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SOME PEOPLE—and endeavors—are just plain unlucky. Hubert Latham was a pioneer French aviator with the skills of his countryman Louis Blériot. His Antoinette VII aeroplane could outclimb Blériot’s Type XI. The Antoinette’s V-8 engine had features years ahead of its time. In 1909, the company built one of the world’s first flight simulators. And the 1911 Levavasseur-Antoinette Monobloc seemed so advanced an aircraft that it put its spindly wire-braced competitors to shame.
Alas, the Monobloc never flew. Before long, Antoinette went bankrupt. And Latham was killed by an enraged buffalo—or was it murder?
Latham’s wealthy Protestant background was of French, English and German heritage. He and his two siblings were fluent in all three languages.
Latham attended Balliol College, Oxford, and then turned to a life of adventure. In 1905, he accompanied a balloonist cousin in a successful night crossing of the English Channel. Latham took part in power boat racing at the 1905 Monaco Regatta with another cousin, Jules Gastambide, and the latter’s business associate, engineer Léon Levavasseur (not to be confused with Emile Levassor, of Panhard et Levassor automobiles). In 1906/1907, Latham went exploring, collecting specimens in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) for the Natural History Museum in Paris. In 1908, he traveled to the Far East.
In the meantime, Levavasseur and Gastambide were building aeroplanes, Gastambide having honored his daughter, Antoinette, with the name of the firm.
When Latham returned from the Far East, he witnessed Wilbur Wright’s flight demonstrations at Le Mans (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-2j). And he remembered that his Monaco Regatta colleagues, Gastambide and Levavasseur, built aeroplanes. What’s more, they had devised the Antoinette Trainer, likely the world’s first flight simulator.
The pilots-in-training sat on a half-barrel balanced on a universal joint. Its flight controls countered the maneuvering of flight instructors applying external forces through wing-stubs.
Latham quickly took to the air. He soloed in May 1909 and, a week later, set a European record for time aloft, 1 hour 7 minutes. In a show of confidence during the flight, he released his hands from the controls of the Antoinette, took a cigarette out of his silver case, put it in his ivory cigarette holder and lit up.
In July 1909, Latham entered the London Daily Mail challenge to be the first to fly the English Channel. His first attempt, in an Antoinette IV, ended in the drink only 8 miles from the start. It’s said Latham calmly lit a cigarette and awaited rescue by a French ship.
Before the month was out, Louis Blériot beat Latham and others across the Channel (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-M7). On July 27, attempting to be the second flyer to make the trip, Latham took a second dunking, this time in an Antoinette VII barely a mile from the English coast.
Both Channel failures were attributed to engine problems. On the other hand, Levavasseur’s Antoinette engines were renowned for their power and advanced technology.
The Antoinette V-8 had evaporative cooling and direct injection. Evaporative cooling exploited steam’s transfer of heat being better than water’s, albeit at a tradeoff of plumbing complexities. Levavasseur’s direct injection of its gasoline was a world’s first (to be emulated in World War II by Daimler-Benz and BMW aircraft engines and, in the 1950s, by German Goliath and Gutbrod cars, together with the Mercedes-Benz 300SL).
Antoinette aeroplanes set records in altitude, climb rate and other categories at venues such as the world’s first airshow, the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne, in August 1909 at Reims, France. At the 1910 Gordon Bennett Trophy race in the U.S., Latham flew an Antoinette powered by V-16 engine, this configuration another world’s first.
Levavasseur designed a special Antoinette for Latham to fly at the 1911 Concours Militaire, also at Reims. The Monobloc had cantilever wings, yet another world’s first, internally stressed and free of any bracing wires. Its fuselage and landing gear were streamlined, the latter with three small wheels per side.
Its 50-hp Antoinette V-8 proved inadequate for anything but the shortest of hops, and the French military summarily rejected the Monobloc. Many of its innovative technical features were to become standard, but this was of no help to Antoinette. The company went into liquidation November 30, 1911.
In December 1911, Latham traveled to French Equatorial Africa, perhaps on secret government assignment. His death on June 25, 1912, was officially attributed to having been mauled by a wounded buffalo. However, later assessments disclosed no injuries consistent with a rampaging beast. Instead, it’s conjectured that Hubert Latham was murdered by his native bearers for the expedition’s rifles. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014