31 July 1944, famed French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint Exupéry), flying for the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres (the Free French Air Force), departed Borgo Airfield on the island of Corsica. He was on a reconnaissance mission of the Rhône Valley. His aircraft was a Lockheed F-5B-1-LO Lightning, serial number 42-68223, an unarmed photo reconnaissance variant of the P-38J Lighting twin-engine fighter.
Saint-Exupéry was never seen again.
In 1998 a fisherman found his silver identity bracelet on the sea floor south of Marseilles. Parts of the aircraft were recovered in 2003.
“Saint-Ex” wrote Night Flight, Flight to Arras, Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince, as well as many other works. He was a gifted writer.
29 June 1900: Famed French aviator, poet and author, Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint Exupéry, was born at No. 8 rue Payrat,¹ Lyon, Departement du Rhône, Rhône-Alpes, France. He was the third of five children of Jean Marc Martin comte de Saint-Exupéry and Andrée Louise Marie de Boyer de Fonscolombe de la Mole, comtesse de Saint-Exupéry. As the oldest son, Antoine inherited his father’s title of nobility.
While serving in the French cavalry, Saint-Exupéry took private flying lessons. He made his first solo flight 9 July 1921, and soon earned a civil pilot’s certificate. Now eligible for military flight training, he was transferred to the Aéronautique Militaire in Morocco, where he was awarded his military aviator’s certificate, No. 19398, 23 December 1921.
Saint-Exupéry was promoted to caporal 5 February 1922. He underwent further training as an officer cadet and received a commission as a sous-lieutenant 10 October 1922.
On 1 May 1923, Sous-lieutenant Saint-Exupéry crashed a Hanriot HD-14 trainer on takeoff. A passenger was severely injured. Saint-Exupery was grounded. The accident was caused by pilot error, and he released from military service, 5 June 1923.
Saint-Exupéry was engaged to marry Mlle. Louise de Vilmorin. Because of the crash, he promised that he would give up aviation and found employment as an office worker. The engagement ended and he went back to flying.
In 1926, he joined la Compagnie Générale d’Entreprise Aéronautique (C.G.E.A.), which in 1927 would become Compagnie générale aéropostale, (C.G.A.)— Aéropostale,—the predecessor of Air France, in North Africa and South America.
“Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of the flickering pictures—in this century as in others our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bring men together.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1939
Comte de Saint-Exupéry married Sra. Consuelo Suncin-Sandoval Zeceña, 22 April 1932, at Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France.
During this time, Saint-Exupéry also began his career as an author. His first book, Courrier Sud, was published in 1929. Vol de Nuit (English edition: Night Flight), was published in 1931. His autobiographical Wind, Sand and Stars, published in 1939, is very highly recommended.
When his friend, Henri Guillamet, went down in the Cordillera de los Andes, about 123 miles (198 kilometers) west of Mendoza, Argentina, and then walked out over the next five days, Saint-Exupéry wrote:
“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des hommes (English edition: Wind, Sand and Stars), translated from the French by Lewis Galantière, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, Chapter II at Page 37
On 7 April 1930, Saint-Exupéry was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
On 29 December 1935, while flying his red and white Caudron C.630 Simoun, F-ANRY, in a race from Paris, France, to Sài Gòn, French Indo-China, Saint-Exupéry crashed in the Sahara desert. He and his mechanic, André Prévost, were marooned without food or water. They wandered aimlessly for four days and were near death when they were rescued by a Bedouin tribesman. Saint-Exupéry wrote about the experience in Wind, Sand and Stars, and it was the inspiration for his classic novel, The Little Prince.
Saint-Exupéry traveled to Spain in 1937 to observe the Spanish Revolution. He was horrified by what he experienced. “War is not an adventure,” he wrote. “It is a disease.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was promoted to Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 1939.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Saint-Exupéry returned to service with the Armée del’Air, flying in a reconnaissance squadron. With the surrender of France to the German invaders, he fled to Portugal. Saint-Exupéry sailed from Lisbon 20 December 1940 aboard S.S. Siboney, arriving at the Port of New York, 31 December.
