The Race For The First Flight Over The Channel

The first flight over the Channel was not a sedentary affair. It was a race. And there were no rules. Read a book that gives the wider view rather than the known story behind Louis Blériot s first flight over the Channel. Barbara Walsh compiled the details on the life and career of Hubert Latham and many facts around the days leading up to the historic flight in 1909.

The History Press published ‘Forgotten Aviator, Hubert Latham’ by Barbara Walsh. Walsh tells the story of Hubert Latham as he almost became the first pilot to fly over the Channel a hundred years back. Hubert Latham was of a mixed Anglo-French family born in Paris. Hubert Latham was independently wealthy, a graduate from Balliol College, Oxford, who had started his studies in Paris. At 25, he had already led an expedition into unexplored parts of Ethiopia.

During the late spring of 1909, Hubert Latham was breaking record upon record; He was flying higher, faster and farther than anybody else. He was fast becoming the favorite to win the £1,000 prize money put up by Lord Northcliffe for the first airplane flight over the Channel. Lord Northcliffe was proprietor of the Daily Mail and the Times, and he was convinced that flying machines would open up England to an invasion by Germany. To prove this, he set out the prize money. He wanted to show that it was possible to cross the Channel in a flying machine. This happened before the Great War, and long before the Daily Mail became a Nazi supporting newspaper during the 1930s. The prize was part and parcel of a public relations stunt spearheaded at government and parliament to open their eyes to the German threat.

Hubert Latham was far from being a nobody; he was an accomplished sportsman and had a record breaking hot-air balloon flight from London to Paris to his credit as well. Within a few months of starting to fly airplanes, he had become a notable figure in flying circles. Hubert Latham took aim at the Daily Mail prize and his preparations were meticulous. By end of June 1909, he and a mining engineer had completed a survey of the coast around Dover and Folkestone and he had chosen a patch of level ground atop the cliffs of Dover as a landing pad.

Hubert Latham’s family was well connected, and he himself had made many friends during his studies. They were all put ruthlessly to work for him and help with the venture. He set up camp in Sangatte in disused buildings left there after an abortive English-French tunnel venture, and a radio link was set up between Dover and Sangatte. Lord Northcliffe, impressed by the preparations being made, latched on to Hubert Latham as the epitome of an Englishman, exhorting his English roots, ignoring the French family connections, and keeping quiet about his German relatives.

An Antoinette monoplane was designed and built by Léon Levavasseur and assembled on site in Sangatte. French naval vessels were assembled in Calais to provide a seaborne escort to the flight. And then bad weather set in. The fragile construction of airplanes at the time didn't allow for flying in every kind of weather. Everybody settled down to wait, and the Daily Mail tried to keep up the hype by daily dispatches from Sangatte on technical data and gloomy weather forecasts.

On July 14, the weather cleared and Hubert Latham announced his intention of flying the next morning. At the same time in London, Lord Northcliffe’s German spies had finally done their homework on Hubert Latham’s German family connections, and they couldn't have been worse: He was a close relative to the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. In Paris, the leading French newspaper Le Monde received the same news at about the same time. Having played the opposite game to the Daily Mail by ignoring Hubert Latham’s English connections and concentrating on his French family instead, they had set him up as the epitome of a Frenchman. Both sides now found themselves in a major fix over his German connection, even more though as Hubert Latham was fluent in English, French, and German in equal degrees.

At Sangatte, the flight on July 15 was called off after finding that crucial parts to the machine had gone missing over night or were not functional if still there. The same day, the French vessels waiting for him in Calais were called back to their home port. Hubert Latham had to reorganize, and it was the 19th of July by the time everything was ready again. But immediately prior to the start, a mechanic noticed that the plane’s tank was almost and inexplicably empty, and new fuel had to be organised. Hubert Latham still took off despite the delay.

Halfway across the Channel, his machine lost all power and dropped out of the sky like a stone. Hubert Latham managed to glide the plane onto the water; he put his legs up to keep his feet dry and lit a cigarette while waiting to be rescued. Once back in Calais, a wire was found that had intruded into the motor. Leaving the machine in Calais while going back to camp for the night, souvenir hunters disassembled the plane down to its frame over night, and a new Antoinette had to be brought in from Paris.

It was only now that Louis Blériot finally entered the stage on the French coast. A former business partner of Levavasseur until they had a serious falling out, he now had his own company. Setting up camp further along the coast but still near Sangatte, he also brought more bad weather with him. It was July 24 by the time the weather cleared enough to allow flying again. Hubert Latham and Louis Blériot met the captains of the waiting naval vessels; it was agreed that the first airplane to fly would be trailed on water.

On that night, Latham failed to raise himself in time; Léon Levavasseur, who had been up . Léon Levavasseur later claimed that heavy wind decided him against waking Hubert Latham as no flight would have been possible. Louis Blériot on the other hand started from his camp and despite getting into heavy weather managed to crash-land, if barely, on English soil.

Hubert Latham continued his flying exploits for a further two years, trained French pilots, was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and died 1912 during a secretive covert mission to the Congo.

Barbara Walsh brings to life the heady days of early flight. It seems right to remember Hubert Latham as the driving force to cross the Channel, as Louis Blériot initially had no intention of doing so. He only jumped on the bandwagon after the near success of Hubert Latham. But the book is irritating with all the dark innuendos Barbara Walsh makes as to foul play being used on Hubert Latham without either substantiating them or knocking them over as slanderous. For anybody interested in the history of flight though, it is a good book. And for all interested in conspiracy theories, it is a starting point to go investigating a few that haven't yet been knocked over several million times.