SP Guide Publications puts forth a well compiled articulation of issues, pursuits and accomplishments of the Indian Army, over the years

— General Manoj Pande, Indian Army Chief

I am confident that SP Guide Publications would continue to inform, inspire and influence.

— Admiral R. Hari Kumar, Indian Navy Chief

My compliments to SP Guide Publications for informative and credible reportage on contemporary aerospace issues over the past six decades.

— Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, Indian Air Force Chief

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944)

Saint-Exupéry’s fantasy novella The Little Prince features a pilot stranded in the desert, who meets a celestial visitor – a young prince fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid

Issue: 10-2022By Joseph Noronha

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was an internationally acclaimed French writer and poet. Winner of several of France’s highest literary awards, he is best remembered for his fantasy novella The Little Prince. He was one of the great pioneers of aviation and was practically obsessed with flying. And he used his remarkable flying experiences as the basis of some inspired aviation writings, including Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon, France, on June 29, 1900. He began his military service in 1921 as a soldier in the French Army. Following private flying lessons, he secured a transfer to the French Air Force. He was posted to the 37th Fighter Regiment in Casablanca, Morocco, where he went solo for the first time in a Sopwith triplane. Early in 1923 he suffered a skull fracture in an aircraft crash, the first of many. After taking up a civilian ground job for some time, by 1926, he was flying again as one of the pioneers of the international postal service, Aéropostale, and its subsidiary, Aeroposta Argentina. Here is where the intrepid Saint-Exupéry was in his element. The Breguet 14 he flew was a rather frail aircraft with a wooden propeller and an open cockpit. It was practically bereft of instruments which made flying in foul weather dangerous and demanding. Maps were crude and it was easy to get lost in heavy rain or fog, or even in the dark. Whenever he was on one of his postal flights through the skies of South America his would probably have been the only plane in the sky for hundreds of kilometres. In Night Flight, he eloquently describes the agony and the ecstasy of this airborne solitude.

For much of his 20-year flying career, Saint-Exupéry was at the mercy of sandstorms, snow, and turbulence, and these often became the inspiration for vivid and gripping descriptions of flight. On one memorable occasion, Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic-navigator were participating in the Paris-to-Saigon air race with a prize of 1,50,000 francs. During the night of December 30, 1935, they crashed in the Libyan desert. Although both miraculously survived the accident they had no idea where they were. All around them were sand dunes as far as the eye could see. They had pitifully meagre supplies of food and just a day’s requirement of fluids. These were soon expended. The intense desert heat meant that death due to rapid dehydration was only a question of time. By the third day, they were so dehydrated that they stopped sweating and were afflicted by vivid hallucinations. It was only on the fourth day that a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and was able to save their lives using a native rehydration treatment. This dramatic experience was the basis of Saint-Exupéry’s 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars. And then there’s The Little Prince. Although not directly about flying, the story features a pilot stranded in the desert, who meets a celestial visitor – a young prince fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid. It is one of the bestselling books in publishing history with some 200 million copies sold. In April 2017, it became the most translated workever, excluding religious texts.

In April 1943, with the Second World War raging, Saint-Exupéry joined the Free French Air Force as a reconnaissance pilot with a squadron based in the Mediterranean. He was 43, well above the age limit for such service, and in poor health due to numerous crashes. He suffered from intense pain. He could not dress himself in his flight suit, enter or leave the cockpit without assistance, or even turn his head to the left to scan for enemy aircraft. He was permitted to fly only after numerous petitions for an exemption that had finally been granted. During his second sortie in a Lockheed F-5B (a specially configured P-38 reconnaissance variant) he crashed. But he was soon back in action.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” Indeed, it is hard to think of another author who so eloquently portrayed the marvel of flight. He never lost the urge to fly despite numerous serious crashes. At some time, he may have prayed to continue flying till his dying day, and his prayer was heard. On the night of July 31, 1944, he took off from Corsica on a mission to collect data on German troop movements in the Rhone River Valley, France. He was never seen again. Initially it was believed that he had been shot down but there was no evidence to support the theory. The wreckage of his P-38 was found only in 2000 in the ocean off Marseille, France, with investigators concluding that the most likely cause of the crash was technical failure.