On March 16th, 1904, an ill-fated flight took place in a balloon in France. The flight was initiated, as usual, by a Countess of the local nobility, who was determined to make the ascent to continue a long-standing interest in aviation. The balloon was named ‘The Countess of the Air’ after its owner. Many historians believe that the balloon was more of a curiosity for the public than anything else, because of the Countess’s vanity. Nevertheless, she wanted to prove that the airplane was the future of aviation, and was determined to make a flight.

The career of the French poet pilot, Charles d’Albert de Luynes, is one that has inspired many to seek out the unknown. After an extremely successful career as a poet and pilot, he became one of the most formidable diplomats and diplomats in the court of King Louis XIII. His diplomatic skills were employed in arranging the marriage of the King’s daughter to the Duke of Nemours.

The first thing you notice about the French poet pilot is that he no longer flies the aircraft. He is a prisoner, complete with handcuffs and shackles, tied to a chair in the cockpit. In front of him are two soldiers who are laughing. One of them is holding a gun, the other has a paper in his hand, and the soldier with the gun lowers his arm and shakes the paper at the poet pilot.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a petty nobleman and a renowned writer, crammed more varied, far-flung flying into his stratospheric 44 years than any of his contemporaries except Charles Lindbergh.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who wrote rather than a writer who flew. He wasn’t a technician; he was a dreamer. Not a by-the-numbers man, but an artist. Not a checklist reader, but an aviator who kicks tires and lights fires. He had a tendency of disobeying basic flight safety standards to the point of appearing to want to die. Despite the odds, he managed to survive—until his luck ran out one day over the Mediterranean in 1944.

Saint-Exupéry didn’t fly in World War I because he turned 18 on the day the Armistice was signed, but he began his aviation career in 1912 with a ride in a cobbled-together Berthaud-Wroblewski metal monoplane, which was groundbreaking at the time, and later trained in the most primitive planes of the time. In 1921, he became a French military pilot, flying fighters that looked a lot like wartime Spads and Nieuports, and he also worked as an airmail flyer, flying across most of Africa and South America.

Adventures of the French Poet Pilot Saint-Ex was a galoot, a bearded man who was both awkward and dexterous. It was never obvious whether he was completely brave or completely reckless as a pilot. (Getty Images/Keystone)

He temporarily worked as a passenger airline pilot before attempting to kill himself by flying long-distance record flights in his own single-engine four-seat Caudrons—yes, several, because he totalled two of them. He completed his career as a French air force pilot flying the F-5B reconnaissance model of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, one of the more advanced aircraft of the 1940s and the one in which he tragically died.

Other World War I pilots served in WWII, but they’d all risen through the ranks to become colonels and generals, so they flew desks. Saint-Ex, brilliant, irascible, and dreamy, was frequently broke, bone-broken, or unemployed. He was a galoot, a bearded man who was both clumsy and dexterous. It was never obvious whether he was completely brave or completely reckless as a pilot.

Despite the fact that his mail career lasted only six years, he created two novels, Wind, Sand, and Stars, and Night Flight, which are considered among the best in aviation writing. Despite this, Saint-Exupéry is most known for The Little Prince, a purportedly children’s book that continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year despite having nothing to do with flight.

Saint-Exupéry was a puller of strings, a user of high-ranking friends and acquaintances, a conniver, and a wangler throughout his brief existence. He would have easily survived the war if he hadn’t been: To get an overweight, overage, underskilled, and disobedient Saint-Ex into its cockpit, every regulation controlling fitness to fly a P-38 had been breached. He even enraged his superiors by flying a photorecon mission over southern France to photograph a relative’s chateau instead of the invasion beaches he’d been tasked to photograph.

He got into the cockpit in the first place by pulling strings. Only conscripts who had been civilian student pilots were allowed to pursue flight training, and the fighter squadron to which Saint-Ex had been assigned as a ground crew private was situated at a base that prohibited military instruction in any event. Nonetheless, his CO was pressed hard enough to allow Saint-Exupéry, who was 21 at the time, to take private lessons on the civilian side of the airfield. According to Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography, Saint-Exupéry, he soloed in a British Sopwith, “a civilian plane belonging to a business permitted only to give joyrides, under the supervision of an ex-pilot of the German army who had never before trained a student.”

Saint-Ex was soon flying 150-mile North African round-robins in Breguet 14s and undertaking lonely solo five-hour journeys to Morocco’s southern border and back to Casablanca after being moved to a fighter squadron in Morocco as an official flight student. He received his wings in January 1922.

