two miles (3.2 kilometers) away from Latham at Les Baraques and announced his intention to go for the prize in his Blériot XI monoplane.
What about de Lambert? He had damaged one of his Wright Flyers while testing them and decided to pull out of the competition.
Still… both Blériot and Latham had to wait a few more days until the crappy weather let up.
And this is where it sucks to be Latham.
At about 3AM on July 25, 1909, Blériot’s people saw a break in the weather and awoke him, prepped the plane and got him ready for a dawn take-off.
Latham and his team slept.
At dawn – 4:41AM on the dot because the Daily Mail prize rules said the flight had to begin and end during sun-up—Blériot took off…
Levavasseur woke up just in time to see Blériot’s aeroplane leaving the French coast and rushed to awaken Latham and crew, figuring there might be a chance they could catch him… or just in case Blériot himself had mechanical issues.
Ready to fly, the weather had changed to heavy winds and rain… stymieing Latham’s chase.
It didn’t matter… as Blériot was successful in his endeavor to cross the waters becoming the first to pilot a heavier-than-air craft over the English Channel… all while the competition was asleep at the proverbial switch.
Two days later, on July 27, 1909, Latham made a second attempt to cross the Channel… and mere minutes from his goal the Antoinette engine failed again.
Crashing on the waters, this time, he badly damaged the aeroplane and cut his forehead.
While Latham wanted to make a third attempt, Antoinette said no… two aeroplanes lost, no chance of a prize or glory for the aeroplane factory… that was enough.
All The World’s A Stage
Besides, Levavasseur wanted to send the company’s aeroplanes and pilots to the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne on August 22–29, 1909 at Reims, France for the world’s first aeroplane (and balloon) competition.
During a speed competition, Latham in an Antoinette IV won second-place traveling the course at a speed of 68.9 kilometers per hour (42.8 miles per hour).
He then won and set a world record in the altitude contest – again in the Antoinette IV – achieving a height of 155 meters (509 feet).
In the Grand Prix event—which was flying the longest distance around a circuit in a single, uninterrupted flight—he flew two different planes, taking second-place in his Antoinette IV, and fifth-place in the Antoinette VII.
After becoming the first aviator to fly an aeroplane across the city of Berlin, Germany on September 27, 1909, Latham traveled to England.
At an aerial exhibition at Blackpool, England, on October 22, 1909, Latham set a speed mark… because he was flying in hurricane-like weather.
Although informed that it was too dangerous to fly when the wind was over 15 miles per hour (24.1 kilometers per hour), Latham took off and covered 13 kilometers (eight miles) in 11 minutes (in metric, it is also 11 minutes) in winds ranging between 37-64.4 kilometers per hour (23-40 miles per hour).
When he flew downwind he later estimated that his airspeed reached 160 kilometers (100 miles per hour) during the flight. I doubt he could have lit a cigarette in that wind.
Still, the most amusing thing that occurred during the flight was his backwards flying.
Flying directly into a headwind, a very strong burst of wind actually seemed to blow him backwards… and was reported as the first time people ever saw an aeroplane fly in reverse.
Why would Latham risk all in this manner? It turns out that the previous evening had him dining with a cousin of the Russian Tsar (in metric that’s written as Czar – LOL), and apparently he promised the royal and his wife that he would fly on the morrow.
This, apparently, is when the newspapers of the day first called Latham the “King of the Air“.
The Air Up There
Despite the ups and downs of Latham’s aviation career, he was much beloved by the people and the media.
Besides being a skilled and daring aviator—and coming from a well-to-do family, meaning that despite his youth, he could speak to royalty and talk not only about aviation, but of his global travels—Latham continued to fly and achieve greatness.
On January 7, 1910, in Mourmelon-le-Grand, France (if it appears that I know anything about France, I humbly state that I do not), Latham set another altitude record, flying to 1,100 meters (3,600 feet)… which broke his own world altitude record by more than 610 meters (2,000 feet)… in fact, his altitude achievement was so great that it bested any other CLAIMS of altitude records by others who did so without proper measuring devices.
Actually… does anyone know—recorded fact—of just HOW early aeroplane pilots of pre-1913 vintage measured altitude? People talk about world records, but how was it to be proven? Was it just an aneroid or mercury barometer?