In April 1943, he returned to the war flying with the Free French Air Force, the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres.
He flew a twin-engine Lockheed F-5B, an unarmed photographic reconnaissance variant of the P-38J Lightning fighter. His squadron, 31e escadre,Groupe 2/33, operated from Borgo, an airfield on the northeast coast of Corsica.
Commandant Saint-Exupéry disappeared with his Lockheed F-5B-1-LO Lightning photo reconnaissance airplane (serial number 42-68223) while on a mission to Grenoble and Annecy, at the base of the French Alps, 31 July 1944.
His identity bracelet was found in 1998 by a fisherman, off the southern coastline of France. Wreckage of the F-5B was located on the sea floor in May 2000.
12–13 May 1930: In an effort to connect the North African and South American air mail routes, Jean Mermoz, the chief pilot of Compagnie générale aéropostale, along with co-pilot and navigator Jean Dabry, and radio navigator Léopold Martial Émile Gimié, departed Saint-Louis, on the western coast of Senegal, French West Africa, enroute to Natal, Brazil.
Their airplane, a pontoon-equipped Latécoère 28-3, was carrying 122 kilograms (269 pounds) of mail and fuel for 30 hours of flight. The crew had named the airplane Comte de la Vaulx, after an early French aeronaut and the founder of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
The aviators flew southwest across the South Atlantic Ocean. Natal was approximately 2,000 miles away. [3,178.879 kilometers; 1,975.264 statute miles; 1,716.595 nautical miles]
Gimié transmitted a radio message: “19º Frame-A.J.N.Q. Mermoz, Dabry, Gimié, partis pour Natal à 10 h. 56 locale.” (“19º Frame-A.J.N.Q. Mermoz, Dabry, Gimié, left for Natal at 10:56 a.m., local.”) Gimié was an expert in radio-navigation. The airplane was equipped with radios that could be used to triangulate their position using nine land stations and several ships along their course.
A contemporary United Press wire service news report stated that they arrived at Natal at 6:15 a.m., local time. The actual duration of the flight is difficult to determine. Sources very from as few as 17 hours to as many as 21 hours, 24 minutes. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission reported that the flight took 19 hours, 35 minutes.
This was the first non-stop flight to cross the South Atlantic.
Antoine Saint Exupéry, a fellow Aéropostale pilot, described a portion of Mermoz’s transatlantic flight in Wind, Sand and Stars:
And yet we have all known flights when of a sudden, each for himself, it has seemed to us that we have crossed the border of the world of reality; when, only a couple of hours from port, we have felt ourselves more distant from it than we should feel if we were in India; when there was a premonition of an incursion into a forbidden world whence it was going to be infinitely difficult to return.
Thus, when Mermoz first crossed the South Atlantic in a hydroplane, as day was dying he ran foul of the Black Hole region, ² off Africa. Straight ahead of him were the tails of tornadoes rising minute by minute gradually higher, rising as a wall is built; and then night came down upon these preliminaries and swallowed them up; and when, and hour later, he slipped under the clouds, he came out into a fantastic kingdom.
Great black waterspouts had reared themselves seemingly in the immobility of temple pillars. Swollen at their tops, they were supporting the squat and lowering arch of the tempest, but through the rifts in the arch there fell slabs of light and the full moon sent her radiant beams between the pillars down upon the frozen tiles of the sea. Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, circling round those giant pillars in which there must have rumbled the upsurge of the sea, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight toward the exit from the temple. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid.
—Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger comte de Saint Exupéry, translated by Lewis Galantière, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, Chapter 1 at Pages 16–17.
