BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 09:40 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 10:40 UK

The other pilot

Hubert Latham in his plane
Only a handful of people could have crossed the Channel

By Chris Ledgard

Many of us know the name of Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the Channel, but what of the other pilot who tried, failed and ultimately overslept and missed his chance to be remembered by history?

Looking into the tiny wooden cockpit of the Bleriot XI, the first flying machine to cross the English Channel, even a hardened pilot could be forgiven for a bit of trepidation.

The Race to Dover, presented by Jonathan Agnew, is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 3 June at 1100 BST
Or listen again on the iPlayer

Photographs and flickering film footage of that summer morning in 1909 suggest the original pilot, Louis Bleriot, was none too keen either.

With his drooping black moustache, he cut a forlorn figure as he limped towards his machine on a cliff top near Calais.

His foot had been badly burned in a trial flight a few days earlier. His plane didn't have a compass, and if his engine failed there was a serious problem - he couldn't swim. But at 4.41am, Louis Bleriot lifted his machine over the cliffs and set off in what - he guessed - was a straight line towards Dover.

In the early period of aviation great strides were made

The race to cross the Channel was the event of the summer. The previous year, the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe, offered a prize of £500 for the first pilot to make the crossing.

Northcliffe was convinced aviation had a big future, and was dismayed at the lack of attention to it in Britain. He wanted to stimulate interest in flying - and sell papers, of course - but the money didn't tempt anyone. So he doubled the prize.

The obvious front-runners were the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. In 1905, they had flown for 38 minutes, enough for a Channel crossing. But they weren't interested, the aviation expert Philip Jarrett says.

"The Wright brothers weren't into flying for prizes or taking unnecessary risks, so they weren't going to do it. At the end of 1908 when the prize was first offered there probably wasn't anyone else who could have done it - which shows that Lord Northcliffe was far-sighted.

Extract from the Times newspaper on 26 July 1909
Extract from the Times newspaper on 26 July 1909 (News International)

"But, by the middle of the next year, there were two or three people who had a reasonable chance of doing it - but only two or three people in the whole world."

The early favourite was Hubert Latham. The languid, chain-smoking Latham was very much the Edwardian playboy sportsman. Born in 1883 into a rich Anglo-French family, he was brought up in the Chateau de Maillebois, about 60 miles West of Paris, as was his great-niece, Sylvie Armand-Delille.

"It's a very romantic fairy tale like castle in red brick, near a river and surrounded by woods," says Ms Armand-Delille.

"Because he was a very passionate hunter he sent a lot of trophies back from Africa, and we're still surrounded by these now hundred-year-old trophies of gazelles, and elephant and rhinoceros tusks."

Pioneering engineers

He was brought up as a Frenchman but spoke English without an accent and went to Oxford University. After leaving university, he made a name for himself as an explorer.

At home, he was part of a social elite, a small, dapper man known for his bravery. In Monaco, he teamed up with the pioneering engineers Leon Levavasseur and Jules Gastambide and raced boats powered by their Antoinette engine.

Hubert Latham
Hubert Latham was eventually to be mauled to death by a wounded buffalo

Latham, says his biographer Barbara Walsh, proved an excellent mascot and frontman.

"So when they were looking for someone who could be their PR man, head up their sales campaign for their aeroplane and make a bid for the Channel flight they called on Latham and asked if he'd like to fly an aeroplane."

Latham's early efforts didn't bode well - he crashed regularly. But he was determined and - once he had mastered the Antoinette monoplane - his team moved to Calais to wait for the right conditions.

He was the favourite, says Walsh, to win the contest. "In fact he put money on it. He admitted to one of his press pals that he'd laid a wager that they'd have the prize by 15 July."

A new breed of journalist - the aviation correspondent - gathered around the Latham camp, feeding their papers with stories of the brave young pioneer who was "in sang-froid and in general demeanour, quite Anglo-Saxon".

Louis Bleriot in his plane
Louis Bleriot may have been rather nervous himself

On the morning of 19 July, Latham rose early, put on his knitted blue jersey and his goggles, and climbed into the plane. But he was barely over the sea before his engine failed. He glided down to the water and, pulling his feet clear of the waves, lit a cigarette and waited to be rescued.

So, says the French aviation writer Michel Benichou, the way was clear for Bleriot.