He experienced his first major collision a little over a year later. Sub-Lieutenant Saint-Exupéry took off from Le Bourget, south of Paris, in a Hanriot HD.14—an airplane he wasn’t licensed to fly—and spun in from roughly 300 feet, nearly killing his passenger, after getting too slow and steep on climb-out. He was suspended for “his too-lively enthusiasm in attempting all types of planes,” according to the accident report, though it went on to say that he had an early version of the proper stuff: “Made to be a fighter pilot.” This is an excellent flier. Inspired.”

Saint-Ex was in love at the time, and his fiancée’s attitude to the incident was my way or the highway: stop flying or I’ll leave. So Saint-Ex left the French Air Force (though she dumped him months later) and went to work as a bookkeeper, then a mechanic, and finally a traveling salesman for a truck manufacturer.

If Saint-Exupéry had come to write about flogging the French version of Mack trucks, it would have been a stunning loss to the world of letters, but in 1926 he began flying for a living for the first time. Saint-Ex landed a job as a sightseeing-hops pilot and quickly applied for a French airline transport rating, allowing him to transport passengers for rent, thanks to the help of a family acquaintance, this time an air force general.

Carrying passengers, on the other hand, did not appear to have much of a future. Flying was a terrible, chilly, noisy, and dangerous experience for commercial pilots; instead, the greatest potential for commercial pilots turned out to be the airmail lines rising up all over Europe. Compagnie Latécoère, afterwards Latécoère (an airframe designer and builder), and Aéropostale (the Line, which by 1930 would become the world’s most comprehensive airmail business) were France’s most ambitious contenders. Pierre Deley, the organization’s operations director and a veteran fighter pilot and war hero, wrote in his memoirs that Saint-logbook Exupéry’s “wasn’t much more spectacular than that of a hobby flyer.” Saint-Ex only had roughly 300 hours of total time, but his manager saw the same ambition in the Le Bourget accident report and recruited him.

Surprisingly, no one seems to have kept track of how many hours Saint-Ex flew during his career, despite the fact that it was likely a large quantity. When someone asked him how many hours he had spent flying, he said, “I don’t know.” Do you keep track of how many hours you’ve spent in an elevator?”

Saint-Exupéry began his career with the Line as a mechanic, following in the footsteps of all of the company’s pilots. Almost all of them had served in the military, and Deley saw this as a method to trim them down before putting them into a cockpit.

Saint-Ex was not always taken seriously, as he would be throughout his flying career. He was artistic, dreamy, capricious, awkward, and disobedient to laws. He was an aristocracy, after all, and he had to urge his mother to stop writing letters to “Count” Saint-Exupéry at one point.

The more flying hours Saint-Exupéry accumulated, the more relaxed he appeared. It was never obvious if he was brave or a fool, but it was evident that the Line’s mechanics avoided flying with him whenever possible, and that his fellow pilots admired him as a writer, raconteur, companion, and card-trickster…but not as a pilot when they were forced to fly as his passenger.

The Line traveled from Paris to the Mediterranean, then across Africa, eventually reaching all of France’s territories on the continent. Saint-Exupéry became a station chief in Africa while also flying on a regular basis. He was at his most thoughtful in the cockpit, especially at night and on dangerously lengthy flights. After Saint-Ex became a family friend, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote of him, “How is it possible that he kept his attention on the gas consumption while pondering the secrets of the universe?” How can he travel by the stars if they are “the frozen glitter of diamonds” to him?

After becoming part of Saint-writings, Ex’s some of his (and his fellow pilots’) most famous flying exploits took place in Patagonia, a windswept region in southern Argentina known as “the country where the stones fly.” Saint-Exupéry is reported to have issued an order barring pilots from landing at the town of Comodoro Rivadavia when wind speeds surpassed 90 mph—roughly the cruising speed of the older Latécoère-made postal planes—after becoming the region’s operations director. Schiff describes the customary landing technique for an Aéropostale mail plane when the wind was high in her biography: A dozen Argentine soldiers would form two lines, and the pilot would land in the middle, holding the tail up, at cruising speed. While the pilot—often Saint-Ex—taxied into the hangar, where the throttle could finally be delayed, several troops would drag a trolley under the tailskid and others would hook long bamboo poles to pad eyes under each wingtip.