In July of 1910, Latham was at it again… this time at the second Semaine de l’Aviation de la Champagne at Reims, France setting another altitude record of 1,384 meters (4,541 feet).
And, despite his guesstimate while flying downwards during gale-force winds achieving 160 kilometers per hour (100 miles per hour), on April 23, 1910 at Nice, France, Latham set the world speed record of 77.548 kilometers per hour (48.186 miles per hour) in an Antoinette VII.
Later in November of 1910, Latham was at the Baltimore (Maryland, USA) Air Show where he also took part in a special demo just for the US government and military—showing off how aeroplanes could be war machines against land and sea targets.
To prove it, exercises were created whereby pilots would simulate bombing runs by dropping bags of flour onto targets… Latham dropped one right down a battleship funnel. Of course, this sort of thing wouldn’t come into vogue for another few years… and it involved pilots dropping one-handed, small bombs and darts down at things such as zeppelins and other military targets.
A month later in December 23 of 1910 in Los Angeles, U.S.A. at a meet, Latham was asked by a rich dude if he wanted to come to his estate and try and shoot some wild ducks from the air.
Not having done that before, Latham was game. That’s a joke there. Ha. Anyhow… Latham did, and was thus the very first person to shoot (two) birds from a moving (in the air) aircraft.
Did you know, that if you are flying forwards at 30MPH, and you turn and fire backwards at a target, the bullet moves slower than if you had fired forwards? In fact, if the bullet from the gun shot BACKWARDS was shot at 30 MPH, the bullet would have 0 MPH relative speed…. and if you were able to stand on a cloud, you would see the bullet spin in place until it lost its energy, drop to the ground and kill a duck floating on a pond. You only think I’m joking…. but apparently the physics are correct.
One of the two ducks shot by Latham STILL resides at the Latham family home—still owned by members of the Latham family—a home called Château de Maillebois.
A day after the duck hunt, and still at the LA aeroplane meet, Latham crashed his plane when trying to land after a flight. Wind gusts were stronger than he anticipated, and blew him hard into a hillside. He was shook up, but otherwise unhurt.
But the same could not be said about his next crash in early 1911 when, back in England at the Brooklands field, he was flying and showing off his piloting skills and his plane’s acrobatic capabilities.
Here’s what author Harry Harper in his book Riders of the Sky (p. 56. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.) wrote:
“Latham threw his machine about in the air in a way that made fellow airmen gasp. They had never seen anything like it before. But in making one final manoeuvre he misjudged by a matter of inches his height above a shed. One of his wing-tips just touched the roof. Instantly there came a devastating crash. A huge cloud of dust arose. And then the monoplane could be seen hanging – a mass of wreckage – on the top of the roof. It seemed almost certain that Latham must have been killed. The impact had appeared so tremendous – the crash so complete. But suddenly, amid the drifting dust clouds, a slight, dapper figure could be seen disengaging itself from the battered fuselage, and lowering itself deftly to an undamaged part of the roof. Then out came that inevitable cigarette case, and Latham sat there smoking till someone arrived with a ladder.”
Why had some tobacco company NOT signed this guy up?! “Remaining cool under pressure – Hubert Latham loves his XXX cigarettes.”
Apparently The Sky Has A Limit
Antoinette’s aeroplanes were fine machines—just not as popular as say anything built by Curtiss or Bleriot.
The Antoinette motor was also a fine power plant… but challenges from Gnome and automobile manufacturers were hitting the company hard.
In the Autumn of 1911, Antoinette built the Military monoplane known as the Monobloc or Antoinette blindé – which translates to the Antoinette ‘armored‘.
Apparently it was designed and built according to what the Ministry of War of France wanted. Very much ahead of its time, by the looks of the image above.
With Latham as the pilot, they entered it in the military trials staged at Reims in October of 1911—competing against 10 other companies and their 10 machines.
Problem #1: Antoinette was running late… finishing the plane just in time for the trials, but without enough time for a test flight.
Problem #2: It had cantilever wings, without any bracing wires, and the aircraft featured spats to enclose the landing gear struts. Metal covered the entire aircraft.