The airplane flown by Mermoz, Dabry and Gimié was a Latécoère 28-3, registration F-AJNQ, built by Société Industrielle d’Aviation Latécoère at Toulouse, France. The airplane’s serial number is reported as both “Nº 909” and “Nº 919.” It was a large, single-engine, high-wing monoplane with an enclosed cabin. Also known as the Laté 28, the airplane could be equipped with fixed landing gear or pontoons for water operations. The airplane’s fuselage was constructed of duralumin, a hardened alloy of aluminum, with a duralumin sheet skin. The wings were also of metal construction, covered with fabric.
The Latécoère 28-3 was 44 feet, 4 inches (13.513 meters) long with a wingspan of 62 feet, 6 inches (19.050) and height of 10 feet, 7½ inches (3.24 meters).
The pontoons were also constructed of Duralumin. Each had ten floatation compartments. They were 26 feet, 4 inches (8.026 meters) long, 4 feet, 5 inches (1.346 meters) wide and 2 feet, 9 inches (0.838 meters) deep.
The Latécoère 28-3 had an empty weight of 5,720 pounds (2595 kilograms), and gross weight of 11,044 pounds (5,010 kilograms). Its fuel capacity was 556 gallons¹ (2,528 liters).
The pilot’s station was an enclosed cockpit at the leading edge of the wing, behind the engine, while the navigator and radio operator were in a cabin below and behind the cockpit. The air mail cargo was placed in a separate compartment.
The Latécoère 28-3 was powered by a single right-hand-tractor, water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 31.403 liter (1,916.351 cubic inches) Hispano Suiza 12Lbr single overhead camshaft (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with a compression ratio of 6.2:1. This engine was rated at 630 cheval vapeur (621.4 horsepower) at 2,000 r.p.m. The two-bladed, fixed-pitch propeller was driven through a gear reduction unit. The 12Lbr was 1.85 meters (6.07 feet) long, 0.75 meters (2.46 feet) wide and 1.02 meters (3.35 feet) high. It weighed 440 kilograms (970 pounds).
The airplane had a maximum speed of 140 miles per hour (225 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling was 13,000 feet (3,962 meters).
F-AJNQ departed Natal on 8 June for the return flight to Africa. After about 14 hours, the engine developed a serious oil leak. Mermoz made a forced landing near the despatch boat Phocée, approximately 900 kilometers (560 miles) from their destination. The three crew members and the mail were transferred from F-AJNQ to the Phocée. The airplane was set adrift.
¹ The source of the fuel capacity was a contemporary British periodical. Though not specified, TDiA assumes that the capacity was given in Imperial Gallons.
² The “Black Hole region” refers to “the doldrums” or Intertropical Convergence Zone.
29 December 1935: Early in the morning, Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger comte de Saint Exupéry took off from Aéroport de Paris–Le Bourget enroute to Saïgon, Cochin-China, as a participant in the long distance Paris-to-Saïgon “raid,” or air race.
The race was sponsored by the Aéro-Club de France, which had offered a prize of ₣1,200,000 (franc français), approximately £16,000 or $70,000, to the winner, providing the finishing time was less than 90 hours. The distance was estimated at 13,800 miles (22,209 kilometers). Any airplane type could be entered in the race as long as it had an official airworthiness certificate and a flight crew of two, or a single pilot with an autopilot.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry was accompanied by André Prévot as the navigator and flight engineer. The airplane was a red and white Caudron C.630 Simoun, c/n 7042.20. It was registered to Saint Exupéry on 9 April 1935 as F-ANRY, a representation of his name (“ANtoine de Saint ExupéRY”). He had flown the Simoun 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) in the eight months he had owned it, “. . .and her engine had not skipped a beat; not a bolt in her had loosened.”
The Société des Avions Caudron C.630 Simoun was a four-place, single-engine, low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. It was built of wood, with the surface of the wings and fuselage covered in plywood sheet then covered with doped fabric. Carefully curved aluminum sheet metal covered the top and bottom of the fuselage. The C.630 was 8,70 meters (28 feet, 6½ inches) long with a wingspan of 10,40 meters (34 feet, 1½ inches) and height of 2,25 meters (7 feet, 4½ inches). The airplane’s gross weight was 1,230 kilograms (2,712 pounds).
