While we are all familiar with the accomplishments of the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh, there is in fact another aviator who was equally accomplished. Jean Mermoz was born in 1901, in France, and is considered a national hero both in France and Argentina. While I am sure there are many of you who are familiar with this Aviator from France I am also sure that many of you are not.
So, let’s talk about France’s Lindbergh……….
Jean Mermoz was a man who grew up loving literature and poetry but shunned the thought of having a career in the arts. He was destined to fly and this mindset may have been a byproduct of him having grown up during the time of World War One when aviation came to the forefront of the public arena. Mermoz joined the French Air Force in 1922 and was assigned to duty in Syria and during operations in Syria he became one of the most successful, and highly decorated, pilots flying during that campaign.
On his return to France Mermoz moved to Toulouse where he became involved with a man named Latécoère. Latécoère began building his own brand of airplanes to replace the aging World War One aircraft and began looking to connect France with their colonies in Africa and South America. Air Mail would be the cash cow and passengers would be an add-on at a later time—this story sounds familiar.
What were Mermoz’s accomplishments?
Now, before we move forward with more of our story let’s talk about Latécoère and how his vision impacted Mermoz’s life and the development of commercial aviation in South America and Europe:
At the end of World War I the plane builders of Europe found new opportunities in commercial aviation. The war had torn up the railroads of northern France and Belgium, greatly hindering travel by train. But the great cities of London and Paris were separated by just 200 miles (322 kilometers) and making a flight between them was within easy reach of the aircraft of the day. France also had extensive interests in North Africa, across the Mediterranean Sea, which could easily be crossed by way of Spain. The plane builder, Pierre Latécoère, came to the forefront while pursuing such prospects.
Latécoère was a French industrialist based in the city of Toulouse. He initially had contributed to the war effort by manufacturing munitions but In 1917 he turned to the assembly of aircraft building more than 800 fighters under license to the British firm of Salmson; in adddition, he also began to design and build airplanes of his own. These included some of the first airliners, which carried up to 10 passengers, as well as he devoloped a strong position in the realm of seaplanes and flying boats. Several early craft of the 1920s had poor safety records but his five-passenger Late 17 and the Late 25 were more successful. A mail version, the Late 26, also entered general use but the eight-passenger Late 28 became a mainstay of his airline.
He named his airline “Lignes Aeriennes Latécoère” which was often referred to as “The Line.” He initiated commercial air service between Toulouse and Barcelona, Spain, late in 1918 just six weeks after World War I ended and continued down Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Latécoère reached the city of Alicante in Spain two months later and continued onward to Rabat, Morocco, in March 1919. In September, he initiated regular service to Casablanca.
This connection between Casablanca and Toulouse took two days with a number of intermediate stops. Latécoère used Breguet aircraft at first but early in 1920 he replaced them with his own flying boats. By September he was offering daily service to Morocco. He also launched additional trans-Mediterranean flights from Alicante to Algiers and Oran in Algeria where many French people lived. In 1922 he began service within North Africa itself, serving a route from Casablanca to Oran. Three years later, he pushed down the western coast of Africa to reach Dakar, Senegal in French West Africa.
The route crossed the Spanish colony of Rio de Oro, where tribesmen were bitterly hostile. Spain had built forts in the area, and Latécoère built airfields close to these strongholds. Still, they didn’t help when an engine quit and a plane was forced down in the desert. Latécoère ordered his pilots to fly in pairs so that one could rescue the other. He employed friendly Arabs to ride on the flights and to serve as interpreters and he also made it known that he was prepared to pay ransom for the safe return of downed pilots. These measures helped, but what really solved the problem was the introduction of new and more reliable aircraft that were less likely to experience engine failure.
As Latécoère mastered the deserts of Africa he also pitted his men, and aircraft, against the jungles of South America. He started early in 1925 with a test flight from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires. It required six stops and took 36 hours while covering a straight-line distance of 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers). A similar flight reached Recife, on Brazil’s northeast coast, with three stops. Anticipating a serious commitment to South America Latécoère obtained financial support from a wealthy banker in Brazil, Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont. This financier increased his stake until he took control of the Line in 1927. He gave it the new name of Aeropostale reflecting its continuing strong involvement in airmail and Pierre Latécoère abandoned the airline he had founded and returned to building aircraft in Toulouse.
