Most people on the planet have read or at least heard of the philosophical tale “The Little Prince”. This beloved book is ranked the world’s second most translated book after the Holy Bible. What many people don’t know is that the author of the book, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was also an accomplished and adventurous aviator. Who exactly is the great pilot behind one of mankind’s deepest and iconic masterpieces? Let’s find out!
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born to an aristocratic family in 1900 in Lyon, France. His father passed away when he was very young, forcing his widowed mother and his siblings to move to a relative’s chateau to keep a roof over their heads. His mother was Viscountess and painter Marie de Fonscolombe, with whom Antoine was very close. She gave him an excellent education, based on values that would influence him in later years as a person and as a writer. These values included, sensitivity, search for meaning, honesty and respect of others regardless of social classes. Marie was indeed a great humanist and created a military hospital where she was named head nurse during the First World War. Saint-Exupéry was also very close to his younger brother François who passed away at age 15 from a heart inflammation. Saint-Exupéry was beside his brother’s bed when he passed away and later wrote that François remained motionless for an instant and fell as gently as a young tree falls. The tragic epilogue of his younger brother’s life would later be figuratively reproduced in a classic scene of The Little Prince.
During his childhood, Antoine developed a passion for aviation and airplanes and spent many days at a nearby airfield, speaking to pilots and aircraft mechanics and occasionally enjoying a local flight with one of them. Saint-Exupéry’s passion for flying would follow him through the years as he grew. At age 21, he joined the French army as a mechanic. During his free time, he took flying lessons in a local civil leisure aeroclub. After only one year with the French army, he was offered a transfer to the French Air Force where he would be based and trained in Casablanca.
Saint-Exupéry left the French Air Force prematurely following his engagement to a young woman. His first love story turned out to be short-lived and he was soon single and back in the air, this time as a mail pilot flying for the Aéropostale based in Toulouse. His work consisted in developing airmail routes between France and North Africa. At about the same time, he started to write about his adventures and published his first book called “The Aviator”. As he spent more time in North Africa and in the Sahara, Saint-Exupéry developed a passion for the desert, as well as for the dangers young pilots faced while developing route networks and flying by night over the immensity of the Sahara Desert in those early days of aviation. His first widely acclaimed book “Night flight” relates the story of a pilot who needs to fight against the elements in a desperate attempt to survive the night, while carrying mail towards South America. The book established Saint-Exupéry as a rising star in the literary world.
Saint-Exupéry’s love for adventure and the desert led him to accept the job of director of an airfield in Western Sahara. One day, while attempting to break an airspeed record, his plane crashed in the middle of the Sahara. Surviving the crash, he and his copilot were faced with the even bigger challenge of surviving in the desert with only a few oranges and a bit of wine. After wandering the desert for days and nearly dying from dehydration and overheat, the two were miraculously saved by a local Bedouin from a nomadic tribe. This event would later appear in several of his books and is also the starting point of “The Little Prince”, where an aviator crashes in the desert and meets a little prince from another planet.
As Saint-Exupéry’s novels were published, they soon gained national and international recognition. Wind, Sand and Stars won the Grand-Prize for Novel writing from the Académie Française and the National Award in the United States. However, neither his growing literary success nor the disabilities resulting from several crashes could tear him away from his love of flying. When World War II began in 1939, Saint-Exupéry was in the process of recovering from severe injuries he had received in an aircraft crash in Guatemala during the previous year. After applying to the French Air Force, he was accepted but soon had to flee following the collapse of France brought on by the invasion of German Nazi forces. Saint-Exupéry went to the United States, where he spent a lot of time using his notoriety to lobby for the liberation of France from German occupation. During his time in the United States, he wrote the philosophical tale “The Little Prince”, in which a pilot crashes in the desert and meets a little prince fallen to Earth from an Asteroid. Little did he know back then that his book would become one of the greatest books of the 20th Century, published in over 300 different languages.
In 1943, Saint-Exupéry was desperate to return to Europe and fight for the liberation of his country. However, due to the numerous plane crashes he experienced, Saint-Exupéry had many injuries that prevented him from turning his head to the left or even from simply dressing without assistance. Despite his numerous handicaps, he was a figure of international renown so his application to the French Air Force was approved. On July 31, 1944, in preparation for operation Dragoon, Saint-Exupéry was sent in an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft from Corsica to the occupied area of Grenoble in France, where he was tasked with taking spy photographs of the German facilities and German troop movements in the Rhone Valley. He never came back. Although there was no evidence of Saint-Exupéry being shot or crashed, he was declared missing in action.
His disappearance remained a mystery until 1998, when a French fisherman found Saint-Exupéry’s identity bracelet in the Mediterranean Sea near Marseille. In 2000, a scuba diver exploring the Mediterranean Sea found the wreckage of Saint-Exupéry’s plane, although no report of an airplane being shot down in that area on that day was ever found.
“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.” – The Little Prince “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” – Airman’s Odyssey “The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves but in our attitude toward them.” – Wisdom of the Sands “It is not a question of living dangerously. That formula is too arrogant, too presumptuous. I don’t care much for bullfighters. It’s not the danger I love. I know what I love. It is life itself.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry biography on www.biography.com
La biographie de Saint-Exupéry on www.futura-sciences.com
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