The engine was an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 9.500 liter (579.736 cubic-inch-displacement) Renault Bengali 6 Pdi inverted inline six-cylinder overhead-valve (OHV) engine with a compression ratio of 5.75:1. It was rated at 180 cheval vapeur (177.5 horsepower) at 2,200 r.p.m. The left-hand-tractor, direct-drive engine turned a two-bladed, metal Helices Ratier variable-pitch propeller. The propeller could be set to coarse pitch by a mechanic prior to takeoff, then an air bladder mechanism could change it to fine pitch for cruise flight. The Bengali 6Pdi weighed 205 kilograms (452 pounds).
The C.630 had a maximum speed of 310 kilometers per hour (193 miles per hour). The service ceiling was 7,500 meters (24,606 feet) and normal range was 1,260 kilometers (783 miles). Twenty C.630s were built before production changed to the slightly improved C.631.
After taking off at Paris, Saint Exupéry followed the Seine to the valley of the Loire and continued south, crossing the southern coast of France near Marseilles. The fliers had been over the Mediterranean Sea for a short while when they saw fuel leaking from the left wing. Prévot calculated that they had lost 20 gallons (76 liters) of fuel. They turned back and landed at Marignane to repair the leak and refuel before continuing. Saint Exupéry wrote, “I drank a cup of coffee while the time lost hurt like an open wound.”
Once again heading across the Mediterranean toward Tunis, they encountered low clouds and heavy rain which forced them down to just 60 feet (18 meters) over the water. They flew along the coast of Sardinia as the weather improved.
F-ANRY crossed the coast of Africa at Bizerte, Tunisia, and about fifteen minutes later landed to refuel. With two hours of daylight remaining, Saint Exupéry and Prévot took off again, now heading toward Benghazi, Libya. They landed there at 11:00 p.m., local time, and in just twenty minutes the airplane had been refueled and once more, they were airborne.
Flying east after moonset, Saint Exupéry and Prévot were in total darkness. After three hours a faint glow of his navigation lights on the airplane’s wingtips told Saint Exupéry that he had flown into clouds, with visibility measured in just feet.
At a time when there were no navigation aids, pilots had to navigate by their compass, airspeed indicator and clock. Though Saint Exupéry had met with meteorologists to plan his flight, there was no way to update the weather information after takeoff. He had no way of knowing whether an expected tailwind had held, or if it had changed; was his speed across the ground faster or slower than planned? Had the wind blown him right or left of course? Had the atmospheric pressure changed, causing his altimeter to read higher or lower than the airplane actually was? Flying across the emptiness of the Sahara Desert with no landmarks, in total darkness and now just a few feet of visibility, he and Prévot could only guess at their position.
4 hours, 15 minutes after taking off from Benghazi, the C.630 crashed into gently rising terrain at 170 miles per hour (274 kilometers per hour).
The airplane had slid 250 yards across the surface of the plateau and was heavily damaged, but Saint Exupéry and Prévot were unhurt. However, their water was lost. They were left with “. . . a pint of coffee in a battered thermos flask and half a pint of white wine. . . There were some grapes, too, and a single orange.”
Without food or water, Antoine de Saint Exupéry and Andre Prévot wandered across the desert searching for help. They followed mirages, and frequently recrossed their own tracks. They always returned to the wreck of the Simoun. They experienced delusions.
After four days, they were rescued by Bedouin tribesmen.
The location of the crash is uncertain, but is believed to be near Wadi el Natrûn in Egypt, west of the Nile Delta.
Saint Exupéry wrote about the experience in Wind, Sand and Stars, published in 1939. It was the basis for his famous novella, The Little Prince.
TDiA’s Highest Recommendation: Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated from the French by Lewis Galantière, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, New York 10016.