A new museum in Toulouse traces the city’s aviation history

This text is part of the special book Plaisirs

A new museum dedicated to the history of aviation in the pink city, reproduces the incredible epic of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his other airmail pilots. They wrote just a century ago, from Toulouse, one of the most inspiring pages in the great book on human adventure.

On December 25, 1918, Pierre-Georges Latécoère took off from Toulouse-Montaudran airfield aboard a Salmson 2A2 and landed safely in Barcelona two and a half hours later. He has thus just created the first French airmail line. Having built more than 800 military aircraft in Toulouse during World War I, he now has the desire to create a commercial airline. Latécoère believes that the fruit is ripe to develop lines that will connect France with its colonies. Thus, he wants to connect Toulouse with Dakar, via Barcelona and Casablanca. This is unheard of. Navigation techniques are still rudimentary and the risks are enormous. But the pilots he approaches, ruthless and daring, are ready to risk their lives to bring goods and precious letters to safety.

These pioneers fly over seas and deserts, avoid mountains and lightning, face storms and headwinds, and they will forever impress the collective imagination with their courage and virtuosity. The most famous of them have found their way to the history books: Jean Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet, as well as the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

He immortalized this epic in novels that are still widely read today: Courier South, night flight, Terre des hommes and Pilot of War. All his work draws his inspiration from this heroic profession, which he practiced until his death, and which will make Umberto Eco say that it is now difficult to know, “whether he stole to write, or whether he wrote to steal”.

The author-aviator

Saint-Exupéry, fascinated by aircraft since childhood, learned to fly one at the age of 21, during his military service in 1921. Intoxicated by speed and danger, he joined the Compagnie Générale d’Air in 1926. airline, led by Latécoère . He will be a regular pilot on the Toulouse-Casablanca-Dakar route. The following year, in 1927, Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont bought the company, which he renamed the Compagnie Générale Aéropostale. It was then that Saint-Exupéry was appointed head of the airport at Cap Juby in Morocco (today Tarfaya), a strategic stage on the line connecting Casablanca with Dakar.

He lived there for two years in an isolated fort located between the desert and the sea, near a runway where the company’s planes landed once a week. He is responsible for rescuing pilots who have been lost in the vastness of the desert and negotiating with Berber leaders for the release of those who have been taken hostage. He thus makes dangerous landings in the middle of the dunes to save comrades, comes under fire from rebel tribes, which he flies over in search of a lost plane, and rescues several pilots from their clutches.

This stay in the Moroccan desert leaves him a lot of free time, which he fills by writing his first novel, Courier South, who will be very inspired by his experiences there. Legend has it that it was this period spent in the Sahara that also inspired large parts of his narrative. The little Prince, the most read, translated, and best-selling book in the world after the Bible. Thus, years later, the fennec fox he saw tamed would become the character of the fox that would pronounce one of the most famous lines in French literature: “One sees only the good with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye. »

Saint-Exupéry will continue to explore new territories for years to come. He will run life-threatening situations in Argentina, Brazil, France and Indochina. The author celebrated almost everywhere on the planet from the publication of his first novel in 1929, he nevertheless never lost his passion for aviation and his burning desire to fly.

The Writer-Soldier wanted more than anything else to serve his country during World War II, and on May 5, 1943, the Writer-Soldier joined Laghouat, Algeria, an Allied aerial-photographic reconnaissance group under American command. The devices they use, Lockheed Lightning P38s, fly at 650 km / h and climb to altitudes of more than 13,000 meters. The introduced rule stipulates that they can only be piloted by pilots under 30 years of age.

As a 42-year-old, Saint-Exupéry, stubborn as a mule, still managed, aided by his fame, to obtain an exemption. After more than a year of military flights performed with brio, he took his place on July 31, 1944 in his aircraft number 223. He took off at. 8.35 from the Borgo base in Corsica for a reconnaissance mission over the Grenoble and Annecy region, to prepare for the landing in Provence. He will never come back. His plane will crash into the Mediterranean. It will not be found until 60 years later, in 2004, off the coast of Marseilles.

Toulouse and Saint-Exupéry

The author’s shadow Little prince threatens everywhere in Toulouse, the starting point for all the pilots who participated in this incredible epic that was airmail. The headquarters of these discoverers of XXe century still exists and is located at 8-10, rue Romiguières.

It is in this old red-brick guest house, which has since been converted into a hotel, that the pilots and mechanics lived, who had to travel to the four corners of the world to carry out their mission: to deliver the mail. Saint-Exupéry was still staying in room number 32, which is located at 3e floor, the balcony of which is easily visible from the outside, and which offers a magnificent view of the Place du Capitole, the city’s largest. Although the room has been completely renovated since his visit – only the sink and front door are original – it remains particularly popular with the author’s admirers.

A new museum dedicated to the city’s aviation history, L’Envol des pioneers, opened its doors two years ago. Located on the site of the long runways from which the first flights of the Latécoère company took off, this interactive museum tells the story of civil aviation, airmail, Air France as well as Airbus.

You will thus understand how the friendly pink city in a few decades has become the European capital of aviation and aerospace, and transfers to a new generation dreams of exploring and surpassing itself.

The author was a guest of Atout France and the Occitanie Regional Tourism Committee.

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