Although mostly known for his literary works, Antoine de Saint-Exupèry was, at his heart, a fearless pilot who often ignored things like safety protocols and experience in his quest for flight.
Born in June 29, 1900, to a wealthy family, Saint-Exupèry got his first taste of air travel in 1912 in a cobbled-together monoplane and went on to serve briefly in the French Air Force starting in 1921, a day after World War I ended. The only issue was that only civilian pilots were to be trained for the military and he had no real previous experience. Saint-Exupèry, however, would use his sizeable contacts and family influence to serve while also taking civilian flying lessons at the same airfield.
“Let your dream devour your life, not your life devour your dream.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupèry
After working as a mechanic, bookkeeper, and even a truck salesman, Saint-Exupèry found himself back in the pilot seat in 1926 flying passengers around Europe before working for the air postal service Aéropostale (“The Line”), first as a mechanic and then as a pilot. The decision would change his life and lead to two of the premier books with aviation as a central theme: Southern Mail and Night Flight.
While considered a brave pilot, he was also viewed as nonchalant or even reckless by his fellow flyers, causing some to refuse to fly with him. Regardless, he managed to log countless flight hours before Aéropostale fell into bankruptcy and was absorbed by what would become Air France.
In 1938 he managed to obtain his own plane—a Caudron monoplane—with the intent of setting the Paris-to-Saigon flight record and the French air ministry’s 150,000-franc prize that came with it. (Despite being from an aristocratic family, Saint-Exupèry was often broke). But, as so often happened when he was behind the controls, he managed to crash the plane in northern Libya when he flew straight into a sand dune. He tried to set another record three years later by becoming the first Frenchman to fly the length of both North and South America. That attempt ended in a crash when he tried a short takeoff in high altitude conditions with 20% more fuel weight than expected.
World War II put a temporary stop to Saint-Exupèry’s piloting career, as he spent most of it in the United States denouncing the Vichy French and advocating for France’s liberation. It was at this point that he wrote The Little Prince, ostensibly a children’s book that is one of the bestselling books in history, with more than 140 million copies sold in 301 different languages.
The problem was that watching from the sidelines wasn’t Saint-Exupèry’s style—he wanted to be part of the action. In 1943, despite having injuries from his multiple crashes that included an inability to turn his head to the left, he used his considerable sway as a celebrity to be accepted into the free French air force in North Africa as a reconnaissance pilot. The military figured they could get PR value from it, and Saint-Exupèry got to once again be amongst the clouds where he felt he belonged.
On July 31, 1944, he would take off on his final flight: a recon trip in support of Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France. He didn’t return on time and, after eight days, was declared missing and presumed shot down by German fighters.
When his plane was found in 2000 off the coast of Marseille, France, however, there was no evidence of it being shot or damaged by flack. Because of this uncertainty, the theories about what happened have surrounded him ever since. He was known to be depressed, so some think he might have intentionally crashed so he could die doing what he loved. Others point to his history of carelessness and assume he merely went off course and crashed, which is why the wreck was so far from where it should have been. A former German pilot ace, Horst Rippert, has even claimed in an interview he was the one who shot down the plane, saying that “If I had known it was him, I would never have fired” as Rippert was a fan of the Frenchman’s writing.
Regardless of how he died, Saint-Exupèry lived a whirlwind life that almost epitomized the “dashing and daring pilot” persona that has inspired thousands to take to the air.