Aeropostale soon spread its wings anew. Late in 1927 it launched a weekly service from Rio de Janeiro to Natal, near Recife, and to Buenos Aires. That city also became an airline center as the company set up a subsidiary called Aeroposta Argentina. It crossed the southern continent reaching Asuncion, Paraguay, and in 1929, Santiago on Chile’s Pacific coast. Other services connected were Bahia Blanca, south of Buenos Aires, with the oil-producing center of Comodoro Rivadavia in the far south. Operations near the Andes carried their own perils. Winds at times topped 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour), blowing aircraft about like leaves in a hurricane.
With operations well established both in South America, and down the western African coast, the next step was to link the two domains. The first such service linked Toulouse and Buenos Aires. Taking a total of eight days, a destroyer crossed the South Atlantic, with air service resuming upon reaching South America. However, there was much interest in an all-air connection. The South Atlantic was at its narrowest—1,890 miles (3,042 kilometers)—between Dakar in French West Africa and Natal, Brazil. Winds were generally light; clear weather made navigation relatively easy, and the island of Fernando de Noronha, 250 miles (402 kilometers) from Natal, was conveniently located for use as a refueling stop.
In May 1930 Jean Mermoz took a Latécoère 28 flying boat across the South Atlantic, flying from Dakar to Natal in slightly less than 20 hours. However, his plane went down on the return trip though Mermoz himself survived. Better aircraft again proved to be the answer. Early in 1933, Mermoz flew a Couzinet Type 70 landplane from Dakar to Natal, covering the distance in less than 15 hours.
These early flights were part of a rivalry between France and Germany as both nations sought to offer service across the South Atlantic. Distances along that route were shorter than those of the North Atlantic and the weather was considerably milder. Germany was first spanning this southern ocean in 1929 with an enormous flying boat the Dornier Do X. It had 12 engines and carried 157 passengers, but proved impractical for routine use. Germany also flew to South America in the dirigible Graf Zeppelin. That country also spanned the South Atlantic by stationing ships along the route to refuel seaplanes and launch them by catapult to continue onward. By 1935 the Germans were flying from Berlin to Rio in as little as three days.
Meanwhile Aeropostale had fallen into difficulties. Its patron, Bouilloux-Lafort, became financially overextended during the Great Depression and in 1931 the airline went bankrupt; however, it continued to operate on a shoestring though its days were clearly numbered. In 1933 it joined with four other French airlines to form a single national carrier—Air France. This airline shut down in 1940 when that nation fell to Nazi conquest but reemerged after the war and again grew strong with financial support from the government in Paris.
The firm of Latécoère remains in business to this day and is still headquartered in Toulouse. It serves as a manufacturing center for aircraft parts. It thus has long survived its founder, Pierre Latécoère, who died in 1943.
In addition, the Line made a permanent contribution to aviation through the writings of one of its pilots—Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
He presented the romance of flight as one who had lived it. In Africa, he allowed his skin to burn dark and flew repeatedly to negotiate with chiefs of the Berber tribes and in South America he faced the deadly winds from the Andes. He wrote books titled Southern Mail, Night Flight, Flight to Arras, and Wind, Sand and Stars. His book for children, The Little Prince, is still read and appreciated. In this fashion, the influence of the Line lives on.
An interesting story about Mermoz when he went to work, as an Air Mail pilot, for Latécoère—it seems that his acrobatic performance when demonstrating his flying skills caused him to be rejected by the director. The director, Didier Daurat, told Mermoz that he didn’t need acrobats but needed bus drivers. Mermoz then went back to the airplane and conducted a normal flight displaying his skills, and abilities, to be an airborne bus driver. Now you know the rest of the story about how pilots came to be known as “Glorified Bus Drivers.”
