Original pioneer aviation article published Oct 4, 2018. Updated Oct 1, 2020
Updates include more reference links, updated details, and additional information on pioneer aviation poster stamps
Here’s a little something from my pioneer aviation collection. I was looking for … well, I can’t remember because I became sidetracked.
About 7 years ago, I spotted a set of 1910 Wills Aviation cards on eBay. It’s one of those silly items I coveted for years so I threw in a modest bid and it turned out to be one of those days aviation and tobacco card collectors were asleep and I got the full set of 50.
The cards are pretty cool and considering they are over 100 years old, in very good shape. They cover flight from early balloons to the most modern (as of 1910) aeroplanes, including my favourite – the Antoinette Flyer, designed and built by Léon Levavasseur.
The Antoinette Flyer, Levavasseur’s contribution to pioneer aviation
The Silver Dart comes close to the number 1 spot in my heart, but it’s always edged out by the Antoinette. I think primarily because the Antoinette’s design is so unusual. It looked like a canoe with wings and a pilot precariously plopped in the middle. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, engineer and pioneer aviation designer, Léon Levavasseur started out designing boats and boat engines. The Flyer may have looked fragile, but it was an outstanding aeroplane that helped Hubert (sometimes erroneously listed as Herbert) Latham set a number of height and speed records in the early days of aviation, as well as perform in most of the major aviation events of the day.
Latham attempts an English Channel crossing (1909)
Latham was the first aviator to attempt the Daily Mail’s Channel Crossing challenge. At stake was a £1000 prize for the first flight across the 38 km (21 miles) distance from Calais to Dover. His attempt, July 19, 1909, ended 13 km off the Calais coastline with Latham ditching in the water. He was uninjured, but the Antoinette was severely damaged.
Latham was seen as a good bet to win the prize. His two main rivals were Louis Blériot and his Blériot XI, who went on to win and Charles de Lambert flying a Wright Flyer. A second Antoinette was prepared by the 21st, but bad weather kept him grounded. Louis Blériot and his team arrived, after Latham’s crash, and prepared for crossing. Not far away, de Lambert setup his camp, but crashed or damaged both Flyers during practice flights. That left just Latham and Blériot.
On July 25, 1909, while Latham was still asleep, Blériot saw an opportunity. The weather turned favourable at dawn and he launched off the cliff in Calais and into history. Latham’s chance was gone.
Latham and the Antoinette early aviation records
Despite the disappointing outcome of the Channel race, Latham went on to set air speed and distance records with the Antoinette flyer.
- May – European non-stop flight record, flying for 1hr 07mins) (this was set prior to the Channel crossing attempt)
- August – Riems Airshow (Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne) world altitude record of 155 metres (509ft)
- January 7 – Mourmelon-le-Grand, France, world altitude record of 1,100 metres (3,600 ft)
- April – Nice Air show world air speed record of 48.186 miles per hour (77.548 km/h)
- July – second Riems Airshow (Grande Semaine de l’Aviation de la Champagne), world altitude record of 1,384 m (4,541 ft)
I’ve looked around for postage stamps showing Latham, Levavasseur or the Antoinette and haven’t found a single one. Nor have I found Cinderellas commemorating them, although I’m pretty sure I’ll eventually stumble across at least a Cinderella. Air shows were very popular, and many poster stamps were created to promote them, like I said, one is bound to pop up.
The stamp below is a a sample of one of the poster stamps produced for events like the Aug 1909 Reim’s airshow. They are works of art in themselves and hard to find around here. They aren’t expensive, as a rule, and can be a good start to a pioneer aviation collection.
In the meantime, enjoy the video below. It’s film footage of Levasseur and Latham preparing for the flight across the English Channel. It starts off in Calais, where fliers gathered to prepare for their attempts. It’s rare to find footage of the Antoinette in flight, but as you watch it, you’ll understand what I mean by “canoe with wings”.
The video shows the infamous dunking Latham took into the English Channel in July 1909. It was an improbable design but flew fast and true. Would I fly in it? HELL YES! How about you?
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If you love the Antoinette as much as I do, check out this article:
- Antoinette (Levavasseur) Aircraft Engines by By William Pearce
- A short bio on Latham can be found here Hubert Latham – The Aviator Who Never Made It Across The Channel | Mechtraveller
- This day in aviation
- The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) is a marvelous resource for early French aviation information. The archives hold many contemporary aviation magazines and newspaper articles that are impossible to find anywhere else. Search: Leon Levavasseur, Latham Hubert, Antoinette moteur and l’aéroplane Antointette for the best results.
- Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace has a short page on the Antoinette. They have a reproduction of the flyer on display.