Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on July 31, 2012
“Goodbye, said the fox. And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
On this day in aviation history, tragedy struck when the famed author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry vanished while flying a mission for the Free French Forces in a Lockheed F-5B-1-LO (a recce version of the P-38 Lightning). The year was 1944 and Saint-Exupéry had taken off from Borgo-Porreta, in Bastia, Corsica, to fly over the Mediterranean Sea, doing his duty as part of the French II/33 Squadron.
He would never return.
For many years, the mystery of what happened to Saint-Exupéry remained unsolved. There were many theories — that he had suffered hypoxia at high altitude and crashed in the sea, that his aircraft had malfunctioned, that he had committed suicide in the air while suffering a bout of severe depression, or even that he had been shot down. In fact, a former Luftwaffe fighter pilot claimed to have shot down a Lightning in Free French markings that very day, though others disputed his claims and based on the facts, it appears that he referred to another event the day before.
The Author and Pilot
While many know of Saint-Exupéry for his work The Little Prince, in fact, he was a noted aviation author. Even The Little Prince was drawn from his experiences as a pilot — he wrote the book in the years after crashing in the Saharan desert. He nearly died of dehydration and was lost in hallucinations when found by chance by a wandering Bedouin with his mechanic-navigator, André Prévot, on the sands of the desert. Tellingly, the book begins with a pilot lost in the desert.
A former airmail pilot, Saint-Exupéry had flown his own adventures and pioneered many new routes in the years between the wars. He had traveled the span of Africa and had flown many hours and flights into countless dawns and sunsets. He had flown all of France and much of Europe. He had been places and done things in airplanes that few dared to dream. And it was this experience that perhaps lent his writings the power to so quickly evoke wonder.
“You — you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…. In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You — only you — will have stars that can laugh.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, from The Little Prince.
His books about flying included Courier Sud (the Southern Mail), Vol du Nuit (Night Flight); Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars); and Pilote de Guerre (Flight to Arras) — all books that have stood the test of time. His prose unrolls as if from a soft and welcoming hand on each page. For many, he is the Ernest K. Gann of France — yet he was also better than that, and vastly different in style. Saint-Exupéry was a unique writer, plain and simple. Thus, when he disappeared, it was a great loss — perhaps more so than any other pilot who volunteered to fly against the Nazis as part of the Free French forces. All of France mourned.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Final Mission
The first clue of his final crash site came with the discovery off the coast near Marseille in September 1998 of a silver bracelet bearing his name, his wife’s name (Consuelo) and his publisher in America. The bracelet was twisted with a piece of fabric that appeared to be from his flight suit. Subsequently in May 2000, a French diver named Luc Vanrell found the pieces of what was suspected to be his plane spread widely across thousands of square meters of the seabed. Thereafter, in October 2003, the Government of France would launch an expedition to evaluate the crash site, confirming that it was indeed Saint-Exupéry’s plane from a handful of key recovered pieces.
A later analysis of the wreckage revealed that he had not likely been shot down, though it was inconclusive as to what caused his loss. One thing is certain, however — his bravery and commitment to a free France never wavered. While others pilots of his advanced age (at the time of his death, he was 44 years old and in bad health) were comfortable sitting out the war, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry instead volunteered to fly in combat. He was assigned to reconnaissance, a role he had flown at the beginning of the war in 1940 with the French Armée de l’Air. Back then, with the fall of France, he had escaped via Portugal to the USA, where he had used his prolific pen to call on America to enter the war. After spending two years out of Europe, he had petitioned successfully and gained the support of none less than Gen. Eisenhower for his return to flight status and the war.
An Unflagging Determination to the End
Yet he was badly injured from his many crashes over the years. He was not in good health. He could not dress himself in his flight suit without assistance. He could not turn his head to the left due to neck pain. The planes he was flying were vastly more sophisticated and more unforgiving than the older Caudrons and Blochs he had flown previously. Further, he was battling intermittent, but extreme depression. Yet he flew. He would accept nothing less than the right to help in the fight against the Nazis. And in the end, he would go missing.
“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, from The Little Prince.
Amazingly, based on the location of the crash site, it could well be that Saint-Exupéry’s body was recovered just a few days after his death. A French woman came forward with the report that she had seen a plane crash around noon and subsequently, the body of the unidentifiable aviator, dressed in the colors of the Free French, was discovered south of Marseille. It received burial at Carqueiranne, France, in September 1944, where it remains to this day.
So on this day we remember the passage of one of the greatest authors of all time, a pioneering aviator and a man of ideals and conviction. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry will always be missed.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s depression verged on suicidal. His only solace was flying with the men of his squadron, who at night would ask him to recite pages from his books. His depression is easily understood, however, because he was the last of the pioneers of his era, men who flew the mail in South America and in Africa, men who pioneered new routes with him in those days. All had died while flying, the last having been shot down while piloting a cargo flight over the Mediterranean. Before his death, Saint-Exupéry would say, “All became nothing but death…. With whom can I share now my memories? No one is left from those days in South America. No one….” It was a sad end for a truly great man.