Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Disappeared by Ian Crofton

We all like a mystery and when the mystery is a real one it is somewhat even more exciting. The only thing is, you don't get an answer in the end. This is a book I found at the Book Festival last week. It tells the stories of 35 historical disappearances from the Mary Celeste to Lord Lucan. Some of the stories I was familiar with, but most of them I had not heard about before. The more familiar ones are; The Princes in the Tower, Mary Celeste, Agatha Christie (although she did return), Amelia Earhart and Raoul Wallenberg. The stories concern armies disappearing, lost people in wars and dictatorships, air planes disappearing, explorers and so forth.

I have chosen one of the stories about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who disappeared during a flight in 1944. He is also a writer so I think it is appropriate.

Saint-Ex, as he was called by his friends, was a writer, poet, philosopher and pioneering aviator. He actually disappeared twice, but returned the first time. It was in 1935 that he opted for a record-breaking time to fly from Paris to Saigon, together with his mechanic André Prévot. However, they crashed in the Libyan Desert and did hardly make it. Saint-Ex said afterwords; "they had nothing to sustain them but grapes, an orange and some wine, which ran out after a day. It was four days before they were found by a Bedouin, by which time they were hallucinating and so dehydrated they could not even sweat."

He was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of aviation, probably because he had the means to transfer his experiences into highly poetic and often philosophical works; Courrier-Sud (1929), Vol de nuit (1931), Terre des hommes (1939) and Pilote de guerre (1942). His most famous work however would be Le Petit Prince (1943; The Little Prince) a children's fable for adults about an aviator stranded in the Sahara. He comes across a young prince from outer space. The book is a meditation on what is important in life, giving a perspective which is often lost to adults. 'It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.'

Saint-Ex was born in Lyon in 1900 of an impoverished aristocratic family. He failed at school and an entrance exam for the Navy. He was searching for a purpose in life and he found it with flying. He went into the Air Force instead and obtained his pilot license. He wrote to his mother: 'Maman, I adore this métier. You cannot imagine the calm, the solitude, one finds at twelve thousand feet alone with one's engine.'

He continued in the aviation business and went from France to South America, Spain and Algiers. The World War II saw him in action again. He was older and not so fit anymore, but still had an urge for flying. He had several incidents and made mistakes and for or a while he was forbidden to pilot a plane. But he was once more put into action and was allowed five missions. When he set off for his final mission he had already reach his permitted missions. But maybe nobody was counting or they needed people.

On 31 July 1944, at 8.45 in the morning he took off from a base near Bastia in Corsica. It was a perfect summer's day and he set out for the coast of occupied France. He was expected to head north, once over French territory, to track German troop movements. Just under half an hour after take-off, he was detected by radar when he crossed the French coast. The radar should have picked him up again at mid-day on his return, however, nothing showed. By 14.30 his fuel would have run out, and at 15.30 the interrogation officer filled out the card: 'PILOT DID NOT RETURN AND IS PRESUMED LOST...NO PICTURES.'

As in cases like this, the conspiracy theories start popping up. Maybe he had made it to Switzerland? Maybe he is sheltering with the Resistance? Maybe he had gone over to Vichy? Maybe the plane was sabotaged? Many years later a fisherman found a silver chain bracelet from the sea south of Marseille. On it was engraved the name of his wife, Consuelo. Two years later, in the same area, divers found a Lightning P-38, and in 2004 it was positively identified as Saint-Ex's plane. There was no sign that the plane had been hit by enemy fire.

We will never know exactly what happened. Maybe it was a technical failure, maybe an element of pilot error. He had at the time had symptoms of increasing alienation from what he saw of the new mechanised world, deriving from growing pessimism and frequent moods of despair.  Where he earlier loved the machines and the mechanic of things he now felt more of a slave to new, more developed machines. Some time before his death he wrote to General Chambe:

There is but one problem, one sole problem for the world - how to give men back a spiritual significance ... Man today no longer has significance.

Having read several disappearances of aviators in this book (Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), I notice they all have something in common. The love of the aircraft and the freedom of the air. In the youth of flying it was much more a 'closer to nature' thing than it is today. I am sure that none of these people would enjoy the piloting of today with all the gauges to go with it. These were men and women of the free spirit.

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