"Bleriot had told his wife he would never cross the Channel because she was too scared. Eventually, he decided that if Latham fails, I shall enter the competition. So Latham fails, and Bleriot took the train and journalists came with him, and he arrived in Calais with the idea of assembling his aircraft and flying immediately."

Bleriot later confessed that when he was woken early on 25 July, he felt "dreadful" and would have been relieved if the attempt had been called off.

Looking at the Bleriot XI at the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire, it's easy to understand his apprehension. Egyptian cotton wings linked by a fragile web of wooden struts and wires sit on top of a pair of bicycle wheels.

Latham crashing into the sea in 1909 and Latham crashing into a building at Brooklands racetrack
Aviation in those days involved regular crashes

Like sitting on the back of a butterfly is how someone described flying the plane. Most incredible of all is the size of the Anzani engine - just 25 horsepower, barely enough oomph to carry even a tiny plane across the water. The margin for error for the pilot who couldn't swim was tiny.

The early part of the flight was smooth. Then Bleriot got lost. For ten minutes, he saw nothing in front, behind or below. But, gradually, a thin grey line emerged on the horizon. It was the English coast and Bleriot flew towards the cliffs. A gap appeared and, finding himself over land, he brought his plane down with a crash in a field behind Dover Castle. He had done it.

The flight took 36-and-a-half minutes. His place in history was assured, and his business prospects manufacturing planes were guaranteed. The enterprising Gordon Selfridge had the Bleriot XI taken and displayed in his new department store.

But what of Latham? Few have heard of him now, but were it not for a mysterious chain of events, he might be the one we remember. Like Bleriot, he went to bed on the night of 24 July having requested an early alarm call so he could make an attempt. But his engineer failed to wake him.

Latham, centre in the cap, with a crowd of people
Latham was considered the favourite by many

We'll probably never find out why, but his biographer Barbara Walsh is suspicious. She points out that Latham was unpopular in some quarters: "I don't know what happened. But the Times newspaper was appalled at what they called his supine friends. They had championed him, and they suspected something happened."

Latham went on to break records and win prizes. But, just three years later, he was killed by a wounded buffalo on a hunting expedition in the Congo. It's a strange, sad end to a story of bravery and true pioneering spirit.

Below are a selection of your comments.

There is a statue to Latham on the French coast overlooking the Channel. I filmed it for my Grierson Award winning 1972 cinema documentary 'The Wind in the Wires'. Hope it is still there? The inscription reads 'gay young fellows jockeying winged horses'. If memory serves me well!
John Edwards, London, UK

Those Intrepid early Birdmen went up and down, although in honesty - more often down and down! With little more than sticks, struts and rubber bands, and lots of determination in their hands, these brave men - often with no straps. Would challenge the watery gaps. From our world of Jumbo Jets and mass travel, we might compare their journey to riding in a barrel, over the roaring Niagra Falls so high, with death possibly waiting nearby. However, without their brave pioneering spirit, the sky would still be our very outer limit. Bravo to the Early Birdmen!
Poet Roberé Chamiane, Goodwin Sands (near Angleterre)

There is an imposing monument to Hubert Latham by the side of the road at Cap Blanc Nez, about 10 km west of Calais. Unfortunately, it is in poor condition: the metal is corroded, the base is streaked with grime, and there appears to be some shrapnel damage from WW2. The statue - and Latham's part in the history of aviation - deserves to be restored.
Brycchan Carey, Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire, UK

So Latham tried and failed on 19 July, but Bleriot succeeded on 25 July... if Latham was so keen, why didn't he try again on 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th July too?
Rob, London, UK

25 years ago my dad showed me the markers at the spot in Dover where Bleriot landed. I was dismayed two years ago to go there again to find the area quite overgrown with vegetation, obviously uncared for.
Angus Gulliver, Luton, UK

What about Samuel Cody as another forgotten hero of the early days of flying. His main achievement being the first powered flight in the UK, certainly not something to be sneezed at! Although not his first powered flight local legend has it that he flew from Farnborough Aerodrome to the Clockhouse (a few hundred meters always) to check the time and then returned to land.
Stuart, Hampshire

And don't forget the American, Harriet Quimby, the first woman to fly the Channel. You probably haven't heard of her, because she had the misfortune to make the crossing at the time the Titantic was lost. Her achievement was buried under the news of the sinking. Also, she was killed shortly afterwards in an aviation crash in the US.
Rob Davis, Telford, Shropshire

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific