With the Centenary of the first flight over the Channel, it is nice to get a book that gives the wider view rather than the known story behind Bleriot’s flight. It 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 and born in Paris. 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.
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 as flying higher, faster, and farther than anybody before him. Within only a few months of starting to fly aeroplanes, he had become a notable figure in flying circles.
Latham’s family was well connected, and he himself had made many friends during his studies. They were all put ruthlessly to work for 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.
An Antoinette monoplane was designed and built by Leon 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 allowed no flying in every kind of weather yet. Everybody settled down to wait and the Daily Mail tried to keep up the hype by daily dispatches on technical data and gloomy weather forecasts.
On July 14, the weather cleared and Latham announced his intention of flying the next morning. At the same time in London, Northcliffe’s German spies had finally done their homework on Latham’s German family connections, and they couldn’t have been worth: He was directly related to the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. In Paris, the leading French newspaper Le Monde received the same news at about that time. Having played the opposite game to the Daily Mail by downplaying Latham’s English connections and concentrating on his French family, they had set him up as the epitomous Frenchman. Both sides now found themselves in a major fix over the German connection, even more though as 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. Latham had to reorganise, and it was the 19th of July when everything was ready again. But immediately prior to the start, a mechanic noticed that the plane’s tank was almost empty, and new fuel had to be organised. With a short delay, Latham took off.
Halfway across the Channel, his machine lost all power and dropped out of the sky like a stone. Latham glided the plane onto the water, put his legs up to keep his feet dry and lit a cigarette while waiting to be rescued. 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 Charles Blériot finally made his appearance 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 near Sangatte, he also brought bad weather with him. It was July 24 by the time the weather cleared enough to allow flying. Latham and Blériot met the captains of the accompanying naval vessels and it was agreed that the first plane to fly would be trailed on water.
On that night, Latham failed to raise himself in time and was not wakened by Levavasseur either, who had been up. Levavasseur claimed heavy wind decided him against waking Latham as no flight would have been possible. Blériot on the other hand started from his camp and despite getting into heavy weather managed to crash-land barely on English soil.
Latham continued his flying exploits for a further two years, trained French pilots, was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and died 1912 during a covert mission to the Congo.
Walsh has a pleasant style in writing and brings to life the heady days of early flight. It seems right to remember Hubert Latham as driving force to cross the Channel, as Blériot had initially no intention of doing so and only entered upon the near success of Latham. But the book is irritating with all the dark innuendoes she makes as to foul play being used on Latham without either substantiating it or knocking it over as groundless slander. For anybody interested though, it is a good starting point to go investigating after a few conspiracy theories on their own.