Another interesting fact that should be noted here is that shortly after Mermoz joined Latécoère’s company he met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who like Ernest K Gann, was a writer and an Aviator. The book “Night Flight” details the exploits of this era and I have a quick video that I would like you to see. This video clip is from the era when movies had no audio so to prepare you for what you are about to see let me set the stage with a brief description of the plot:
(Written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and adapted to the screen in 1933 by MGM)
Three postal planes, those of Argentina, Chile and Paraguay, are returning on a night flight to Buenos Aires. There, the correspondence they carry will be moved to the plane which will take it to Europe. The director of the postal airline, Rivera, waits anxiously on the airfield of Buenos Aires for the arrival of the planes and, during the course of that night in 1930, he finds himself reflecting of problems he had never before considered. He realizes that little by little he had been putting off his old age for when he had time, which makes his life pleasurable. As if at some point he could have time, as if at the end of life one could achieve that imagined peace. But peace does not exist and perhaps neither does victory. The definitive arrival of all the post does not exist. The first to land is the Chilean plane. Its pilot, Pellerin, has had to overcome a storm in the Andes. But he is not boastful about it. When Rivera, congratulating him, wants to know how he did it, the pilot answers with the precision of one who sees it as just one more unforeseen event, part of the job. For Fabien, pilot of the Patagonian plane, and his companion the radio operator, the situation begins to complicate itself. The first whirlwinds of the far-off storm begin to hit the plane. Riviera, over the transmitter, follows the heroic struggle of his men determined to complete their mission. He never ceases to give orders meant to help them, and in the midst of his growing concern, he reveals in his attitudes and responses various aspects of his personality. ‘Am I fair or unfair? I don’t know,’ he recognizes, ‘If I punish, the damages are less. Man is not responsible, it is a dark power which can never be caught unless the whole world is caught. If I behave justly, every night flight would be in danger of death.’ Of inspector Robineau, who supports him in his work, and is also part of the management, he thinks that thanks to his lack of intelligence, he can be of great service, for, if he does not think, he cannot make mistakes. With regard to his subordinates, he thinks, ‘These men are happy because they love what they do and they love it thanks to my hardness’. But this does not exclude a certain measure of sensitivity: ‘To be loved you have only to be compassionate.
Mermoz, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, both became an integral part of the success of the South American Air Mail service to Europe and played a major role in the start, and success, of Aerolinas Argentinas; in addition, both would become two of the most important men in the history of commercial aviation in Argentina.
Mermoz flew numerous expeditionary flights, much like Charles Lindbergh did for Pan Am and others, mapping out routes across South America, and elsewhere, but it was on an Atlantic crossing that his career would come to an end.
On December 7, 1936 Mermoz, and his crew, were lost at sea. Shortly after take-off Mermoz turned back to land as a result of a troublesome engine on his Latécoère 300 “Croix du Sud” (“Southern Cross”). After learning that he would have to wait for another one to be prepared, he took off again in the same plane after a quick repair, concerned that he would be late in delivering the mail. (His last words before boarding the plane were “Quick, let’s not waste time anymore.”)
Four hours later, the radio station received a short message, where Mermoz reported that he had to cut the power on the aft starboard engine. The message was interrupted abruptly. No further messages were received, and neither the Laté 300 nor the crew were ever recovered.
It is assumed that the engine they had tried to repair lost its propeller midflight, and being one of the aft engines, the loose propeller either badly damaged or cut the hull entirely, causing the plane to lose its tail and crash instantly.
Henri Guillaumet, one of Mermoz’s fellow pilots, had encountered the same problem a few months before; however, his own engine was on the forward side and he was able to maintain sufficient airspeed to maintain the propeller in place until he landed.
This has been a lengthy article but I hope I have sparked in an interest in all who read this to do a little research on their own; however, before I wrap it up I want you to view one more video. This video depicts an event during World War Two when Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in a P-38. As the video concludes they will mention “The Little Prince.” This is one of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry most famous books and is the most read, and most translated, book in the French language. “The Little Prince” was voted the best book of the 20th century in France and maintains sales of over one million copies per year worldwide.
Here is the link for the book if you have never read “The Little Prince:”
Have a good weekend, thanks for letting me be a part of your week, and remember that life is short. Stay close to the ones you love, move ahead, and take care with whom you entrust your future and the well being of your family.
March 30, 2012