Saint-Ex appeared to be a daring, skillful, but laid-back pilot. He once landed a Latécoère so forcefully that he snapped two of the four metal fuselage longerons, thus breaking the plane’s back. Saint-Ex flew the plane back to Buenos Aires after soliciting the help of a local blacksmith to make a fence-wire repair, by which time a fracture had opened that could be seen from the ground. After he landed, the chief mechanic at BA shouted at him, “You’re sick!” “The fuselage was on the verge of collapsing!”

Regardless of the wind, he flew for hours at a time and always delivered the mail. The concept of “the mail” was precious to him. He once wrote, “What is inside has little relevance.” Everything hinged on the existence of the Line, the system. It was the business of letter writers to use it.

Saint-Exupéry progressed from a Breguet 14—equivalent to the de Havilland DH-4s, in which the first U.S. airmail pilots died by the dozens—through more advanced Latécoère 25s and 26s, and finally the closed-cockpit Laté 28 during his six years as a mail pilot. The 28 appeared tremendously sophisticated to him. “Since the arrival of reliable engines and radiotelegraph, aeropostale has lost much of its allure,” he said. Our engines are now impregnable, and we no longer need to know our course because the direction-finder does everything for us. Flying under these conditions is, frankly, a bureaucrat’s affair.”

Of course, he was speaking as someone who was familiar with the situation of flying in the 1930s in the hinterlands. On a trip to the United States in 1938, he was astounded to see that radio beacons were transmitting signals 24 hours a day, outlining air routes across the country. He flew from Dallas to New York aboard a Douglas DC-3 airliner that flew in IFR from takeoff to touchdown, which was still unheard of in Europe, and he was perplexed that the other passengers thought it was normal. Saint-Ex had once landed an airplane at Washington National Airport without bothering to phone the tower, demonstrating the extent of his own radio-era flying sophistication.

Saint-career Exupéry’s as a commercial pilot came to an end when Aéropostale went bankrupt and became a minor element of what would become Air France. He was employed as a public relations consultant by Air France, although it was mostly to try to turn his by-now significant popularity as a writer into positive spin for the airline. It must have irritated him that his contemporary Charles Lindbergh was actively researching, surveying, and pioneering routes for Pan Am, his own airline.

Adventures of the French Poet Pilot In the Libyan Desert in 1938, Saint-Ex and mechanic-navigator André Prévot crash-landed the Caudron Simoun. (Getty Images/Keystone)

Saint-Ex, for his part, purchased a four-seat, 180-hp Caudron monoplane known as a Simoun—French for sandstorm—that was highly modern and quick for its period, similar to the Messerschmitt Bf-108. It was almost likely a gift from the manufacturer, as Saint-Ex never seemed to have more than two francs in his pocket, and when he did, he spent them on dinner for all of his pals. To win a 150,000-franc reward provided by the French aviation ministry, he chose to utilize the Simoun to set a Paris-to-Saigon record. But he only made it as far as Libya, where he crashed into the ground—fortunately, an immense sand dune—while flying at the plane’s 170-mph cruise speed in bad visibility. Of course, the plane was a total loss.

Three years later, he had bought a second Simoun and was resolved to use it to complete a feat that no other Frenchman had accomplished—flying the length of North and South America. When Saint-Ex scrapped the second Simoun in Guatemala while making a short-field takeoff in classic high-density-altitude conditions, complicated by the fact that the plane had been overloaded with 20-percent-larger Imperial gall, it became irrelevant why the pilot’s nationality mattered or why Montreal fairly constituted a starting point for “the length” of North America.

Adventures of the French Poet Pilot Saint Ex stands next to his Caudron C.630 Simoun, F-ANRY, which is a wreck. Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avions (Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avions)

It was the end of Saint-civil Exupéry’s aviation career, save for one strange flight in which he had to pull strings to be allowed to take part: the transatlantic crossing of a massive Latécoère flying boat, Lieutenant de Vaisseau Paris, a six-engine aerial scow that labored across the Atlantic at a time when Pan Am Boeings and Martins were already routinely circling the globe. Saint-Ex was listed as the plane’s “second pilot,” despite the fact that he never touched the controls. In reality, the plane’s return voyage was the first nonstop commercial aircraft travel from the United States to France.

In pure Saint-Ex flair, the end arrived. He had often predicted and even hoped for his own death in flight, and when he used all of his clout to get himself reassigned to the French squadron for which he had briefly flown before the fall of France in 1940—an experience that inspired one of his few nonfiction works, Flight to Arras—he almost ensured it.

