Mermoz was one of the most celebrated pilots of his time, handsome and dashing, making a career out of adventure. His encounter with harsh desert conditions, especially during a forced landing, stood him in good stead through life.
In 1992, a poll was conducted to determine the greatest aviator of France. The daredevil pilot Jean Mermoz emerged the winner. Mermoz was one of the most celebrated pilots of his time, handsome and dashing, making a career out of adventure. He was a French cultural icon and Commander of the Legion of Honour. The US press called him “France’s Lindbergh”. Born on December 9, 1901, at Aubenton, Aisne, he was considered a hero by many in his own country as well as in South America. He was especially revered in Argentina because he put that country firmly on the international aviation map, despite enormous odds.
At the age of 19, Mermoz signed up with the French Air Force, but obtained his pilot’s licence only on his third attempt. In 1922, he left for Syria where he flew 600 hours in 18 months. His encounter with harsh desert conditions, especially during a forced landing, stood him in good stead through life. In 1924, he returned to France and was demobilised. For some months he was unable to find employment with any airline, and had to be content with odd jobs. Then he joined Lignes Aeriennes Latécoère and was fired with the goal of its founder and aircraft designer, Pierre Latécoère, to create an airmail line linking Europe with Africa and South America. The first Latécoère airmail routes connected Toulouse to Barcelona, Casablanca, and Dakar. In 1926, Mermoz was assigned to ferry the mail on the Casablanca to Dakar route. On one occasion he had engine trouble over the Mauritanian desert and had to make an emergency landing. He was captured by nomadic Moors and held prisoner until a ransom was paid, a common practice and one of the many hazards of the job. Mermoz was lucky; five other pilots were killed by their captors.
In 1928, he switched to the South American route and became Aéropostale’s Chief Pilot. He made the first air crossing of some 3,000 km over the South Atlantic Ocean, from Dakar to Natal, in a commercial seaplane. He also made the first South American night flight from Natal (Brazil) to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. It was a rugged route, unmarked by any kind of beacon. But after he showed it could be done, mail delivery was no longer restricted to daylight-only operations. In 1929, he became the first pilot to fly from Paris to the Pacific Ocean, finally landing in Santiago, Chile. The next year he had to ditch at sea. He, his two companions, and the mailbags were rescued, but their plane sank during an attempt to tow it.
Mermoz also undertook to shorten the Argentina-Chile mail route where pilots had to make a 1,600 km detour to skirt the towering Andes. Taking a mechanic with him, Mermoz set out in a Latécoère 25 monoplane. He rode an updraft that carried the plane through a high mountain pass, but then a downdraft slammed the aircraft onto a plateau at 12,000 feet. Though the small machine suffered only mild damage and was still airworthy, there wasn’t enough take-off run available on the plateau. Mermoz cleared a rough path to the edge of the precipice and they removed whatever they could from the aircraft. They strapped themselves in and Mermoz just rolled off the mountain hoping to gain enough flying speed before hitting the ground. They succeeded; otherwise it would have been certain death. But the route had been proved viable. With the induction of the Potez 25 biplane that had a much higher ceiling than the Latécoère 25, Mermoz and his companions opened a scheduled route between Buenos Aires and Santiago. In 1933, Mermoz was appointed General Inspector by Air France. The same year, he arrived in Argentina, where he flew many dangerous flights for a new air company that later become Aerolíneas Argentinas. He quickly became one of the most important figures of Argentinean commercial aviation. But for how long could death be cheated?