The Aeroposta pioneers : industrials y pilotes

The Aeroposta pioneers : industrials y pilotes

Without the stubbornness of two industrials, without the courage and heroism of the first pilots, Aeroposta would have never managed to cover these routes, to join South America, or to cross the Andean mountain range. Many of these pioneers lost their lives trying to achieve one of the most beautiful human adventures, the majority of them remained anonymous, and others were turned into legends.

Pierre-Georges LATÉCOÈRE, the industrial visionary

At the age of 22, after the death of his father, the student Pierre-Georges Latécoère had to take over his father’s company. There he was immersed in manufacturing coaches for the railway that was expanding quickly. France called him for the military service in 1914 but he was soon demobilized; however, he had enough time to realize that his Montaudran factory, near Toulouse, could manufacture parts for military guns and vehicles for France in war times. In 1917, the aircraft manufacturer Salmson entrusted him with manufacturing 600 attack biplanes.

After the armistice, Latécoère came up with an idea: to turn war planes into commercial planes. Then he had another one: to create a mail airline that could get to South America. In those times, no plane could fly farther than 400 kilometers… “I made my calculations again and they confirm the specialists’ opinion… my idea is unattainable. I just have one thing to do: carry it out!” He started the tests with his friend Beppo de Massimi, a former pilot officer. For Christmas 1918, he crossed the Pyrenees mountain range up to Toulouse and created his Latécoère Airline. In March 1919, he got up to Rabat, in Morocco, an achievement that ensured him to win the French governor’s support. Despite his steadiness, Latécoère knew how to get connected: he hired Didier Daurat and excellent pilots such as Meroz, Guillaumet, Saint-Exupéry…

His story gets intermingled with that of the Aeroposta up to 1927 when, due to financial difficulties, he had to give away his airline to Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont. He continued manufacturing planes for the airline and seaplanes until he died in 1943. The Latécoère group still exists nowadays and they manufacture spare parts for plane builders.


Marcel BOUILLOUX-LAFONT, a providential businessman

Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont, French from Brazil, was a daring businessman, well-known in South America where he had businesses in public works, the railway, the bank… At the beginning, he was reluctant to Latécoère’s project that would do anything to get the government’s funds and support so that he could extend the mail airline up to South America.

For patriotism, Bouilloux-Lafont decided to prevent Latécoère from going bankrupt and in 1927 he bought his company that would then be called Compañía General Aeropostal. His participation in public works permitted the fast the construction of airdromes. After 1929 crisis, Bouilloux-Lafont could not save his own company, and the French government and Parliament denied any kind of help whatsoever. He died in 1944 broken in his room at Hotel de Río.


Didier DAURAT, the spirit of the airline

Didier Daurat was 25 years old when Latécoère made him come from Málaga, where he managed the air force base. He was a veteran from the First World War, an experienced pilot, and had as a mission to launch the Toulouse-Casablanca regular route, a project in which nobody believed. In order to launch such a route, it was necessary to take deadly risks on inappropriate war planes. Daurat then imposed a method that later would make him legendary, the method of a hard, inflexible man that had no contemplations whatsoever. The pilots that failed were discharged, the worried wives were not heard. The very strict regulations were based on punctuality, severity, and total adhesion to the project. The mail had to arrive whatever the cost. The beginner pilots had to start with the used oil at the repair shop, to assemble and disassemble engines, to clean the materials, to learn to know the machines by heart. Even the one called Mermoz, who had already made some achievements.

As an admired or hated boss, Daurat imposed the project: firstly, the Toulouse-Casablanca route, then the expansion up to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. Implementing this method, Aeroposta not only worked but also became a punctual and trustworthy service. The price: in twelve years from Toulouse to Santiago, 121 men lost their lives. Didier Daurat died in 1969 and was granted the privilege of being buried in the Toulouse-Montaudran airdrome, former Aeroposta base.

Saint-Exupéry was inspired by Daurat to create his character Rivière, in Night Flight: “Rivière thought that the regulations resembled the religious rites that seemed to be absurd but eventually they modeled men. Rivière considered it was the same to be fair or unfair. […] He considered the man to be like virgin wax that needed to be molded. That matter needed a soul, it needed a will. He did not think of making them slaves harshly but of throwing them out of themselves.” 


Henri GUILLAUMET, the ace of the aces

He was “the best pilot”, and author of many achievements. Guillaumet was modest, not as bright as his partner Mermoz but featured perfectly well the spirit of companionship. When he was 6 years old, Henri Guillaumet fell in love with the planes while he was helping in a take-off. He made his maiden flight when he was 16 years old, he learned how to fly and got his degree in 1921 at the age of 19. He joined the air force where he met Mermoz. In 1926, he joined Latécoère Airline, made his training course at the repair shops and then took mail to Spain. As he was careful and trustworthy, Daurat entrusted him with the first Dakar flights. And then, he was in charge of the South American mail in the most difficult route: Mendoza-Santiago de Chile.

In 1930, Guillaumet left for Chile despite the awful weather conditions. He was struck by the storm over the Andean mountain range, he made an emergency landing near the laguna Diamante, 3.250 meters high, in the region of Mendoza. He was trapped in the plane for days in a big snow storm. He walked for five days, was exhausted and with his limbs frozen but was eventually rescued by a child: José García. When Saint-Exupéry went to get his friend, he told the following words that would then become famous: “I swear that what I had done no beast could have done it.” As he was cured by a miracle, he would then be called “The angel of the mountain range”. The writer retold such episode in Land of men.

