Nowadays, most of us may think about aviation as an innovative but strict engineering domain that is more about building marvels of engineering or flying a modern airplane with the help of GPS and autopilots rather than an adventurous journey around the globe. However, this is not always the case. Let’s take a look at one of the most courageous pilots that defined one of the most impressive airlines at the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, we have all heard about or even flown Air France at some point, but did you know this company was formed in 1933 after the merging of Aeropostale, The French-Romanian Company for Air Transport, Société Générale des Transports Aériens, Air Orient, and Air Union. In today’s article, we will focus on Aeropostale (formally known as Compagnie generale Aeropostale).
Initially known as Société des lignes Latécoère, it was founded in 1918 by Pierre-Georges Latecoere who envisioned an air route connecting France and French colonies in Africa and South America. Aeropostale has evolved from its origins in airmail services to become a major player in the aviation industry. With a commitment to reliability, efficiency, and innovation, Aeropostale has expanded its fleet and services, connecting people and businesses across the globe.
In the next decade, Aeropostale would not only contribute to the establishment of air transportation as a vital service across various regions worldwide, but also become synonymous with the spirit of adventure and fearlessness. The narrative of Aerópostale stands out as arguably the final grand epic of the exploration era. On December 25th, 1918, the company began serving its first route between Toulouse in the south of France and over the Pyrenees to Barcelona. A few months later, in February 1919 the line was extended to Casablanca as the route followed Spain’s Mediterranean coast to Alicante. After a cross to North Africa, which at the time was under Spanish and French rule, the line continued south along Morocco’s Atlantic coast, with several waypoints along the way: Casablanca, Agadir, Cape Juby/Tarfaya and the present-day cities of Dakhla, Nouadhibou and Saint-Louis and by 1925 the line was extended to Dakar, where the mail was transferred to ships and shipped across the Atlantic to South America in Brazil.
From Brazil, Latin American branch of the company took over and the planes flew the mail to Buenos Aires and further across the Andes to Santiago de Chile, Paraguay or Patagonia.
Nevertheless, what made the airline succeed was its pilots. The airline brought together some of the most skilled, brave, and adventurous pilots of the time such as Jean Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Marcel Reine, Emile Lecrivain, Pierre Deley, Henri Larrieu and Raymond Vanier. Based on his adventures, Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote “Vol de Nuit” (“Night Flight”) in which he describes a postal flight through the skies of South America. In 1932, the story of this book was adapted for film by John Ford in the movie “Air Mail”.
The towering peaks of the Andes, reaching heights of 20,000 feet, posed a formidable challenge for the delicate aircraft of that era. In a segment of the book, Saint-Exupéry recounts the harrowing experience of his fellow Aéropostale companion, Henri Guillaumet. Following the crash of his plane on an Andean glacier, Guillaumet embarked on an epic journey through snow and ice, spending several days in a relentless struggle. Against the odds, he succeeded in reaching a remote Argentinian settlement just as he teetered on the edge of succumbing to the combined challenges of cold and exhaustion.
But the Andes were not the only dangerous place on the route. Saint-Exupery wrote about his own experience flying in the Sahara Desert in the book “Wind, Sand and Stars”. Pilots had to rely on primitive navigation and there was often the risk of running out of fuel or experiencing technical difficulties. Pilots making emergency landings in the desert risked being captured by local nomadic tribes who would then attempt to ransom them. Saint-Exupery tells a story about his survival after crash-landing in the Egyptian desert. He and his co-pilot went through a tough journey in the desert where they almost died due to dehydration. Thankfully, they were saved by a Bedouin tribesman just in time.
Mermoz, Saint-Exupery and Guillaumet went down doing the thing that made them happy. All died while flying, the latter two disappearing while on duty in the Mediterranean during WW II in 1944 and 1940 respectively. Saint-Exupery aircraft wreck was found and positively identified in 2003 near Marseilles. Mermoz on the other hand was lost in December 1936, when he was crossing the South Atlantic.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Didier Daurat et Jean Mermoz
By 1930, Aeropostale transformed into a giant logistic operation, transporting 32 million letters per year over 17000 kilometers of air and sea routes that straddled three continents. During that very year, Jean Mermoz, successfully crossed the Atlantic while piloting a Latécoère 28 seaplane carrying 122 kilograms of mail. Mermoz accomplished the flight in an impressive 19 hours and 35 minutes, going from Senegal to Brazil. While traditional ocean crossings persisted by ship, Mermoz demonstrated the potential for a letter from France to reach Santiago de Chile in just four days.
Air France, a legacy of Aeropostale
That was one of the last moments of shining in the history of the company, because on the prior year -1929- the financial crisis severely impacted the firm, and political instability in Brazil and Argentina also added to the woes. In 1931, the French government denied an appeal for financial help, and Aéropostale was liquidated soon after. In the end, the airline was integrated into Air France and continues to live today through it.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dans son avion PHOTO : Getty Images / Archive Hulto
The postal service was retained by Air France, which used it for some of its mail and cargo activities and operated together with French postal service (La Poste) until 2000. Later, La Poste got the full ownership of the business, which was rebranded as Europe Airpost and then was sold to ASL Airlines which operates even today. Even in Argentina the airline continues to operate under Aerolineas Argentinas. Since 2008, a long distance air rally – Raid Latecoere – Aeropostale, has regularly retraced the old Aeropostale routes throughout Africa and Latin America.