A statue along the coastal D940 road from Calais to Boulogne
Hubert Latham is a little-known French flyer who lived during the earliest years of the twentieth century. He was the son of a wealthy English banker but was born in Paris in January 1883. He devoted his earliest ambitions to the achievements of pioneering air advancement from France.
Latham was educated at Balliol College, Oxford in England but returned to France again later to re-join his parents. He became a devoted Francophile. He had a large independent income and became inspired by a flying ambition inspired by Louis Bleriot and the Wright brothers from his time. His first aeronautical undertaking was with his cousin, Jaques Faure. They crewed the first successful balloon flight from London to Paris. Latham was dapper, rich and confident and that may have been a part of his downfall. Visit the contemporary monument to him if you find yourself traveling along the D940 coast road towards Boulogne just before the village of Escalles.
Hubert Latham learnt to fly powered aircraft at the Antionette flying club based in France. This was also the flying group that inspired Louis Bleriot to become the first person to fly across the English Channel from Sangatte to Dover. Latham subsequently became the flying club’s chief instructor. He taught the first female bomber pilot to fly and she later created the world’s first air ambulance service.
During his early flying days, Latham set the world altitude record of 155 meters in an Antionette powered V1 aircraft in 1910 and a world air speed record of 48 miles per hour in an Antionette V11. He also flew a flight lasting 38 minutes at an average speed of 45 mph. Hubert also flew the world’s longest flight lasting an hour and seven minutes which was longer than the Wright brothers had ever achieved.
Latham wanted to be the first person to fly an engine driven aircraft across the English Channel from France to England. He knew that Louis Bleriot was readying himself for that challenge and he wanted to beat him to it.
Bad weather delayed the attempt for them both on the same day from Cap Blanc-Nez along the Northern French coastline in 1909. Later on in the night though, the conditions improved during the early hours. Latham, sadly, missed it and slept through it. Bleriot was up and alert though and set off and succeeded. Latham tried again on the 27 July 1909 but his aircraft’s engine suddenly failed en-route. He ditched in the sea just off Dungeness along the Kent coast and was rescued by a French escorting warship. He was located whilst casually smoking a cigarette in his floating cockpit.
Hubert’s indulgent over- confidence often let him down during his flying days. He did become despite this the first pilot to be observed flying in a reverse direction against a headwind during a display at Blackpool in England. Latham also inspired the early use of aircraft in warfare by accurately dropping fake sandbag bombs.
Latham had many aviation firsts. He accepted a challenge from a British aristocratic associate and became the first pilot to shoot wild ducks from an aircraft in flight. He also had a severe life threatening crash in his aircraft at Goodwood aerodrome in England during a performance and collided with a hanger. He was calmly reaching for his cigarette case once more and was smoking whilst being rescued.
Hubert Latham died in the French Congo at age 29. The official story was that he was killed by a wounded Buffalo. Unofficially in fact, it was thought that he was on a secret security mission whilst spying for the French Colonial Office. It seems he was murdered.
Latham was rich and very personable but seemingly lacked good judgment. He loved to become completely his own person and totally content whilst flying his aeroplanes. He really was a true early and very great French aviation pioneer.
Hubert Latham is buried alongside his parents where they ultimately settled close Le Harvre in Normandy. There is an error on his gravestone that describes his middle name as Louis. It should have been Charles. Perhaps the engraver confused Hubert with Louis Bleriot.
Hubert Latham had a short but exciting and high achieving life. Take a look at his encapsulating statue standing high above the roadside on the edge of the village of Escalles along the D940 just by a bend in the road.