It was insane for a 44-year-old intellectual with half-healed fractures and bent bones to take on a task that would challenge well-trained fighter pilots half his age. Flying a Lockheed F-5B to 30,000 feet in an unpressurized, barely warm plane for hours on end while photo-mapping was exhausting. It was hard for a grumpy old man who had to be carried into his cockpit, much alone neck-swiveling continually to check his six, to do it while constantly watching for Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. Despite this, he embarked on a hard photo-mapping mission over the Mediterranean on July 31, 1944.

Unfortunately, too many legends about Saint-incompetence Ex’s as a pilot in 1944 have survived the centuries. According to his nonpilot biographers, he reportedly flew a test hop in an F-5B without realizing he had only started one engine, which he didn’t notice since the second engine’s prop windmilled. Anyone who has flown a twin with one engine shut down, especially if the prop is unfeathered, knows that this is as unlikely as a racecar driver failing to detect one front wheel is missing.

In 2000, what turned out to be Saint-F-5B Exupéry’s was discovered in the bottom of the Mediterranean, and in April 2004 it was positively recognized. The rusty, corroded, and encrusted aircraft carcass revealed no clear evidence of combat—no bullet holes or flak damage—so the rumors have been circulating ever since.

Adventures of the French Poet Pilot In an F-5B, Saint-Exupéry takes off from a makeshift airfield. Horst Rippert, a German ace, claimed to have shot him down 64 years after the famed Frenchman inexplicably vanished during a photo-mapping mission over the Mediterranean on July 31, 1944. (Museum of Aviation and Space)

Perhaps Saint-Ex, who was known to be miserable and suicidal at the time, put the yoke all the way forward on purpose. Amateur divers believe the plane is in so many parts that it must have crashed into the sea at 500 mph, although the wreckage is scattered out over half a mile, hardly the pattern of a vertical strike.

Perhaps he mishandled the fuel and deprived both engines of power. He was the aeronautical equivalent of those of us who can’t program a DVD player by 1944, so it’s possible.

He may have drained his oxygen supply and passed out as a result. Not surprising, given that Saint-Ex was known for turning on his oxygen before takeoff so he wouldn’t have to remember to do it later during climb-out, and he used twice as much oxygen as the rest of the squadron.

Alternatively, according to Occam’s Razor, the simplest and most obvious solution is correct: he was shot down by a German fighter. There was no one in the cockpit to testify, and Luftwaffe records indicate no Lightning being shot down over the Mediterranean on that day, but military records on the losing side during the final days of a war are always a shambles. Horst Rippert, a German ace who is now 88, recently claimed that he was the inadvertent killer, despite the fact that his narrative is impossible to verify. Rippert remarked, “If I had known it was him, I would never have fired.” He had admired the Frenchman’s work since he was a child. Rippert claimed to have intercepted a P-38 in the location where the wreckage of the Saint-Exupéry was discovered, flying so slowly that the pilot appeared to be begging to be sent. Rippert recalled, “He was looking around.” “My presence didn’t annoy him.”

Whatever caused it, the resulting plummet into the sea brought an end to one of the twentieth century’s most amazing, skilled, important, and complex aviators.

 

Stephan Wilkinson, a frequent contributor, has flown nearly 120 different types of planes, from Stearmans to B-17s, as well as his own Sequoia Falco F.8L two-seater. He suggests Stacy Schiff’s Saint-Exupéry for further reading.

Originally published in Aviation History’s September 2008 issue. To subscribe, go to this link. 

I had seen a few books about the life of French poet and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery when I started my thesis research on aviation and the arts. I wanted to find a book about the man that would give me a better understanding of his life. I found a book called The Eternal Quest by historian and journalist Fred H. Cauthen. I ordered it from a local book store and waited for it to arrive. I was excited to find this new book about Saint-Exupery and I couldn’t wait to read it.. Read more about antoine de saint-exupéry death and let us know what you think.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was a French writer, poet, and pioneering aviator. He is best known for his novella The Little Prince and the novel The Wind, Sand and Stars."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"Did Antoine de Saint Exupery kill himself?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":"

Antoine de Saint Exupery did not kill himself."}}]}

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is the pilot in the Little Prince?

The pilot in the Little Prince is a character who has been forgotten by time.

What happened to Antoine de Saint Exupéry?

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was a French writer, poet, and pioneering aviator. He is best known for his novella The Little Prince and the novel The Wind, Sand and Stars.

Did Antoine de Saint Exupery kill himself?

Antoine de Saint Exupery did not kill himself.

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