After purchasing Aeroposta, Henri Guillaumet became a pilot for Air France, and set several records. On November 27, 1940, he was in charge of a dangerous mission in the middle of the war: to take the Ambassador Jean Chiappe to Beirut. His plane was brought down over the Mediterranean by an Italian hunt plane.


Jean MERMOZ, the Archangel

In 1920, 18-year-old Jean Mermoz joined the French army and chose the air force. He was sent to Syria and had the opportunity to discover the desert and to make flight hours. He was demobilized in 1924, tried to find a job in the air sector and received a proposal from Didier Daurat for Latécoère Airline. He was impulsive and crazy head, however, he had to start as anybody else as a repairman at the repair shop.

But soon he had the opportunity to show his talent in the incipient Aeroposta: Toulouse-Barcelona, then Barcelona-Málaga, Casablanca, Dakar. Afterwards, in 1927, the first non-stop flight Toulouse-Saint Louis de Senegal with Négrin. On that same year, Marcel Bouilloux-Lafont, who had bought the company, sent him for a surveillance flight to Rio de Janeiro, then to Buenos Aires to develop the mail up to South America.

Mermoz was one of the most important character in the airline, he participated in all the experimental flights. In 1930, he added another achievement to his list when he crossed the South Atlantic, between Saint Louis de Senegal and Natal onboard a Late 28. Nothing could stop Mermoz, not even having been kidnapped in the African desert nor having had to make emergency landings in the middle of the mountain range from which very few people could have survived. The so-called Archangel disappeared for good over the Atlantic on December 7, 1936 onboard La Cruz del Sur, just two days before his 35th birthday. At Aeroparque, Buenos Aires airport, there is a monument paying tribute to him, and the French-Argentine Lyceum was named after him. 


Antoine de SAINT-EXUPERY, the memory of the airline

During his holidays in 1912, 12-year-old Antoine de Saint-Exupéry discovered the planes at the Ambérieu-en-Bugey Airdrome near his house. He pretended to have got his mother’s authorization and managed to go on his maiden flight. There, his passion was born. He was recruited in 1921 and fulfilled his military service in Strasberg Air Force where he learned how to fly.

Saint-Exupéry’s first work published in 1926 was called The Aviator. On that same year, Didier Daurat called him for Toulouse-Montaudran air force base to work for Latécoère Airline. He made mail flights between Toulouse-Casablanca and Casablanca-Dakar before he was promoted to Local Boss at Juby Cape in Morocco for the route between Toulouse and Dakar.

He developed his diplomatic virtues with the Moroccan tribes that used to take as hostage any pilot who ended up in the desert. He wrote Southern Mail in his lonely nights inspired by his own experiences through the main character, a pilot called Bernis. In 1929, he joined Mermoz and Guillaumet in Buenos Aires, South America, where he was appointed director of Aeroposta Argentina. He created the Patagonia route between Comodoro Rivadavia and Punta Arenas, the most Southern airline that took the Argentine Southern region out of its isolation. This experience inspired him to write Night Flight.

After the purchase of Aeroposta, he was left out of Air France that, however, entrusted him with some missions: a 11,000-kilometer air raid over the Mediterranean, another one between Paris and Saigón during which he crashed in the Libyan desert with his partner Prévot, and another one between New York and Tierra del Fuego where the same pilots were hurt in Guatemala. He left France in 1941 because it was occupied and went into exile to New York.

After Land of men, he published War pilot, and finally The Little Prince. In 1943, he joined the allied forces in Northern Africa. On July 31, 1944, he left for Corsica on a surveillance flight on the eve of the allied landing in Provence, whose imminence he had no knowledge of whatsoever. He never returned from that mission. He had written to his friend Pierre Dalloz the day before: “If they shoot me down, I will never regret it at all. The word future frightens me. And I hate the qualities of the robots. I was made to be a gardener.”

He was a pilot and writer, a witness of his times, eclectic and anti-conformist. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry built the memory of Aeroposta, the legends of Mermoz, Guillaumet and Daurat, and wrote about the loneliness of the night flights, the beauty of the sceneries seen from the sky, the braveness of the pilots. The airport of Lyon, where he was born in 1900, was named after him as well as lots of streets in France, several schools in Argentina, and also the airport of San Antonio Oeste, in the Patagonia.


Vicente ALMANDOS ALMONACID, the Argentine hero

He was born in La Rioja and studied in Buenos Aires. On a trip to Paris, Vicente Almandos Almonacid learnt how to fly a plane and got his degree as a pilot in June, 1914 just when the First World War was declared. The young Argentinean joined the foreign legion. He was trained for the hunt air force during all the war where he had the possibility of meeting another pilots. He returned to Argentina in 1919 appointed Captain and with a Knight Batch of the Legion of Honor.

The following year, he was the first one to cross the mountain range over the high peaks onboard a Spad from the French Air Mission, from Mendoza up to Valparaíso, Chile. He was called the “La Rioja condor”. Bouilloux-Lafont entrusted him with the mission of assembling Aeroposta Argentina, establishing contact with the Argentine authorities and opening links towards Paraguay, Chile, and the Patagonia. The airport of La Rioja was named after the founder of the Argentine commercial aviation.