Problem #3: It was powered by a standard Antoinette V-8 water-cooled piston engine pushing out 50 horsepower.
In two attempts at flight during the military trials, the aircraft failed to leave the ground owing to its under-performing 50 horsepower motor…
It would seem as though the Antoinette company spent too much time developing and manufacturing aircraft but not enough time in expanding on the capabilities of what it was first and best known for—its motors.
Failing to garner a military contract was the last straw for Antoinette… it closed its doors for good one month later.
Latham, was out of work, but not for long—only this time it was not as an aviator.
Loyal Order Of The Water Buffaloes
At the end of December 1911, Latham left France to undertake an expedition to travel into the French Congo.
Ahhh colonialism. North, Central and South America are certainly branded by its mark… and the same can be said for the colonialists of Holland, England, Spain, Portugal et al—though I’m quite sure it’s better if you were the ones doing the colonizing.
No one is sure just what Latham’s official role was to be there in the French Congo, but it has been suggested that France wanted several airfields built, and that he was sent to gauge the conditions of the various sites chosen and report on such to the French Colonial Office.
At some point—perhaps June 25, 1912, Latham died.
He was, as mentioned earlier either mauled by a wounded water buffalo (I shall call him henceforth call the murdering cattle, Gord. LOL. What? Too soon?)… which was/is the official cause of death… which is only weird because Latham was an experienced hunter (bagged two ducks while flying an aeroplane, right?
Failing that, Latham was also considered and expert wild game hunter… so… trampled by a wounded water buffalo… it’s possible. Very possible, because a wounded animal is highly unpredictable… but likely? Conspiracy power – activate!
In 1914, two years after his passing, an anonymously-written newspaper article stated that the adjutant-commandant of a French Colonial Army fort located just outside Fort Archambault—the man who found and brought back Latham’s body—saw a head wound about Latham… and definitely NO corresponding water buffalo marks on him, or signs on the ground that there ever was a charging buffalo.
As well, the article cites without citing that there were conflicting reports from the porters accompanying Latham who were questioned at the time of Latham’s reported death.
The anonymous article writer suggests that maybe Latham wasn’t run down by a buffalo, but was instead murdered by a porter—the article of the day suggest that he was murdered for his rifles…
But where was the proof?
This is always tricky stuff. Who wrote this? Did anyone other then Mr. Anonymous ever ask the adjutant-commandant of A (not THE) French Colonial Army fort if his statement was indeed correct.
Still… there are also the written records left by Latham himself of his final days in Africa.
In his notes, Latham expressed concern over the way his own team of bearers/porters was acting, also mentioning that the whole area was rife with violence.
So… how come the inquiry into Latham’s death did not allow for his own words to play a role in the death dilemma?
- we have Latham wondering aloud about the natives getting restless (could also be colonial racism on his part);
- a newspaper account mentioning that the guy who found the body saw no evidence of a buffalo bashing (who wrote this account – and did anyone fact-check with him to confirm its validity?)
- Murdered for his rifles? Apparently guns don’t kill people, buffalo do.
There’s a way to have checked the veracity of that statement, of course – just dig up the body… and see if there’s any evidence of crushed bones from being run over by a buffalo.
I would assume that a buffalo trampling would leave evidence on the bones (even if the flesh had been eaten away). I’m assuming skin showing a wound would be decomposed, but what do I know of the preservation of human bodies in the hot clime of Chad? It depends, right? That’s why I just feel it would have been more prudent to examine the skeletal remains… which could still be done today, if they still exist and were not cremated…
The problem is, that someone already dug up the bones.
Originally buried in Fort Lamy (now N’djamena, capital city of Chad), Latham was NOT transported home to France. At least not immediately.
French colonial law of the day, did not allow the remains of the deceased (Latham) to be returned home for ONE full year after the death.
And so, only on January of 1914, nearly one-and-a-half years after his untimely death, Latham’s mom had her son disinterred from Fort Lamy and shipped back to France and into the family plot.
Never having been married, Latham left no direct descendants.
But… again, if his skeletal remains were simply re-interred in the family crypt or buried in a coffin in the family plot… if the skeleton still exists… might not 2017 forensic examiners be able to determine if Latham was murdered or simply died by misadventure?
I know what I would do…